The idea of women as weak has always bemused me. Perhaps it’s because I grew up a head taller than most boys at school, perhaps it was because I was reared on stories of women who never let a little muscle get in their way. I was often told about my mother’s political heroine (and now mine) Bernadette Devlin. Having listened to the then Conservative Home Secretary lie about the British army acting in self defence on Bloody Sunday, and realising she was too small to lift the parliamentary mace in protest, Devlin walked across the floor in 1972 and ‘put the fear of God’ into Reginald Maudling with a slap in the gob.
Today, suggesting that women might be capable of standing up to men double their height and triple their weight is tantamount to heresy. Sexism of the past was based on a view of women as the ‘fairer sex’, in need of shielding from public life by men who were better equipped to engage in the rough and tumble of society. After years of women railing against limitations in the form of laws, social stigmas and patronising policies, today’s feminist politics seems to have come full circle. A neo-Victorian narrative about women has become the norm, with contemporary campaigners calling for more protection from the state and the authorities, treating women differently from their male peers.
Four years ago I wrote What Women Want, a hot-pink, polemic pamphlet which aimed to highlight the problems with contemporary feminism. Radio hosts and TV presenter still wince when they’re forced to read out the subheading: ‘Fun, freedom and an end to feminism.’ Criticising the F-word is now forbidden, despite the fact that almost every poll on the issue reveals that the majority of women want nothing to do with the label. Perhaps the reason why taking on the new feminist politics has become so controversial is that feminism has, on the one hand, become reduced to platitudes about being nice to women.
On the other hand, contemporary feminism now poses more threats to women’s freedom than any sexist pig could ever dream of. From calls to police speech on and offline to protect women from nasty words to demands that consent classes be made mandatory in schools and universities, feminists no longer believe that women should be treated as equals to men. Instead, because of fears for our safety from misogynistic comments to abusive men on the street, we’re told we have to sacrifice our freedom to laugh, love and live without state interference. Where has the defiance of the 1970s feminism gone – the type that took to the streets when men told us it was too dangerous to go out at night in high heels? Where has our confidence in women disappeared to – the type that propelled ordinary women to break free from the constraints of the kitchen sink and step out into society?
Part of the problem is that many of today’s commentators seem to have lost all historical perspective when it comes to talking about women’s freedom. Take the recently publicised ‘Everybody’s Invited’ campaign, set up by a former school pupil to allow women and girls to tell their anonymous stories about abuse in educational settings. In an interview with Teen Vogue, the website’s founder Soma Sara said that ‘no future generations should have to suffer like mine and the ones before us’. In using the word ‘suffer’, Sara was referring to the abuse she and others allege took place in various private schools across the UK.
The rest of this editorial will be publised in print at a later date.