Fifty years ago this week, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, widely hailed as the foundation stone of second wave feminism. One hundred years ago the British Suffragette movement was at its radical peak, and June of this year will see the centenary of the martyrdom of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby. Such things are always arbitrary, but this seems a reasonable moment to join Ellie-Mae O’Hagan in celebrating feminism’s angrier flanks.
I’m really not much of a fan of Friedan’s tome and had some issues with Ellie’s article, but the core of her argument is a good one. “To put it bluntly,” she wrote, “a new feminism should not be afraid to piss people off.”
If a political movement for change is not pissing people off somewhere, it isn’t worth a wet fart. That said, just pissing someone off is never enough. To be effective, political activism needs to somehow threaten or disturb the very structures and mechanisms of society, and those are always fiercely guarded. Ellie-Mae O’Hagan, better known as an anti-capitalist and tax justice activist than as a feminist, perhaps gets this more readily than most. It is certainly difficult to even look at the cover of the new Sexy Feminist book with anything but derision or nausea. Whatever one’s feelings towards Caitlin Moran, it is hard to deny that if she really represented a threat to the established patriarchal order, she probably wouldn’t have become rich and famous through the largesse of Rupert Murdoch.
Moran and the Sexy Feminists are the latest incarnations of the feminism of personal transformation, a safely corralled, individualistic philosophy of self-fulfilment. There is nothing wrong with that, it is genuinely a good thing if people can be made to feel better about themselves, or simply entertained and amused, by gaining a stronger appreciation of how their gender has impacted upon their lives. Ironically perhaps, The Feminine Mystique could be described in the same way, albeit with fewer jokes and vajazzling tips. The historical importance of Friedan’s book is that the story didn’t end on the final page, but continued into the political realm with the creation of the National Organization of Women, the Women’s Strike for Equality and the National Women’s Political Caucus, all of which had a profound and lasting change on the world. The Feminine Mystique didn’t just make readers angry enough to want to change their lifestyles, but to change the very foundations of society.
By coincidence, the Good Men Project this week published an impassioned defence of angry feminism by Anne Theriault which raises a similar point. This section in particular captures my feelings perfectly:
“…anger can be a good way, sometimes the only way, to fuel change. Anger at injustice is often the spark that ignites political and social movements, and anger can keep you fighting the good fight even when all your other resources feel used up”
You may recall a certain article by Suzanne Moore which was republished recently and became notorious for the wrong reason, but that too covered the same ground. Although probably due more to a moving spotlight than a shifting agenda, angry feminism is right back in vogue.
There is an important difference, however, between the angry feminism of the 1960s and its descendant. Back then there were few statutory protections for women and discrimination was all but omnipresent, Women had few reproductive options and abortion rights, virtually no legal protection from spousal abuse and sexual violence or harassment and sexual choices were tightly constrained by custom and even criminal law. Those issues and many others presented tangible, specific battles for social justice to be fought and won.
The transition from second to third wave feminism is usually pinned to changing perceptions of gender and sexual identities in the era of academic postmodernism, but I don’t think it is coincidental that the ideological shift happened at almost exactly the same time as a practical, political shift in the goals of feminism. The criminalisation of rape within marriage in England in 1991 marked the removal of the final significant structural flagstone of patriarchy in British law. Since then, it seems to me, feminism has fought on three separate fronts. The first has been to protect some of those hard-won rights from reactionary backlash, as necessary. The second has been to challenge various forms of the sex industry and sexualised media. This has proved particularly difficult for feminism, not least because it pitted the rights of women to live free from the (supposed or alleged) harms of prostitution and pornography against the rights of other women to make a living from their own bodies as they choose, or create and enjoy erotic pleasures of their own choice.
But the final battle for feminism is the biggest and toughest of all. It is the battle to change individual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. The articles by O’Hagan, Theriault and Moore provide between them a long list of reasons for women to be angry: the continued prevalence of sexual and domestic violence, rape apologism, widespread sexism and misogyny, gender stereotyping and discrimination, all common in numerous manifestations in our own societies and around the world. It is striking, however, that they proposed not a single legal or structural demand between them.
In her piece on The Feminist Mystique for the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz asked why, after decades of progress, women’s strides towards equality in the US have halted or even reversed. Rather reductively, I think, she attributes it broadly to a failure of workplace culture and rights to keep pace with modern attitudes and lifestyles. Coontz fails to notice that in the UK, where the workplace rights she applauds remain stronger, we are seeing the precise same effects.
Changing a law that allows an employer to appoint a less qualified man over a more qualified woman is easy. Changing an attitude that leads an employer to perceive a man to be more qualified, or indeed an attitude that leads a woman to believe she is less deserving of a promotion or a pay rise than a man, is much, much harder. It doesn’t an Act of Parliament to change this – it takes a social shift over generations.
Progress is happening. This week the British media are consumed with the allegations of sexual harassment against senior Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard. It is notable that this scandal centres on questions of who in the party may have turned a blind eye to sexually predatory behaviour or covered it up. There is no suggestion from anywhere that his behaviour should or could have been considered acceptable or reasonable. Just a generation ago (indeed perhaps at the time it was alleged to have happened) such behaviour was broadly unremarkable in politics or anywhere else. The national mood has changed.
I understand that feminists are angry about sexism, misogyny, discrimination and violence against women, indeed they should be, and I share their anger. I understand that many men (and women) are angry about society’s tolerance of violence against men and boys, the marginalisation and othering of male victims of domestic and sexual violence, discrimination against fathers in family courts and the social perception that men’s health and wellbeing, even men’s lives, are of incidental importance. I share that anger too.
Anger is not incompatible with compassion and empathy, it is often the product of them. Indeed, unless it is tempered with compassion and empathy, anger can easily be misdirected into fascism and hatred. When I despair of debates on gender (which is often) it is usually because those involved, on either or both sides, have found their anger but lost their compassion. That is a dangerous mix.
The reasons and the need for anger go way beyond issues of gender. Take a look at the world, or even your own little corner of it, take in the panoramic vista of injustice, inequality, abuse, violence and exploitation, and if you’re not angry then you’re not paying attention. We should all be angry with those who abuse, who assault, who exploit. Those who abuse, assault and exploit on an industrial scale should reap anger on an industrial scale.
Anger has changed the world before, for both better and worse and it doubtless will do so again. We should all be proud of our anger. It is our responsibility to ensure we use it well.