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Tuesday, 28 December, 1999, 10:51 GMT
Is feminism relevant in 2000?
By the BBC's Michael Gallagher
Feminism reached its peak in the radical 1960s, but it is actually as old as the century. In Britain, the movement for women's suffrage began as early as 1903, to the great amusement of many onlookers.
"Once they get the vote, you can bet they'll make it tough for men!" sang music hall entertainer, Arthur Aiston.
And almost 100 years on, that is one of the charges still levelled against feminism. Hence our first critic - the embittered male.
Take Robert Whiston for example - a member of the United Kingdom Men's Movement, which wants to repeal equal rights for women in Britain.
"If you look at counselling for instance, or at social services these days, it's predominantly women," he says.
"No one makes any effort to make them friendly to men. And schoolteaching too. Most teachers are women now. A whole generation is growing up without male input."
Men would say that, wouldn't they? The defenders of feminism should have no difficulty fending off this kind of attack.
Striving for equality
Tackling discrimination always risks the charge that things have gone too far in favour of the injured party. However, in some cases feminism goes beyond striving for equality.
British social commentator Melanie Phillips believes that legitimate struggle has spawned a sinister conflict between the sexes, which she calls gender-feminism.
"Feminism, in its extreme gender form, has told women for example that they can and should become independent of men," she says.
"That I think has had a very grave effect in weakening marriage and the family, and the consequence of that has been untold harm for children, as well as men and also for women themselves.
"Men are seen as the enemy, reprobates, potential wife-beaters and child-abusers and so on. And the battle remains to free women of men. It's really poisoning our culture."
Nonsense, say the alleged gender-feminists, among them, Germaine Greer, the Australian-born writer whose book The Female Eunuch inspired a whole generation of women to get angry in the 1970s.
She believes men have indeed trapped women, who therefore have a legitimate need to fight for their liberty. And nothing, she says, not even modern technical advance, has so far freed women from their oppression:
"It's a bit like traffic. If you build more roads, you get more cars," she argues.
"If you get a washing machine, do you say: Yes, I never have to wash again, and the washing machine will go just once a week? Washing machines started going once a week, but then it was every other day, then every day. And now, in many households, they go three or four times a day. So that washing has expanded to consume all the time available. And that is the pattern of housework."
Ms Greer believes men are intrinsically opposed to women. What's more, she says, they hate women more than ever today, thanks to the advances that feminism's brought.
"Men are reactionary. That's their nature. They get their revenge. They fight back. It is just spontaneous," she says.
"If you put pressure on men, they will give you a jab in the ribs. I think it is because women are seen to be invading male preserves that men are responding. And sometimes in quite devious ways, and extremely destructive ways."
Men 'becoming redundant'
Many though believe this kind of thinking belongs in the past. Today, western women have achieved much, though not all, of what they set out to. They now often stand above men in terms of personal achievement.
In countries like Britain, many traditional areas of male superiority have disappeared along with old industrial structures, and males are being left behind.
"Boys in school are seen to be failing, seen not to be doing very well in education, while girls and young women are striding ahead," says academic Doctor Anne Gray.
"There's a general sense in which boys are seen to be missing out and that men are becoming redundant really. Traditional forms of male employment are on the decline.
"And the areas of employment are demanding skills that girls have always been good at - like good communication skills, social skills, and the ability to balance several tasks at once."
Future for feminism
With this kind of development, say critics, feminism is no longer appropriate. They believe what is really needed is a stable and prosperous society for everyone, rather than one that's disrupted in the interests of any one group.
But, says Melanie Phillips, feminism encourages women to continue making damaging demands of society, demands that they really ought to fulfill for themselves.
"Feminism is really an offshoot of the great movement for individualism which developed after the war in the west, and individualism is all about raising expectations," she explains.
"It's about telling people they have a right to expect things of life and very much down playing the extent to which people have a responsibility and a duty to put something in. This has led to to an assumption that if women can't have it all, it must be someone else's fault, and someone else should pay for it."
With such divisions between women, it is tempting to see feminism as a discredited intellectual force, no longer able to square up to the realities of the new millennium.
Then again, it is perhaps unsurprising that such a relatively recent phenomenon should suffer some growing pains. And there is an emerging consensus among women that asserting their right to equal treatment with men need not mean hostility, or living without men.
"I think that feminism can only move forward now if we acknowledge the differences between women, and that women want to lead their lives in all kinds of different ways," says feminist writer, Natasha Walter.
"I think it can only move forward if we stop telling women how to lead their personal lives, and look at some of the real goals we want to achieve - and I'm thinking of economic and political equality, because those are really achievable in the west. And I think it would be a pity if we don't work together and try to achieve those goals."
Beyond the developed world, where women often have much fewer privileges than men, the hope among women's rights activists must be that feminism can overcome its difficulties. For, if the women's movement loses its appeal in the west, there is little chance it can extend its achievements anywhere else.
Links to other Americas stories are at the foot of the page.
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