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Feminism : Then and Now

by Helen Thu Jul 20th, 2006 at 09:20:21 AM EST

On Monday night the BBC repeated a programme called Lefties : Angry Wimmin about the "feminism" of the late 70s and early 80s in Britain. Watching these delusional idiots rehearse their gleeful destruction of the credibility of the Women's Movement in the UK was a sobering, heartbreaking reminder of what had been lost, I'd truly forgotten how awful they were.

However, in many ways it was an interesting counterpoint to this article in the Guardian (http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/politicsphilosophyandsociety/story/0,,1822295,00.html) about Fadela Amara, a modern French feminist.

Feminists in the 70s and 80s had much to be angry about, indeed they still do, but patriarchal assumptions that nowadays we find embarrassing were still culturally dominant. Violence against women was commonplace, women were infantalized to an extent that seems unbelievable to us now. Women alone at night were routinely harassed and attacked. Reporting a rape was to invite the most humiliating ordeal of trial by ordeal as policemen took it in turns to brutally accuse the victim of making things up (as captured on a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary of the era). If few rape cases make it to court nowadays, at least the reporting of the rape is no longer the traumatising experience of before. So yes, there was much to inspire anger.

However, feminism as a political movement was still young. Largely begun in the days of political consciousness raising in Berkeley, California duing the mid-60s it had inspired women all over the world, including here in the UK. But here it took on a specifically British flavour where a writer called Sheila Jeffreys, inspired by Andrea Dworkin as much as anyone, pushed radical feminism in the direction of Essentialist Separatism. The idea that women and men are essentially fundamentally different and that the only way for women to find their own unique expression was to withdraw from male society as much as was possible.

Now it is easy to criticise essentialism, its basic premise of what makes certain groups of people the way they are (for example, women, blacks, Jews), are the political-philosophical constructs of conservatism. The history of essentialist argument is one of oppressors telling the oppressed to accept their lot in life because "that's just the way it is."  By buying into the idea that women are the only non-aggressive, nurturing and life giving gender they were actually supporting patriarchal assumptions that kept women oppressed. Ironically, essentialism is becomes a specifically anti-feminist philosophy

However, their major problem was that, by withdrawing from the interaction with male society whilst simultaneously setting themselves up as the vanguard and protectors of Feminist critique, they ended up having nothing to say about the principal relationships that affect most women's lives. Indeed, their demand that you couldn't be a real feminist unless you were a lesbian separatist caused many women to assume that, due to their avowed heterosexuality, feminism and equal rights weren't for them.

Equally, their slogan of "All men are rapists", (not potential but actual) alienated many potentially sympathetic men with whom common cause would have been possible.

This holier-than-thou attitude culminated in "identity" politics where people accumulated tick lists of oppressed ethnic groups they could claim as ancestors in order to give their ideas greater authority. And naturally developed into an orgy of bullying.

Finally of course, there was Greenham Common which, I had assumed until this programme was the cause of the end of Feminism as a progressive cause in the UK. I now see it only as the coup de grace. Never was there anything so perfectly created to cause a population to reject progressive women's politics as this daily (for a year or so) portrayal of a group of unruly women behaving with the  worst excesses of hooligan males.

All in all Essentialist separatism was a disaster for women's politics in the UK and set back equality initiatives a decade and more.

In contrast, the article on the modern French feminist, Fadela Amara, was inspiring. I don't want to quote too much as it would be against the spirit of fair use, but here's a few excerpts

During two decades of work for women's rights and anti-racism initiatives she had watched the "social decomposition" of her old neighbourhoods. She remembered them as places of mutual support; now, mass unemployment had led to young men turning on women, in a desperate effort to assert themselves.
Young women in the suburbs were being told what not to wear (jeans, anything feminine) and what not to do (have a boyfriend, wear makeup, go out, have sex). Transgression brought severe penalties. Several months before Benziane's murder, a book by another young beurette, Samira Bellil, revealed how she had been gang-raped, and how it had become so common in the suburbs that it was known simply as a tournante, or pass-round. By now, young suburban men said - and believed - "that all women are whores except my mother".
It was this phrase that inspired Fadela to go on the warpath. With various young women from immigrant backgrounds and two men in tow (Amara insists that a women's movement needs to include men), she organised a march for women's rights in 2003, taking in 23 French cities. By the end, there were 30,000 people marching on Paris, and one of the march's slogans - Ni Putes Ni Soumises - Neither Whores Nor Submissives - became the name of France's noisiest new feminist movement.

French feminism, she thinks, has shirked the "social question". They've never addressed the basics, like the right to wear a skirt and not get raped. Or like teaching young people about sex and love and boundaries, which NPNS did with its "respect guide", initially distributed for free, then sold for one euro. It spent months in France's bestseller list.

