Oh feminism, what happened to you?

Once, radical women demanded liberty and change; now they want censorship and social engineering.

Saira Khan

Topics Politics

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‘You must make women count as much as men; you must have an equal standard of morals; and the only way to enforce that is through giving women political power so that you can get that equal moral standard registered in the laws of the country’ – Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913.

Eighty years later…

‘You grow up with your father holding you down and covering your mouth so another man can make a horrible searing pain between your legs’ – Catharine MacKinnon, 1993.

What’s gone wrong with feminism?

Feminism used to be about equality, not female superiority

Many modern-day feminists engage in man-bashing rather than making dignified demands for equality, as the feminists of the early twentieth century did. So Robin Morgan unashamedly admits, ‘I feel that man-hating is an honourable and viable political act’. The view many modern feminists seek to spread, in the words of Marilyn French, is that ‘all men are rapists and that’s all they are’. A Feminist Dictionary goes so far as to define ‘male’ as ‘a degeneration and deformity of the female’. This is an effort to make men seem inferior, not to elevate the position of women. It starkly contrasts with the goal of feminists of old, which was to make women be viewed as equal, not superior, to men.

Feminism used to be about freedom, not censorship

Recently, feminists have supported moralistic wars on porn, the Sun’s Page 3, and misogynistic Twitter messages. They are essentially advocating more government intervention into our private lives and our freedom of speech. Yet 43 years ago, Germaine Greer wrote in the The Female Eunuch that ‘freedom is fragile and must be protected. To sacrifice it, even as a temporary measure, is to betray it’. Whereas feminism was once concerned with increasing the freedoms of women, and by extension all inhabitants of society, now it tends towards demanding the reduction of freedoms.

Feminism used to view women as self-sufficient rather than requiring the protection of the state

If recent debates are anything to go by, feminism now seems to be about protecting the delicate, sensitive, victimised female of the human species. For example, we apparently need to be protected from pictures of topless women in the Sun, lest these images destroy our self-esteem. Feminism perpetuates the view that women are fragile – in the words of Andrea Dworkin, ‘to be rapeable, a position that is social, not biological, defines what a woman is’. In contrast, the feminists of the early twentieth century were keen to show that they needed little help and could fend for themselves, just like any man. Indeed, as early as 1847, Charlotte Brontë wrote: ‘Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.’

Feminism used to be about structural change, not cultural change

The goal of feminists today is to change certain men’s view of women as sexual objects. This speaks to a fundamental shift in the focus of feminism, away from demanding structural change – that is, having women in the workplace and represented in government – towards calling for cultural change – for example, by reengineering certain men’s values and views. In part, this is a result of the fact that women now have jobs and are represented in government, so inevitably the scope of feminism will become narrower. The economic and political security we now enjoy has given women the ability to bring feminism to the forefront – but it has also made feminism less appealing. As Gloria Steinem said, feminism was not about ‘getting a job for one woman’: ‘It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.’

Feminism used to be about making real changes, not tokenistic gestures

The recent decision to put Jane Austen on Britain’s new £10 note was celebrated by feminists as a huge success. But this is a superficial ‘victory’; it doesn’t indicate any substantial change in the place of women in society. During the Suffragette movement of the 1910s and 1920s, the publication of a picture would scarcely be seen as an achievement, let alone a huge success. Then, women wanted significant change in society – in that instance, female enfranchisement.

In sum, feminism wasn’t always as narrow and petty as it is today. It was once about equality for all, true freedom, more choice and radical change, not censorship, man-bashing and the social re-engineering of bad male attitudes. Gloria Steinem put it well: ‘A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men.’ Contrast that with Sally Miller Gearheart’s demand that ‘the proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately 10 per cent of the human race’.

Saira Khan is a student at the University of Oxford and a spiked intern.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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