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October 24th 2015 print

Jane Sutton

First to Fourth Waves of Feminism

It is beyond dispute that women achieve greater equality in countries that are more economically free. For the latest generation of Western feminists, that same freedom has been the cue to fixate on trivialities while pointedly ignoring the plight of less fortune sisters

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
—Daphne du Maurier

irked2I was reminded of the opening line in Rebecca as I was reading Laura Bates’s non-fiction book Everyday Sexism, which was short-listed for Waterstones Book of the Year, 2014. “Again” is apt here. Bates has published from her blog and project of the same name to remind us of sexual inequality in quotidian. Driven by social media, the project has gained another medal—the Fourth Wave of Feminism.

Du Maurier, possibly better educated than Mary Wollstonecraft but certainly having the credentials for feminist activism, would have been a spot-on, card-carrying first-wave feminist had she been born earlier. By the time of the second wave, du Maurier was Dame Daphne and restoring her Cornwall house, “Menabilly”. She did continue to write on difficult themes such as uxorcide (husband slain by wife) and flexible sexual preferences. Notable in the second wave was Betty Friedan’s remarkable contribution, The Feminine Mystique, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. All were concerned with sexual inequality. What was equally noteworthy was the ease to which the media moved to embrace the clearly dishier, Smith College-educated Gloria Steinem.

Somewhere in the shards of the third wave of feminism, the American-Italian academic Camille Paglia came to prominence. An only child of post-war Italian immigrants, she was given a superlative education in becoming American by her parents, Pasquale and Lydia. Her father became a professor of Romance languages at LeMoyne College, Syracuse, and her mother relinquished dressmaking to become a bank teller. Camille wrote her PhD at Yale, supervised by Harold Bloom, and in 1990 published Sexual Personae, which begins:

In the beginning was nature. The background from which and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem. We cannot hope to understand sex and gender until we clarify our attitude toward nature. Sex is a subset to nature. Sex is the natural in man.

These lines alluding to John 1:1 are unlikely to challenge du Maurier’s for thrilling openers, but Paglia’s point runs counter to a version of feminism that says gender is a social construct.

In the same decade and also hailing from Syracuse, George Saunders, the inaugural award winner of the Folio Prize 2014, had a queasy dream about stringing women up as garden decoration. Like Paglia, Saunders has a clear view of the attributes and demands of American life and he wrote the story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”, published in a volume of short stories, Tenth of December. The horror of foreign-born service workers stranded like Christmas tinsel to feed a notion of display is embedded in a kind but honest tale of the modern American family. Like the ballooning pale skirts of the women, the story touches gently on the vulnerable foreign economic migrant.

Paglia has pointed to the lack of response by feminists to these issues and others, such as rape in India and genital mutilation, that are “more serious than some woman going on a date on the Brown University campus”. Saunders, interviewed by Joel Lovell for the New York Times Magazine in 2013, said: “I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything. It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes; you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home.” Paglia and Saunders see the grace and toughness in America. Paglia argues strongly for women to avoid special protection scenarios and to be vigilant. Her version of feminism is street-smart.

How are women drawn in contemporary novels and cinema? The range is interesting, from Ian McEwan’s recent novel The Children Act to Gillian Flynn’s best-seller Gone Girl and its subsequent film. McEwan’s heroine is a Family Court judge, gifted musically and living in a gated legal enclave with her academic husband. They have a charmed life, popping off to concerts and galleries. She has achieved everything her education has indicated is hers. One day, as she is lying on her chaise longue, editing her judgments, viewing her not-quite-right Renoir drawing, her husband says he wants a tryst with another woman. He leaves, she changes the locks. McEwan likes to write about specialist workers but this is the first of his books in which a woman is the skilled protagonist.

Gillian Flynn’s character Amy is venal. She too is gifted and entitled. When the recession hits New York, she and her husband lose their jobs and her house. They leave for his home state, Missouri, moving into a suburban house that a George Saunders character would love. He dabbles in an affair; she sees and fabricates her disappearance and apparent homicide. Possibly as a result of a roomful of yellow post-its, the plot is wonderfully convoluted and rich with characters. The best by far is a “Lean-In” woman who keeps offering casseroles to Amy’s distraught husband. When the dust settles, both couples face each other in bed and resume their marriages. How so? One could argue it is a case of wearily accepting what is known.

What has been the decisive event for gender equality? In Paris in 1791 the National Assembly passed an important inheritance bill. One might have expected the revolutionaries to rush through legislation giving women the vote. But no, by far the most far-reaching reform for French women was not suffrage but access to property through equal inheritance. But this argument is also flawed, according to recent data from the United Nations Development Program in its Human Development Reports, and to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian free-market think-tank. The clear conclusion is that women achieve greater equality in countries that are more economically free. The researchers point to countries such as Switzerland and Finland. It is also true in impoverished but economically free countries—women hold more elected positions, are better educated and live longer, relative to men, than those in less free economies.

Where to for the fourth wave? First, organise the data—a pie chart would do. Second, limit clichés to one per paragraph. And third, write about important issues for all women.

Jane Sutton was educated at the University of Sydney, La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne. A secondary market art dealer, she lives in Melbourne.

 

Comments [3]

  1. Jody says:

    There are university-educated feminists and there are those who have always claimed equality with any man and who didn’t need a university degree to tell them this. My 3 sisters and myself were all born in the 1950s and each one of us has at least two university degrees. This was comparatively rare for people born in that decade, but my mother used to say “my daughters will not be slaves to any man” and both she and my father strongly encouraged the road to education, long before ‘feminism’ was a badge or a movement. I suspect many people could tell a similar story about being inspired from within the family unit. But feminism was always about choice for me; between a career or remaining at home to raise my own 4 children whilst also learning the piano and doing further study. When my youngest was 14 I entered the workforce full time as a teacher but not before, because I regarded their life opportunities as significantly more important than mine.

    This attitude would not be regarded as “feminism” today but, for me, so-called ‘feminism’ is about a certain way of thinking, a philosophy about the self in relation to others and especially the notion that no woman should ever feel intellectually or socially inferior to an ‘equivalent’ male. In my pre-married years the quickest way of weeding out the sheep from the goats, in this respect, was to say something really intelligent and you could usually judge from a male which way it would go. Most of them would either raise eyebrows or walk away, but those worth knowing were interested and engaged in the conversation! No strident feminazi banner-waving necessary. And a clever female could also use being female to get successful outcomes from co-operation with males in the workplace. A successful role model, for me, would be somebody like Julie Bishop. Many of my colleagues in teaching had the attitude that they didn’t have to ‘negotiate’ to get what they wanted from their male peers, standing on a feminist platform. So, it was usually up to me to get the results for them!! You get what you want and the males end up respecting you; win/win. And it’s not rocket science.

    I feel sorry for modern ‘feminists’ because they have developed a siege mentality with regard to men which is almost entirely counter-productive.

  2. Keith Kennelly says:

    That Jody has greater depth than most people, today, could ever possibly realize.

    My mother born in the 30′s had simpler views and her underlying belief was the same as yours.

    I believe it to have been the same view held by the great women achievers throughout the history of the world … starting with the great Egyptian female Pharaohs.

  3. [email protected] says:

    What many commentators fail to comprehend, and/or refuse to admit, is that men and women aren’t equal, or even meant to be equal, they evolved as being ‘complimentary’. Neither survives physically or mentally for long without the other. Women do think ‘differently’ to men and it often seems [to a man like me] that they have a different system of logic, but the ‘differences’ are small and inconsequential when compared to the similarities. Let us all celebrate the similarities, and live with the differences and appreciate everybody as an individual.