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call to arms


Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 13-Jun-2009

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: Arts & Entertainment

Page: 16

Wordcount: 2112

Why me-ism blocks the way for women


Elizabeth Farrelly

The world may be more ‘feminised’ but feminism has stalled. The selfishness of the movement is its weakness as well as its strength, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

“YOU know what really depresses me?” fumed my 19-year old daughter. “It’s that the only ism invented by women is feminism, something concerned totally with themselves.”

I know what she means. She and I both have grown up taking the essential tenets of feminism as self-evident. But increasingly there’s that niggling question: uh, where’s the evidence? Evidence not just that women are gaining a foothold but that they can, and want to, provide genuine leadership. Evidence, further, that such leadership would be for the better.

You can go on advising patience. Cultural change, you say wisely, is slow. Or you can feel cross, as many of my peers do, that women are still so hugely under-represented in the decision-making echelons. You can persuade yourself that things are still changing and that, as they change, they improve not just for women but for everyone. For the world.

You can cite Iceland’s example, where male bullishness is blamed for the crash and female wisdom applied as the poultice. Where, it is said, the only company not to go down the financial toilet is female-owned and female-run.

You can go on presuming that the world would be a better place fairer, greener, prettier, more tranquil if ruled by women. And where there’s under-achievement in this regard, men, not women, are to blame. But is any of it true? Would it? Are they?

Dee Dee Myers, famous as the youngest White House press secretary, titled her 2008 memoir Why Women Should Rule The World. In the book she tells the following anecdote. Her children a boy and a girl and a female cousin, were playing “some iteration of ‘house”‘. Everything was going happily until a sudden argument erupted.

“There’s no intruder in this game!” the girls insisted.

“If there’s no intruder, who am I going to shoot?” my son wanted to know. The girls held their ground; they had no interest in allowing a violent confrontation to disrupt the tranquil rituals of their imagined domestic life. But unless my son had a mission, a bad guy to kill, a family to protect, he had no interest.

Myers understandably takes this sort of experience, familiar to all parents, as evidence of innate boy-girl difference nature, not nurture. As well, however, she lassoes it in support of her primary thesis: that women should indeed rule the world and that if they did, the world would benefit.

But is she, in making this presumption, simply betraying her prejudices, in particular the view that preserving some globalised version of domestic harmony is the overriding human goal more important and desirable than, say, exploring Mars? And, if so, doesn’t this support Camille Paglia’s notorious pronouncement that “if civilisation had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts”?

Even if feminism itself has stalled, even if by the standard measures such as earning power, decision-making, chief executive numbers and Nobel prizes (of 809 laureates, only 39 have been women, and the ratio is falling) feminism has begun to retreat, there can be no doubt that, over three or four decades, our world has been steadily and substantially feminised.

But, you might ask, isn’t that the same thing? Aren’t feminism and feminisation identical? After all, both represent increasing feminine influence on our shared culture. But there is, I believe, a distinction to be drawn, and in many ways it’s a new take on that old distinction between influence and power.

Feminisation is everywhere. In the arts, corporate life, education, politics and the market, as well as in the shaping of general cultural norms, women are changing the world. What they’re not doing, in any major, male-equivalent way, is getting their hands on the actual levers and buttons of what is normally called power.

Women are exercising spend power, talk power and nurture power all of them public-realm versions of traditional, domestic feminine powers. What we’re not exercising to anything like the same degree, in the public-professional world, is direct decision power.

So, two questions. First, why not? And second, is feminisation a good thing?

As to the first, there is growing evidence that most women are not comfortable wielding direct corporate and political power in the traditional way. Some women, sure. But most shy off, preferring networked middle-management to leadership.

Further and despite diehard adherents to first-wave feminism’s “nurture” stance evidence is now overwhelming that male and female brains are as differently wired as male and female bodies; that, as Dee Dee Myers suggests, nature, not nurture, is the driver.

Could it be that women just do not have what it takes? Clearly there’s no lack of talent or intelligence but do women lack the drive to take power unless it’s offered or to wield it in a creative, path-forging way? (This is a classic hunter-gatherer distinction, and anyone watching mixed under-10 basketball will have noticed, similarly, how the boys hunt the ball in hungry packs, while the girls again, by and large try to seduce it into their arms).

For many people, even now, these are unacceptable questions. As Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever report in Why Women Don’t Ask, about negotiation and the gender divide, men are far more likely to haggle over salary and promotion, and far more active in pursuing opportunity in their sport and social lives, thus achieving not just status but also levels of visibility and credibility of which their female colleagues only dream. Babcock and Laschever insist that these behaviours are learned and changeable. But what if they’re not?

What if the real dynamic is that women foresee the personal cost of taking and keeping power and simply decide it’s not worth it. (My own ill-starred foray into a high-heels-and-briefcases existence engraved on my heart Lady Macbeth’s most potent soliloquy: “Unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full. Of direst cruelty.”)

This brings us to the virtues, or not, of feminisation. Feminisation of men, manners, behaviours, religions and even technologies is absolutely a postmodern phenomenon, a founding flower in pomo’s uproarious bouquet that also includes pluralism, multiculturalism, globalism and relativism.

