Book-projects – Whiplash: 1: One Way Pendulum

On my kitchen wall is a copy of a poster, first printed in the 1890s in New Zealand, which a friend gave to me as part of her celebration of the centenary of the first formal recognition of women’s right to vote, in New Zealand in 1893. The poster is hardly celebratory – in fact its intent is quite the opposite:

Electioneering women are requested not to call here

They are recommended to go home, to look after their children, cook their husband’s dinners, empty the slops, and generally attend to the domestic affairs for which Nature designed them.

By taking this advice they will gain the respect of all right-minded people – an end not to be attained by unsexing themselves and meddling in masculine concerns of which they are profoundly ignorant.

Henry Wright
Mein Street, Wellington

I smile at this. Poor Mr Wright! So profoundly ignorant! How much more wrong could he be? A perfect illustration of the ‘male anti-feminist backlash’ of his time. And a useful reminder, too, of just how much things have changed over the past century. No-one, for example, would now even think of writing something as sexist as this:

Women’s spirituality is very badly mangled… Women are incapable of thought or reason… Men have total mind. Women’s minds are not true… We must learn more about women and their emotions in order to put them back in their place – they are an aberration and out of control… Women cannot exist without men to control them.

No-one would say this now. Unless, of course, you’re writing about men – in which case, somehow, it’s not sexism at all:

Men’s spirituality is very badly mangled… Men don’t have intuition or sensitivity… Women have total mind. Men’s minds are not true… We must learn about men and their archetypes in order to put them back in their place – they are an aberration and out of control… Men won’t exist for much longer.

The first of these was a fake: I made it up. Yet the second one wasn’t: it was presented, and received, as incontrovertible truth, a simple statement of fact. [1] But is there really that much difference from old Mr Wright’s ramblings? Over the years I’ve read so many equivalents of that poster in feminist writings [2], that declare men to be incompetent, inferior beings, barely fit ‘to empty the slops’, and apparently without any valid tasks ‘for which Nature designed them’, that I find myself at times with a sneaking sympathy for that irascible old man… There’s exactly the same gender-based arrogance; the same abysmal generalisation; the same blinkered thoughtlessness; the same denial of the other’s humanity. All that’s different is that it’s about ninety years later, the gender’s inverted, there’s a hefty dose of outright nastiness that isn’t there in the original, all combined with a strong preference for invented ‘facts’ which bear little or no resemblance to reality. [3] And this is supposed to be an improvement on what went on before? How?

At times, seeing the utter chaos that so much self-styled feminism has created in the lives of so many men and women, that I wonder how much of it has actually been worthwhile. And yet much has been achieved, much of it not only worthwhile but extremely important, both for women and for men. It seems to me that it’s time to take stock, to assess what actually is worthwhile in feminism at a human level, and to identify and discard at least some of the violent and obscene monstrosities that have been perpetrated in the name of feminism, of ‘women’s liberation’: otherwise we stand a very real risk of losing the lot, as the pendulum swings once more.

Public feminism often reminds me of the 1950s play “One Way Pendulum”: the same unawareness of ‘other’ that can create, as in the play, an entire family apparently in conversation, but in reality conversing only with themselves; and the same crazily plausible logic that can create, as in the play, a character trying to teach weighing machines to sing, to entice people to the North Pole, where he would encourage them to jump, and thus tilt the world off balance, which would cause climate changes, hence many more deaths, hence he would be able to go to many more of the funerals he so much enjoyed… “No turning back!” is the cry I hear: a cry that has the same fatal ring to it as the oft-stated claim that property prices can only rise, not fall. The whole point of a pendulum is for it to be maintained in a dynamic balance, a useful tension: a one-way pendulum eventually comes crashing back full-circle, destroying all in its wake – which could hardly be described as useful.

In its time, feminism in its first modern form seemed revolutionary: I remember the outrage that occurred when a feminist artist exhibited a painting that she’d entitled “God Giving Birth” – which, reflecting her own experience and sense of self, depicted a woman giving birth to a part-negro child. But now, decades later, it has become literally revolutionary: everything has moved round in a circle, such that feminist thought has become ‘politically correct’ orthodoxy – so much so that a woman comedian, in an article in today’s paper, admits that she “dare not raise the ire of the feminist ‘thought police'” in the ways she portrays women on stage. For those of us who were active libertarians in the 60s and 70s, this kind of feminism is a travesty, a mockery of everything for which we fought so hard…

Like so many men of my generation, I understood very early on – certainly before my mid-teens – that ‘women’s liberation’ was to be a crucial, essential step in the aim of creating a true freedom for all. But somehow we’ve never moved past that point: after decades of struggle, ‘women’s liberation’ has not yet been achieved to an acceptable feminist standard, and now that there is, we’re told, a full-scale backlash in force, perhaps never will be. The intransigence of men is pointed out incessantly as the culprit – and a deliberately malicious culprit at that. It’s an easy, obvious answer, and, like our Mr Wright, it may even be true in some cases: but I would argue that the place we need to look most carefully for the solution to the problem is within feminism itself. Like Shakespeare’s ‘enginer hoist by his own petard’, it carries within itself so much self-negation that, like pushing a one-way pendulum, supporting it becomes an almost impossible task; so much evil has been done in the name of feminism that many women would now refuse to regard themselves as feminists at all. And yet if it does not succeed, that elusive freedom will be lost – perhaps in yet another muddled-headed fundamentalism, as has occurred so often in history. Hence it behooves us all to recover what we can – and reach out to recognise the humanity of all.

