Sisters for Tony

13th February 1998 at 00:00
The New Feminism By Natasha Walter Little, Brown #163;17.50

Natasha Walter's new feminism, slimmed down, sorted out, spruced up and brightly repackaged, is just the feminism we need to go with New Labour. At the heart of both lie unexamined contradictions blanketed in studiously unclear market-speak.

The new feminism promises "concrete battles" against the "propagation of a rigid framework". We are told that "the old myth about feminists, that they all wear dungarees and are lesbians and socialists, must be buried for good", as if myth-burying were an activity that we all understood.

Some of the feminists who brought about the changes of which Walter is the beneficiary were both lesbians and socialists; can Walter be asking us to deny this truth? Some feminists are still lesbians and socialists; is Walter asking us to ignore them?

It is hard to find anything really new in Walter's feminism; even her insistent assimilationism has been with us for 30 years. Again and again she reiterates that men have to work with women if women are to achieve anything.

This view has much to recommend it; we have always known that if men gave birth the needs of child-bearers would be better understood.

If women are to achieve their aims by working with men they will have at the same time to learn how to compete against men as men compete against each other. As long as women are more anxious to work with men than men are to work with women, women will be at a disadvantag e in negotiations.

What the new feminism demands is "equality, nothing more and nothing less". Equality is the kind of word that nobody can object to because it cannot be made to mean anything, "concrete" or otherwise.

Equality with men would merely give women the same opportunities to oppress other women as men exert in oppressing other men, "nothing more and nothing less".

In the name of equality British women are ready to join British men in making war on the women and children of Iraq, already suffering because of sanctions that a government representing both men and women agreed to inflict. Equality would change none of that.

The great thing about equality is that it implies that nothing much need change at all. Walter's book seems above all to reassure the faint-hearted that there is nothing to fear from feminism. If the next generation of feminists adopts her brand of unenlightened complacency there will be nothing to hope for either.

Though Walter prides herself on the realism of her version of the possible, her vision of men as equal participants in the sphere of women's work (as if men had been all this while hopefully waiting for the opportunity to spend a significant proportion of their time on domestic chores and childcare, only to be driven off by whiskery socialist, les-bian feminism) is the purest Utopianism.

Even the loud laments of educationists desperate to attract young men into primary school-teac hing fail to reach Walter's ears. Walter blames old feminism for not encouraging men to be active fathers, without so much as a flicker of curiosity as to why it is that mothers have no choice but to be "active" and often become mothers despite relentless discouragement.

The past 30 years should have taught us that men and women are not interchangeable, but Walter follows the fashion for gender blindness, as unjust in its way as colour blindness.

Walter's take on reality is often peculiar. She celebrates Cherie Booth as her own woman, lauding the lucrativeness of her career as a barrister and the importance of her legal work, as if she were not the person we know better as Cherie Blair, living proof of the heterosexual appetites of a husband she accompanies regardless of the great lady's professional caseload, even while he is on a brief state trip to Japan.

Feminist rhetoric new or old has never been able to dent the certainty that no independen t woman in the world can wield anything like the power of the woman who shares a bed with the male head of a superpower. At the opening of the United Nations conference in Beijing, women prime ministers were obliged to give ear to the insights of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Quixotically, Walter accuses Ms Clinton of riding to power on her husband's back, a strangely unwifely posture, while choosing not to remind us that Margaret Thatcher's most important career move was to marry a millionaire.

Though Walter knows that the word "socialist" has no place in market-speak, her vision of universal equality in a classless, genderless but affluent British society seems strangely familiar, neutralised though it is by her underlying Thatcherite isolationism.

Why should we care that we can only afford our fun clothes because they are put together in countries on the Pacific Rim by sweated female labour? Consciousness of such misery would spoil the "real pleasure" Walter takes in the clothes she buys, and mess up the personal by intruding the political.

Walter may reject the language of victimhood, but she reveals herself to be a fully paid-up fashion victim, for whom "new", in thoughts, clothes and attitudes, means "improved".

As so often happens in the consumer economy, The New Feminism is a case where "new" means less, rather than more, for your money.

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