2012-12-09 09:59:38

The Feminine Mistake

Eric Hobsbawm, the historian I interviewed for In These Times earlier this year, died in October at 95. An affectionate friend and an impressive scholar, he had one striking blind spot. He saw no point in feminism and disliked the word “gender” as feminists use it.

About 25 years ago, at the tail end of my generation’s feminism, I wrote
 a book called Seductions. It was
 not, I’m sorry to say, an erotic money-spinner, but rather a feminist polemic, published in a series edited by Edward Said called Convergences: Inventories of the Present. It was a generous act on his
 part, since I’d devoted a chapter to
t he absence in his Orientalism of women of either the colonised or 
the colonising sort, with femininity present only as a metaphor for 
the vulnerability of the East to the West. Hobsbawm didn’t figure in
 my book, but he was there in spirit
 as the kind of British socialist (E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams were others) who wrote as though feminism, not to mention racism and multiculturalism, distracted from the core problem for any capitalist society: class.

Feminism seems to me to have committed a kind of suicide at about that time, as such movements tend to, torn apart by various forms of essentialism, separatism and liberalism, and exhausted by its efforts to find a place for itself within socialism or, indeed, multiculturalism. I tried to explain in my book how and why women have been seduced into men’s ordering of the world, rather as Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist, described how workers were likely to be drawn into the hegemony exerted by their employers. I noted that women who competed successfully with men were sometimes the first to uphold precisely those “standards” that might deny access to others.

If something I recognize as feminism is hard to find these days, there is no shortage of “post-feminist” books (and they are mostly American) signaling The End of Men (Hanna Rosin) or The War of the Sexes (Paul Seabright). Apocalyptic and anthropological, these are not feminist books in the sense of advancing a politics on behalf of women, any more than Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography is. Yet for most of the world, the battle is far from won.

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Girls and women are by no means equal to boys and men. Their education, their prospects, their economic position and their political power lag behind those of their male counterparts. In the West, a majority of women have achieved at least some of the things we asked for in the ’70s and ’80s. At schools in the U.K., girls do as well as—and often better than—boys, and take up more university places. Women constitute at least half of professions like law and medicine and journalism, although there is a faltering at the top, as there is at the top of business, finance, the civil service, the academy and politics. Most of these professions have barely altered their working arrangements to accommodate women’s different needs, and despite the U.K.’s 1970 Equal Pay Act, women are paid up to 20 percent less than men doing equivalent work. And it is women workers, because they often shoulder the burden of parenting and thus work part time, who are the first to be “made redundant.”

This generation of young adults grew up on a wave of economic optimism, and some of them have not quite woken up to the difficulties that lie ahead. If they go to university in the U.K. they will start their grown-up lives with debts of nearly £50,000. If they don’t go to university, they will have only a slight chance of any training and very poor work prospects. Almost all of them will be expected to perform unpaid work of some kind before they get paid work; and their chances of getting places of their own to live in are far worse than their parents’ were. They will probably inhabit a world of greater inequality and fewer opportunities. And—judging from recent conversations with my grandchildren—some of them seem oddly unmoved by such possibilities.

Eric Hobsbawm may have had a blind spot on gender, but he was a great internationalist and a believer in the young. Sensing a revival of interest in politics among the world’s young, he was heartened by Occupy and by the Arab Spring, which he saw as a kind of 1848.

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