She is also certain about what she's defending: a secular republic that allows for equality of the sexes. Anyone who obstructs that "is my enemy". That includes, notably, Islamists. Amara is a practising Muslim, and proud of her religion, but she's fierce in her condemnation of "political Islam", which arrived in the suburbs in the 1990s, preached "by self-appointed imams in basements where nobody could see them." Unlike Amara's Islam, which "leads to the freedom of the individual", she says this version advocates archaic traditions such as the subjugation of women and the wearing of headscarves. She calls it "green fascism", after the colour usually associated with Islam. "I can tell you that saying that has caused me a few problems

So there we have it, Feminism : Then and Now, or maybe British and French, except that Amara is pretty scathing about the French Feminists.


Oh, and if I can include a personal note as to why I particularly despise the British wimminists of the 70s/80s, this quote from Sheila Jeffreys may explain ;-

Transgenderism is just patriarchy's attempt to colonise women's experience

Yup, thass right, it's all a plot.

Incredibly interesting, Helen.  Thanks!

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Thu Jul 20th, 2006 at 11:46:11 AM EST
Great diary, Helen. Not to come the old campaigner, but I can remember the phases you mention and saw them on both sides of the Channel. The early movements of the '60s-70s were exciting, inclusive (of men), and fast-moving (though that has to be seen relative to the appalling backcloth of what went before -- it's like high economic growth figures in a country that is moving out of dismal poverty). In France in the early '70s there was a lot of similar spirit (coming after a hard-line Marxist post-'68 phase that underlined devoted activism rather than petit-bourgeois "personal" problems like oppression of women), but the leading French feminists were fairly solidly members of the intellectual establishment and had little idea of how most women lived.

I remember being shocked in the early '80s during visits to London by the exclusiveness of "radical" feminists (the term "radical feminist", ten years before, had meant a gay cross-dresser, which made a difference...) There was a bunch of lesbians at the local pub who were literally torn asunder by conflict over whether any of them had the right to talk to men or not. Some did, and had friendly relations with pretty much whoever was prepared to be friends with them (which of course cut out a whole load of conservative a-holes in those lovely Thatcher years). The others not only refused to exchange a word with anyone outside their group, but got round to considering reprisals on those who did -- see religious sects, splitter groups, etc. Meanwhile, the image of "feminism" in other women's minds was going down the drain.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises has been a great wake-up call in France, both in the way it opposes patriarchal Islamist oppression of women from within, and in calling attention to the realities women live with, while the intellectual approach of historic French feminists has done little to change most women's lives.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jul 20th, 2006 at 12:57:45 PM EST
Another great diary! I'm glad the ET meetup participants encouraged you to write more.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Thu Jul 20th, 2006 at 02:59:42 PM EST
It was more Jerome's plea to help fill space whilst he was away. I wrote down a (short) list of things I might be able to write interestingly and am going though it.

Though this one was serendipity.

Don't worry, I'll run out of steam soon, and anyway the big boys'll be back talking profound wisdom about issues of the day. I'll go back to just making cynical comments in Fran's breakfast round-up.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Jul 20th, 2006 at 03:51:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I hope you are not serious about this. Not the comments in the Breakfast. :-) But stoping or reducing your writing. Though at present I do not have much time to even comment I do read your great diaries with interest.
by Fran on Fri Jul 21st, 2006 at 02:49:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Don't stop, Helen...keep writing...bitte, bitte

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Jul 21st, 2006 at 05:10:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I like serendipity! I hope serendipitous moments will keep popping up and inspiring you to write long past the end of your (short) list. There is plenty of room around here even when the big boys get back. Plus time zone challenges make me miss the breakfast thread so I'd have to re-adjust my schedule to go find those cynical comments in the wee hours of the night. That just won't work.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Fri Jul 21st, 2006 at 09:10:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]

a famous anthropolgist in Spain said that the most patriarchal and "man" in the UK was Maggie T.

You know..by relating power with manhood no matter your sex prevented the generation of a distint symbolism of female gender in power.

The confussion of gender and sex in public culture swept all media, conversations, interactions....this was the end of feminism....gender is  sex is gender, we learnt to join while it is obvious that gender isnot sex is not gender.

A female and male symbolic universe or what we are supposed to be so that any man or woman (sex) can be whatever they want was not developed for power (or public-market status)

One last point... the idea of woman-nurture and all that stuff is not an imagine for power. It is a specific symbolism for taking care of children whcih due to the mix up of sex and gender made  man-sex person could not identify and say that he was a female-gender...and furthermore

And here we are now....exactly as we were 20 years ago... no improvemente.still without femal-gender power symbolism and still with a mix-up of gender and sex....

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Thu Jul 20th, 2006 at 05:53:03 PM EST

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