But this is exactly what feminism has abandoned: in most variants of feminism, one of the key precepts is that men are not to be regarded as human. ‘Political correctness’ maintains that men in general, and white, middle-class anglo-saxon protestant males in particular, are the enemies of humanity: the source of all evil in the world. No matter what those men do, no matter how much they demonstrate that their actions are not hostile, they must be wrong – the ‘truth’ of feminism depends on it, as an absolute precept. It is not easy for a man to be supportive of feminism under those conditions – which is then taken as ‘proof’ that his intentions were always hostile…

Imagine, for example, a callow, confused first-year college student, sitting in a railway compartment, listening to two much older women (in their early twenties, in other words) talking excitedly about the Women’s Liberation Rally they’d been to in London. Interested – feeling within myself a sense of hope, of freedom from the rigid framework I felt I was being forced into as a man – I pluck up courage and ask them about their ideas, their experiences. An instant response, vitriolic, like acid, straight in the face: “There’s no place in any of this for men!” Silence; silenced: somehow the only valid place for a man, I’m told, is to be in the wrong…

It’s a statement that’s been repeated many times, and with many variations, for more than a quarter of a century – and it continues still. My most recent example was in the local Indian take-away restaurant, a few days ago: talking with two young women, college students. They’d just seen an article about Neil Lyndon and David Thomas, two British journalists who’d recently published books on men’s experience of the ‘facts’ of feminism; they were angry, dismissive – “it’s just part of the backlash”, they said. “The boys at the college are just as bad: if we talk about feminist issues they get angry and defensive, but if we say the same things as if they’re human issues the boys all agree with us. They’re so dishonest!” They could not grasp, at all, that the opposite was true: that they’d been appropriating human issues as exclusively feminist ones, denying the reality that men have human issues too.

The implicit assumption seems to be that men’s issues must be denied if women’s issues are to be acknowledged: that they cannot both be true; hence men’s experience, and men’s pain, cannot be real. That these intelligent girls, the cream of their culture, should be able to express such abysmal unawareness of others, but still to demand that others should be unfailingly aware of their needs, is one of the great tragedies of modern feminism. What started as a revolution, a fight for freedom, for respect of the humanness of women, has slumped to the point where it serves only to exalt the selfishness of a few spoilt girls. And in the meantime, the all-too-real issues which it was supposed to resolve remain all but unchanged…

Feminism is unique: it has dominated political and social thought for the past few decades, to the extent that it is now ‘politically incorrect’ to fail to demonstrate conformity to its precepts. But like all ‘politically correct’ thought, it is crippled by internal inconsistencies so enormous that almost any action based upon it is doomed to be destructive – usually more so than the iniquities it seeks to redress. Feminism decries the cruelty and invalidity of sexism, the denial of individuals’ rights and abilities purely on the grounds of gender – a sentiment with which all those concerned with human rights, human dignity, would always concur. Yet as feminism it is, by definition, a form of sexism; but one that somehow maintains the pretence that it alone is not sexist – and that masculism is an obscene anathema, the epitome of sexism, which must never be allowed to exist. This style of double-think has become so characteristic of the movement that, for men at least, trying to decipher what is actually required of us is all but impossible. All we know is that we are to be permanently ‘in the wrong’: and that, like ‘K.’ in Kafka’s “Castle”, there is no way to discover what is actually wrong, or why. And feminists then wonder why men get angry…

Feminism is not a single, unified philosophy. It deals with many different issues which are entirely real to women, or at least to their exponents. There are as many different styles of feminism as there are feminists: Ursula le Guin’s quiet, careful observation, Fay Weldon’s dark, earthy humour, or Starhawk’s deep exploration of the meaning of the Goddess – for women and for men – are as much ‘feminism’ as Germaine Greer’s vitriolic temper, Mary Daly’s calculated nastiness, Rosalind Miles’ statistical subterfuges, or the aggressive isolation of the classic ‘les-fem-sep’. But all of these ‘feminisms’ affect the lives of men; and, where they fail as useful philosophies, return to haunt the lives of women. Ultimately, we cannot succeed in being truly pro-feminist unless we are also, simultaneously, pro-male, and so likewise for men; like masculism, feminism can never be more than a minor side-show in the greater issues of being human. A re-assessment, and a reconciliation, are both needed, and needed now. Shall we proceed?

[1] This was presented as fact by J. Higginbotham and M. Roy, in an article published in “Feminist Action 1”, 1984.

[2] For examples, read anything by Rosalind Miles, Mary Daly, Marilyn French, Monica Sjöö…

[3] For example, Rosalind Miles (in “The Rites Of Man”, p.250) states as fact that the single most common ailment for which men seek a doctor’s advice is sexual impotence. She gives no source for this ‘fact’, other than unspecified ‘medical literature’. In practice, men, like women, consult a doctor rather more often for common ailments such as coughs, colds or flu – several thousand times more often in the experience of at least one general practitioner… (see Neil Lyndon, “No More Sex War”, pp.26-7.)

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