But it’s no accident that the broadening and teasing-out of modernism’s universal masculine to accept the feminine voice has paralleled these other acceptances of diversity: in sexual preference, cultural norm and even “truth” (hence the death of god, the end of history and so on). So perhaps feminisation is less one flower in a bunch than the central, original stem. Perhaps all those other broadening and pluralising movements are themselves outgrowths of the multi-stranded female mind.

Either way, this stuff has made it OK to be explicitly and unreconstructedly female in public. So while first-wave feminism from the suffragettes to the ’60s emphasised women’s right to be more like men (voting, smoking, owning property, wearing trousers), late-century feminism has focused just as intensely on men’s right or duty to be more like women.

Hence the familiar injunctions for men to get in touch with their emotions, find their feminine side, start communicating. This is a profound asymmetry. You don’t hear women being urged to “find their masculine side”, least of all by men.

Hence also the proliferation of new genders and gender roles, mostly (with the possible exception of the gay “bear”) on the feminine side of masculinity: transsexual and bisexual, metrosexual and retrosexual, new age men and boy-girl celebrities.

Feminisation is detectable also in the huge success of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and the full-scale entry of these into business and politics; in the widespread acceptance of “emotional intelligence”, or EQ, as a superior measure to IQ; the constant incursion of the personal into the public (as in Facebook, but also reality TV, paparazzi, the celebrity phenomenon, the happiness industry and the personalisation of religion, where God Himself is conceived as a community member); the nanny state and, indeed, the omnipresence of spin, the near universal acceptance that old-fashioned facts matter less than the stories we tell about them.

But is all this a kind of preparation for feminism proper, a way of rendering the power seats more comfortable, more fem-friendly, before sitting them? Or is it, in fact, an alternative? Is feminisation, in fact, reducing women’s urge to power? Is it perhaps all we ever wanted? Has the entire feminist push been less about bettering the world than simply making women feel better in it? Is it, as my 19-year old suspects, wholly self-centred?

Myers argues that women “tend to be better communicators, better listeners, better at forming consensus”. Which, she argues, is precisely why women should be empowered. In a world where women held more power, politics would be more collegial, business more productive, communities happier and healthier. Women have just those skills and inclinations needed to soothe a fractious world, build understanding, create peace.

This conception of the world as a fevered infant in need of some serious mothering implies a radical shift for a species that has always relied on male bullishness and risk-taking to define and deliver progress (vis Paglia).

Quentin Bryce, our first female Governor-General, is described by the Sydney Institute as “having brought comfort and calm to thousands as she travelled across Australia and to distant corners of the globe”. New Zealand, after a decade of matriarchy, tops the world in the Global Peace Index. Clover Moore, Sydney’s first elected female Lord Mayor, promotes her urban vision not as the best but as the most widely consulted.

And it is possible that, as it feminises, the world is folding itself into a new Aquarian age. Possible that the recent spate of religious wars will appear, retrospectively, as militant fundamentalism’s last gasp before its replacement by a wiser, more far-seeing and more feminine ethos.

After all, whereas only 4 per cent of all Nobel laureates have been women, the figure for the Nobel Peace Prize jumps to 10 per cent (the website also applauds “the mothers who reared them and the wives who supported them in their peace crusades”), notwithstanding that when Hannan Ashrawi came to Sydney to collect hers it was Sydney’s first (unelected) female lord mayor, Lucy Turnbull, who boycotted the ceremony.

So, yes, feminisation has done good things: encouraged pluralism and tolerance, made a more compassionate judicial system, enhanced public consciousness of family, human rights, education, love, happiness and health. And, perhaps in consequence, it has come to arrogate the high moral ground.

But feminism is also inherently selfish both as a push for self-liberation and because one of its main ties-to-break has always been the apron string of selflessness: the presumption of care that was the female side of the old presumption of duty.

This selfishness is an aspect of the personal-public blurring that is at once women’s strength a willingness to be “whole” in all situations and our weakness a failure (or refusal) to abstract the professional self from the private, emotional one. The symptoms are many from the emptying of women’s art of almost every subject except the self to the long determination of women columnists to reinsert the “I” into opinion writing (and, yes, one is guilty here); from the return of tears as a reasonable office tactic (failure to leave private self at home) to pandemic shopaholism.

This combination of self-absorption and moral superiority can generate a kind of vicar’s-wife “tut tut”-ism, where being nice, staying safe and preserving harmony becomes the overriding goal more important than exploration, innovation or truth.

This is feminism’s deeply conservative face. Consensus addicted, it cannot settle upon a single principle beyond the right to earn money and spend it (often on oneself); niceness-addicted, it cannot give this criticism voice, lest feelings be hurt. So the right to work quickly becomes the right to shop, shop, shop and the urge to pacify drifts dangerously near the narrows of fascism.

Some hope is offered here by movements (and there are a number) such as the 1 Million Women climate change campaign which, despite its BP sponsorship and its slightly smug, sewing-circle feel, is at least about something larger and more significant than the feeble, friable self.

But feminism in general looks perilously like painting itself into a corner, unable either to progress or retreat; unable to deny nature, mould nurture or transcend democracy’s rampant me-ism.

So perhaps it is time for us all, not just women, to grow up, transcend our hormones (of whatever hue), abandon our entrenched positions for example, on nature-nurture and strive instead for a clear-eyed view of the topography and our own blind spots within it.


PHOTO: The more things change … feminists take to the streets of Sydney in 1972. Photo: Pat Scala


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