Writing her column the other day in a London newspaper, a feminist confessed that the women’s movement that started some 25 years ago had “spluttered to a halt.” Many a middle-aged feminist nowadays will tell you the same thing. The young, they will say with an air of regret, meaning their daughters and the friends of their daughters, are not interested any more. Times have changed.
It occurs to me that the young may have a point. What, after all, did post-1968 feminism actually achieve? Self-possession, we are told by the same journalist; the knowledge that “our bodies are our own”; and professional careers. But the notion that women only started to resent harassment or rape as recently as 1968 looks implausible, on the face of it, and though there are no reliable statistics, no one is suggesting there is less of either. If feminism had succeeded, you would surely expect less, so it is wholly unclear what was achieved here. As for the higher professions, the number of career women was mounting sharply in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, before feminism was reborn. Germaine Greer became a lecturer in a British university in 1967, three years before The Female Eunuch appeared, and she is not known to have been a feminist in her student days in Cambridge in the early 60’s, though she already had an academic career in mind.
Causes, as everyone knows, do not follow their effects, and the evidence suggests that feminism did not send women off to get jobs, or better jobs: it is more likely to have been the other way around. The rhetoric of 1968 and since merely described a change of mood that had already occurred; soon after the war more and more women chose, as individuals and for no ideological reason, to enter politics, management, academia, medicine, and the law. They were not liberated, in those days, just free. The reasons are clear. Smaller families meant that the commanding role of motherhood ended sooner; increasing longevity posed the threat of half a century, perhaps, of aimless existence after children had reached maturity; and household machines meant more and more time on your hands. The greatest impulse towards professional life was and is a fear of boredom. All that was happening well before 1968. Margaret Thatcher entered the British House of Commons in 1959; Shirley Williams, who has been teaching at Harvard in recent years and is now an active member of the House of Lords, went into the Commons only five years after her, having been a secretary of the Fabian Society in the 1950’s. Neither was or is a feminist. So it is not in doubt that there were ambitious and successful women inside the higher professions, and in growing numbers, before 1968.
Self-possession and professional careers are both admirable, and it is beyond question that there are more career women about than in 1945. But are women more self-possessed? Cast your mind back, if you can, to the 20-odd years between the end of the Second World War and the crisis year of 1968. I recall two notable female types from that distant epoch, both now mercifully extinct. The first, who may be called the Lady, habitually wore hat and gloves outdoors and issued orders to everyone, including her husband, sometimes in a stentorian voice. You did not contradict her. The other, whom I shall call the Woman, was all too often your landlady, and she screamed abuse in a way you resented but did not dare return. There was no question about their self-possession, which was total, or about who owned their bodies. In fact, the thought of harassment or rape never came into it.
As a fully committed neutral in the war between the sexes, if there is one, and as one now in his 60’s, I do not regret the disappearance of either the Lady or the Woman. In my youth, I was afraid of both of them, though afraid of no man, and that is just the point. I cannot be alone among men in thinking women so far less formidable nowadays than they used to be. They have stopped shouting and they have stopped giving orders. If feminism has raised the status and authority of women, as it claims, there is precious little evidence for it—quite the contrary. And it is easy to see why. Once you enter a professional hierarchy, after all, or seek to enter one, you are wholly dependent (as the Lady and the Woman never were) on the good opinion of others. That is true even if you are at the top of a hierarchy, as a British prime minister discovered to her bitter cost in November 1990, when her own party (mostly men) threw her out, and as a French prime minister, Edith Cresson, discovered in a similar way a year or two later. The sober truth is that you do not cease to be subject to the will of others by becoming chairman, managing director, or even head of government. Nobody needs cooperation more than the chairman of a committee or a top manager, and the Lady and the Woman would not survive a week in such positions unless they muted their style and softened their manners. No wonder women have ceased to be formidable; no wonder they are nice to you. They need your support, your cooperation, your vote, and they know it.
In the face of the visible and audible decline in the status of her sex, the feminist has only one place left to look and sound self-possessed. That is the academy. There, in the humanities at least, simple and unsupported assertion is something you can still get away with, apparently, and every month brings new academic treatises on the triumph of the sex. They are widely reviewed, the bookstores are stacked with them, they may even be read. Meanwhile David Mamet’s striking play Oleanna, which is having a long and well-deserved run in London, is terrifying audiences with a stark and simple tale of an ignorant and malignant student who defeats her well-meaning professor by threatening to bring a false charge of sexual harassment against him—a charge that can only destroy his career and his happiness. The play ends with his submission, and its resounding word is power. David Mamet is not a feminist; so it is not only feminists who think that women have triumphed in a battle of the sexes that some of us had not even noticed was happening.
