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