By Tim Stanley
A funny thing happened in the Observer on Sunday. They ran a headline telling us that “pre-teen feminists” are “tired of pink” – with a massive photo of two of them wearing pink. A few pages later, another headline ran “Don’t fret about girls and pink.” So, I’m confused. Is it bad for girls to wear pink, ironic or something we shouldn’t worry about?
What exactly should feminism’s priorities in the 21st century be? Maybe I’m not the man to ask – being a man. But, as a historian, I’ve written a lot about US second wave feminism in the 1970s and I’d like to offer a couple of observations. First, I can’t agree with Germaine Greer that life has gotten harder for British women since the Seventies. Last week, she said that things were tougher because a) women were now competing with men more and men don’t like that and b) the internet gives men a whole new, semi-anonymous place to vent their violence. But isn’t it good that women now compete far more with men than they did in the 1970s when their place was thought to be in the kitchen or the typing pool? And we’re not just talking about a handful becoming TV historians or Labour MPs: we’re talking about women fighting in the army, serving in the police force, entering board rooms, and enjoying considerably greater economic power since the inventions of, say, the Equal Pay Act or Child Benefit (intended to be paid directly to the mother). There is blowback but it’s happening because our society has changed for the better. Some men don’t like that, and they are jerks. The fact that they risk ostracism for their comments, or even arrest, suggests that our society is far more committed to equality than it once was. I’m not saying that women have won the battle for equality in the West, but politics and the law is far more on their side than it once was.
There are two things that have changed for the worse since the 1970s that we should all talk a little more about. One was identified by Germaine Greer: sexual objectification. Greer says, “Sexual liberation didn’t happen [in the Seventies] … Commercial pornography was liberated, fantasy was liberated, but people weren’t liberated.” By this she means that the growth in video and then internet porn has expanded people’s sexual tastes but not matured them. Seventies second wave feminists hoped for a sexual contract based upon equality and respect: the contemporary porn culture offers one that privileges masculine pleasure. As Kate Maltby writes, the lads mags helped to normalise smut and breakdown the barriers between personal fantasy and everyday life: “Following Page 3’s lead, they shaped a world in which chatting about a colleague’s breasts became as natural as swapping football tips or iphone apps: objectification as lifestyle choice.”
This has generated a cultural sickness and bred immaturity in Western men. But it’s nowhere near as big a challenge to women’s rights as the one posed by Jihadists. The second thing that has gone wrong since the 1970s is that the steady global growth of secularism (that is a healthy, balanced relationship between church and state the respects the right of dissent) has been reversed in some parts of the world in favour of Medieval fundamentalism.
A few weeks ago, the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in order to sell them into sexual slavery to men in Chad or Cameroon. It’s hard to imagine this happening in the 21st century, but it does – and the West should be screaming in outrage about it. Nick Cohen theorises that Westerners are nervous about covering the subject for fear of “demonising the other”. Such fears are not only cowardly but unfounded. Nigeria is a modern, fast-growing nation (its economy is now bigger than South Africa’s) and Boko Haram is not in the least bit representative of the Islamic majority. To attack Boko Haram is not to attack the poor Muslims of Africa – it is to attack Boko Haram. Importantly, it is to attack a group who define their opposition to modernity through the way that they treat women. This is one of the most terrifying things about Jihadism. It turns women’s bodies into political manifestos.
Of course, I’m not saying that Western feminists aren’t talking about porn or Islamism: they are. I’m simply conscious that there seems to be a debate among Western feminists at the moment about what they should be talking about the most – and I offer these as what seem like incredibly important priorities. Notably, they are things that tend to concern conservatives more than the Left – but, then, conservatism’s emphasis upon the dignity of the individual is something that should strike a chord with those campaigning for women’s rights. The war against gender stereotyping in toys may well seem important to some, but it is surely far less so than the very real war going on between individual rights and religious fanaticism overseas. Or even, possibly, within British schools. Let’s talk more about that.