in Opinion | 06 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Lipstick Traces

Three recent surveys of feminism in the late-90s

in Opinion | 06 MAY 99

When Amanda Foreman, author of the critically acclaimed biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, posed naked for Tatler early this year, it didn't win her the Whitbread 'Book of the Year' prize, but neither did it appear to damage her credibility. There's no doubt about the intended message: here is a woman who is confident with her body as well as her intellect, not out to shock, just doing her own thing in the face of the blue-stocking conventions of the literary world.

Of course, taking your clothes off in the name of empowerment is nothing new. Germaine Greer did it famously in the 70s, but her new book, The Whole Woman (1999), now finds her angry with the limitations of the Girl Power approach to liberation epitomised by Foreman's gesture. She's angry with the Bridget Jones culture and the Barbie-doll culture, too, which have produced a generation of women whose self-image is shaped by a reactionary, capitalist media just as previous generations were by economic oppression and political subordination. Some commentators have made a meal out of Greer's supposed back-tracking, in particular over the question of motherhood, which the 70s radical sneered at, but the millennial feminist declares 'should be regarded as a genuine career option, that is to say as paid work and as such, an alternative to paid work'. But different epochs require different struggles. Feminism, no less than any other idealistic movement, has to change with the times. If feminism was all about finding a cause and sticking with it, we would all still be fighting for the right to vote. Motherhood as a career choice is still an incendiary idea to those who apparently believe that young women get pregnant only to get to the top of housing lists.

Greer certainly harbours some beliefs that few of her readers will share. For example, she suggests that female circumcision, viewed in its cultural context, is actually a form of female empowerment equivalent to tattooing, body-piercing and breast enhancement. In a neat segue, she goes on to suggest that the high rate of hysterectomies, caesarean sections and episiotomies performed in the developed world represents a form of violent mutilation inflicted on women by men no more justifiable than those practised by tribal cultures in sub-Saharan Africa. With a legion of statistics, Greer argues the debasement of women's autonomy over their own bodies by a medical profession hooked on convenience and, arguably, on authority.

One of the difficulties of feminism has always been a factor of its ideological heterogeneity: the fact that women who proudly proclaim themselves to be feminists simply cannot resist the temptation to attack other women making the same claim. Of course women do not all share the same concerns, by virtue of the very different lives they lead, locally and globally. The concerns of a single, childless London-based journalist will be of very little consequence to a woman with three children living on an estate on the outskirts of Bristol and working in a factory.

The principle virtue of On the Move (1999), edited by Natasha Walter (herself one of Greer's pet hates) is that it gives voice to a variety of women from diverse backgrounds on the subject of the feminist agenda of the 90s. The contributors all see themselves as feminists, but have very different ways of evaluating both the historical gains of the feminist movement and prospects for the future. The younger women interviewed in the book, aged between 15 and 18, are cheerfully optimistic about both: 'We're coming to a new century and everyone's optimistic about what that will bring... I think I'll look back and see that things have really changed - for the better' (Caroline Abomeli, 15 years old).

Guardian journalist Katharine Viner is rather more circumspect, cautioning against taking the media-inspired idea of Girl Power seriously and insisting that the idea of the personal as the political must be maintained in order to continue to make progress towards equality: 'Women today are led to believe that anything goes: that wearing a frilly dress is reclaiming the right to be feminine... But try asking for equal pay while wearing a baby-doll frock'. In a different vein, Helen Wilkinson, Project Director at the left-wing think-tank Demos, posits Margaret Thatcher as having 'transformed the prevailing relationship between women and power'. Wilkinson argues that Thatcher's industrial and economic policies - the destruction of trade-union power, labour market deregulation, the embrace of a flexible and globalised economy - 'precipitated and accelerated the shift in power from men to women, from masculine to feminine values [...] She presided over an economy which rapidly "feminised" itself as men left jobs and as women took them, in the shift from manufacturing to services'.

It is precisely this changing economic picture that is at the centre of Suzanne Franks' Having None Of It - Women, Men and the Future of Work (1999). As the title suggests, however, the picture is not quite as rosy as that painted by Wilkinson. Franks' analysis of today's workplace, and the place of women within it, directly addresses Wilkinson's claim: 'The often-cited "feminisation of work" has confused the fact that many girls are doing well at school and starting out on the first rung of their careers on equal terms with boys, with the highly selective media myths of women conquering the commanding heights of the economy. Yet what it really means is armies of low-paid women in service industries'. She goes on to demonstrate in some 250 tightly argued pages that without radical reforms in the system of benefits and policy on childcare, the trajectory of women's advancement in the realm of work will remain shackled to the issue of care, not just of children, but of the elderly and disabled too. 'If it is only women who are seeking this balancing between domestic labour, caring, voluntary effort and maintaining a position in the labour market in a world that values principally paid work, then the challenge becomes impossible in the long term. And so the question remains, why have men and the expectations of the male role hardly changed at all?'

Franks' book makes disheartening reading. It is rather more than an elaboration of Greer's assertion that motherhood should be treated as paid work. At the core of her argument is the question of why the issue of harmonising the demands of the labour market with the needs of the family and the wider community is still being sidelined by government policy as a 'women's problem' instead of being debated as an urgent political question that concerns everyone. The UK actually has a Minister for Women whose remit it is to field these issues. The problem is that whilst the advances of feminism this century have indeed changed the lives of women almost unrecognisably, men's expectations today are little different from those of the previous generation.