The academic mood, in short, is triumphalist, and in Fire with Fire (1993), Naomi Wolf argues that we have witnessed nothing less than a “gender-quake,” with women now so powerful, as an effect of the women’s movement, that it is time they woke up and noticed it, stopped moaning, threw restraint to the winds, and enjoyed the fruits of their triumph. There are international conferences, meanwhile, where the rhetoric of the 60’s is paraded as the most exciting thing going and (what is even stranger) the latest thing going. “Feminist theory is the most innovative and truly living theory in today’s academies,” Teresa Brennan announces in the preface to History after Lacan (1995), which is composed, as such things are, in a soporific prose that looks as if it was imperfectly translated out of academic German around the turn of the last century; the book is allegedly based on the theories of a Parisian Freudian who died as an octogenarian in 1981 and whose chief researches were conducted between the two world wars. So assertion can do a lot, if you let it. It can find theory exciting, it can turn mutton into lamb.
It is tempting to suppose all this to be sincere, in a narcissistic sort of way, and to imagine that those who attend conferences on feminist theory, whatever other people may think, are genuinely excited by this sort of thing. I have been watching such conferences now for nearly 20 years and can report the surprising conclusion that this is not so. Feminists, too, are bored by feminist theory. You can see it in their faces, you can watch it in their rush to get to the door, you can judge it by their disinclination to listen to one another, and you can read it in their reviews. There is nothing exciting about these books—merely an unsupported claim by the author that she is about to do something exciting. And how, one wonders, would she know? The claim is about as plausible as a claim to be virtuous or a claim to be beautiful.
The world beyond academia, in any case, has long since moved in another direction, and 1968 feminism, which was always middle-class, is now middle-aged too. We are watching the fading of feminism, or failing to watch it, and there are some intelligent young women enjoying the spectacle. “I’m not falling into the feminist trap,” a young wife remarked to me the other day, insisting it was high time her husband got a job; she had no intention, she said, of going on teaching to raise the rent, and greatly preferred the company of her own children to those of other people. As a male, I find all this faintly disquieting. The past quarter-century has been a good time to be a man, perhaps the best time there has ever been. If men in large numbers arc prosperous as never before, it is women who are to be thanked for it. They account, after all, for nearly half the labor force of the Western industrial world, and the very high standard of living now enjoyed by men squarely depends on women going out to work. They are not an optional extra to the present economic order; and men would suffer, and suffer dramatically, if women downed tools. There is an issue of justice here, in any case, which oddly enough is little heard: that if women take from the economy, as indeed they do, then they should (generally speaking) contribute to it, too.
The other reasons for regret are social. I continue to hold doors open for women, when I think of it—partly out of force of habit, partly out of a recognition that most of them are unlikely to resent it since most of them are not feminists and never were. I find they do not object in either event. On the other hand, women are far more likely to pay for themselves in restaurants than they used to be, and if they insist I usually let them. And if men are better cooks than women, as some are, and enjoy it more, as some do, then it can only be good if men are spending more time in the kitchen. All this is wonderful news for chaps. There are even more intimate services, it is rumored, which once called for some expenditure by the male, one way or another and in or out of marriage—services now available, it is said, for nothing. Let it never be forgotten that if no means no, yes means yes. To sum up, this has been a hell of an age for men; and a lot of young women, brighter than their mums, have noticed it.
The consequences could be damaging. The largest achievement of feminism, apart from giving people something to talk about, and one that now looks clearer as the dust lifts from a free market, post-socialist age, was to act as a conveyor belt to carry a lot of intellectuals out of a hatred of private wealth and into a frank admission that rich is what in their heart of hearts they always wanted to be. Feminism, in its heyday, was licensed greed. It did not kill socialism, which was already dying of itself. But it made its demise easier to bear; it eased a transition. Now that the curtain is coming down on yet another interesting fad of modern intellectual history, the spectacle can be judged for the first time as a completed whole. It is rather like watching the end of surrealism, the death of communism, or the collapse of a messianic cult. Presumably there is nothing to be done about it. But as the waiter tenders the check, and I pay it, perhaps I may be allowed a sigh of regret for a world once loved that is lost.