Feminism is not a concept that requires definition. To define it would be to limit it when it is still in the phase of development. Rather too much time is being wasted already on arguing about whether this or that is true feminism or not. The general discourse is not helped by the kind of naiveté that believes that history proceeds by decades. Historically, ten years is not a significant unit. To ask where feminism is at the end of the last decade, this decade or the next is not a sensible question. It makes even less sense than asking where nationalism might be at the end of some decade or another. The only possible answer is ‘still there and still alive’ and that means still changing. There is, alas, no such easy answer to the question of where socialism is, now that we really need it.
Equality feminism is profoundly conservative. Its basic premise is that men have achieved everything that is possible under corporate capitalism and all that women need or want is what men have got already. When we hear successful women demanding that women be equally represented at the highest level of government, civil service and multinational corporations, that we have as many female CEOs as we have males and even that we insist on ‘women only’ short lists and all female candidates for certain posts, we should understand that the people supporting such arguments are secure in the knowledge that simply putting women in positions created by and designed for men will have no effect on the underlying structures whatsoever.
Remember Margaret Thatcher: the only man in her cabinet, warmonger, probably war criminal, architect and prime mover of the crooked Al Yamama arms deal? Did she change the British Conservative Party? Yes, she did. She made it tough, pitiless and aggressive. Did she change the British working class? Utterly. She took it upon herself to break the power of the trades unions. She only succeeded because the trades unions had already betrayed their own. Sex did have something to do with it. One of the factors in the defeat of the trades unions was their persistence in discriminating against women. A huge pool of unrepresented female workers who had no way of defending their pay and conditions, and no choice but to accept whatever deal the employer offered had come into existence, and would work for a pittance. When women workers went on strike against grotesque oppression in their workplaces, the élite trades unions left them to fend for themselves. No flying pickets for them. Jackboots are still jackboots, regardless of the sex of the wearer.
Equality is not simply a conservative aim; it is also illusory. Women who break into the ranks of male privilege very soon discover that they are intruders, and that the kernel of male solidarity remains impenetrable. Women who were accepted as traders on the stock exchange found the masculinist culture of their fellow traders intimidating. Bullying was endemic in the corporate culture; bullying of women took on a sexual character that many women experienced as utterly degrading. Women admitted as partners in law chambers can tell a similar story. Women in the police and women in the army can tell the same tale. Even women in the church. Yes, there are ways of seeking redress, but make no mistake, the women who seek the redress to which they are legally entitled for discrimination in the workplace will not get their old jobs back. Most of them have had to kiss their career goodbye.
I have never been an equality feminist. I have never coveted the lives that men lead, whether they are down the mine, or on the corporate ladder. Corporate capitalism creates far more losers than it does winners, because constructing the management élite is a process of elimination. Management is the art of taking credit for other people’s work. Women in the corporate world make the same mistakes that they made as high-achieving students: they work too hard. When they delegate, they watch over the shoulder of the person to whom the task has been delegated, and blame themselves if they make a mess of it. Many high-achieving women who have discovered that the corporate world is ruthless and unprincipled have not taken the money and shut up. Instead they have blown the whistle, with the result that millions of innocent people lost their investments, a few individuals committed suicide and a few more went to jail. Enron was just the first domino.
Harriet Harman is Minister for Women and Equality in Gordon Brown’s cabinet in Britain. The very title of her portfolio indicates confusion and contradiction, as if she was minister for difference and sameness or chalk and cheese. Her latest speech in support of her own Equality Bill argues that “looking after your family is still the hardest and most important job in the world”. Even as an avowedly feminist politician Harman still thinks of women as mothers, and as more important as mothers than in any other function. Women who have yet to reproduce are marginal, and women who have brought up their families are invisible. All indices tell us that women are having fewer children and are having them later and later, but for the minister they don’t figure until they are candidates for maternity leave.
Maternity leave of 39 weeks and doubled maternity pay is not available to male parents, although male parents may now work the latter part of maternity leave if their partners want to go back to work. Harman’s would appear to be the politics of difference, but they are not the politics of liberation. Harman must know that nearly a quarter of British families consist of a single woman and her offspring, but she has not registered the possibility that this situation represents a genuine, radical upheaval, that will do more to drain the substance out of patriarchy than any legislation. Harman’s vision is still essentially paternalistic.
When the law of unintended consequences bites, Harman’s legislation will result in all kinds of misery for working mothers. It may be illegal for workmates to resent the increased workload represented by absent mothers but it is inevitable. It may be illegal for employers to discriminate against employees working reduced or flexible hours but they will still do it, one way or another. If rearing your family is the most important job of all, governments should pay parents to do it, and not mere subsistence. The rate should be high enough to pay for adequately trained and regulated professionals to take over in the event that the parent wants to go back to work and has work worth going back to. This would pump money into the child-care sector, which suffers from a chronic lack of investment and resources.
Ms Harman might be surprised to learn that feminism requires female people to be considered as important in themselves. Feminism is as concerned for the huge numbers of women living alone as it is for women raising families. Older women spend far too much time apologising for their existence already. If Ms Harman has her way they are likely to spend even more.