Fay Weldon’s new novel, the absurdist satire Death of a She Devil, is certain to be a bestseller. It returns to the theme that was the background to her masterpiece, The Life and Loves of a She Devil – gender politics, or the war between the sexes.
It is the subject of the moment. Television is full of it. Line of Duty is supposed to be about police corruption, but in the latest series a battle over sex discrimination takes centre stage. Broadchurch has addressed the topic of rape, with Olivia Colman’s character delivering a stern monologue around the dinner table on the principle of consent. American television gives us Big Little Lies, about a group of unhinged yummy mummies in Monterey.
The most sensational strand of the debate is to do with sex changes. But more relevant to most people’s lives is the discussion about how our children are going to navigate their way through life, parcelling out the roles, marriage, work, children. Will there be a space for love and romance?
Fay Weldon, clever and fearless, told the Guardian: “Feminism was a successful revolution, but after a revolution you lose a generation. We’re having an upheaval, with women going out to work and children going to nurseries. Mothers try to be friends not parents, but children need boundaries, so it’s a kind of freefall. Child rearing has changed and it is producing another kind of person.”
Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times (on being a “bad granny”) also went against the grain of received opinion: “When I hear women in their thirties or, worse, forties talking about whether they are ‘ready’ to have babies, I want to shout, for God’s sake, no one is ever ready, just get on with it… I believe that women’s ability to have children, and to know for sure that they are ours, for life, is such an incomparable advantage that it makes up for any amount of supposed glass ceilings.”
You might not hear a Woman’s Hour presenter saying that, but in daily life many people would agree. We chew over these topics in the office where I work. I am the only man on a desk with (at most) three women. Between us we have five daughters aged from six to grown-up. One friend has a daughter, a university student, who was heard to exclaim recently: “Is Andrew a Catholic?” (meaning me) in a shocked tone.
It meant for her (I presume) that I held backward attitudes on questions such as the role of women. Like many teenage girls, my friend’s daughter subsists on an online diet of podcasts and blogs, many of which push a radical feminist message alongside lipstick and sex tips.
Will she and her friends mellow as they get older and marry and have children themselves, as some of the earlier generation have? (Perhaps it’s actually the joyless utilitarianism of some modern feminism that drives the phenomenon of transforming girls into super-girly bubblegum-pink princesses.)
Ferdinand Mount’s wonderful book The Subversive Family, published 35 years ago, offers a convincing defence of the nuclear family against the critique that it is an oppressive and patriarchal structure.
Examining the snapshots of medieval life provided by literary texts and records, Mount concludes that, far from being hostile to women’s rights, marriage was where the idea of women’s equality first flourished.
What the old ideal of marriage was really opposed to was egotism, whether the husband’s or the wife’s. Mutual self-giving was what made marriage work. There was “a biological ethic – a series of duties of nest-gathering, nursing, feeding, protecting and teaching, all involving the sacrifice of self.”
I wonder what the new generation of feminists would make of that. Or of the Catholic view, which similarly emphasises the complementary unity of men and women in marriage and the self-sacrifice on both sides that this entails. Pope Francis’s popular appeal may insulate him from criticism, but what do they think of his critique of power-seeking feminism as machismo in gonnella, “machismo in a skirt”?
It is tricky territory. During the 2012 Olympics I provoked a Twitter storm with a light-hearted blog about women’s judo. I was foolish to volunteer to write the blog because I did not have strong views on the subject. (Mary Kenny once wisely advised me that it’s best not to write on topics about which you do not feel strongly.)
I glimpsed enough of the online huffing and puffing to get the sense that there was a lot of searing resentment out there. A few commenters were brave enough to spring to the defence of the “weirdie sexist” (me), drawing attention to the qualifications with which I had hedged the piece. I consoled myself with the thought that, as with most online debate, most of my attackers had only read the headline anyway.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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