Is Feminism dead?

This week’s New Statesman contains an article by Zoe Williams (note: the site has is a “read once then pay” system), contending that “across a whole range of issues, including even abortion and rape, women’s rights are being challenged or eroded in ways not seen for decades”, and that this tendency is not being adequately challenged. Nearly two-thirds of this article is about abortion and the recent calls for the maximum number of weeks before an abortion becomes illegal to be reduced in response to what we now know about a foetus at that stage: that given the right medical intervention, they can survive.

According to Williams, talk of women’s equality having nearly been reached (except for pensions and part-time pay and a few other minor issues) “is insane. Pensions and pay gaps aren’t even the half of it. There are battles re-emerging today that feminists of 30 years ago would have fire-breathed out of existence, and we’ve forgotten how to fight them”. Last October she attended a meeting at the House of Lords organised by Abortion Rights, at which she expected that people would “get together, laugh at the Daily Mail, and go home again”; the reference being to articles of an anti-abortion hue being published in that newspaper, particularly in the wake of the “moving foetus” pictures which made the news in 2005. What she found at the Lords, though, was “a large public meeting focused not on the media, but on the very nature of abortion rights and the spectre of their revocation. I simply didn’t realise how far to the right this debate had moved”.

“How far to the right” means for her the fact that people are actually suggesting that a woman doesn’t actually have an automatic right to terminate a pregnancy just because “it’s her body”, and this can be found well beyond “some Tories”. In the last year or so, the debate has been focused on abortions for women who discover their babies are disabled in some way, and for women in mid-pregnancy when the baby is becoming formed rather than a bundle of cells or a vaguely life-like form. I find it unsurprising that people are hostile to the idea of an abortion being justified on the grounds that a baby has a cleft palate, and when I saw Joanna Jepson, the Anglican curate who herself had a cleft palate and underwent serious surgery to rectify it and challenged the decision in the courts, I was disappointed that she was not more forthright on the whole issue of abortions for “defective” babies.

Williams finds it most notable that “pro-choicers” are not forthright enough themselves:

Even the stalwartly pro-choice MPs Laura Moffatt, Chris McCafferty and Katy Clark, who all appeared at this public meeting, presented their arguments in rather abashed terms. “Obviously, nobody wants a high abortion rate …” “Clearly, we do not want to be Europe’s leaders in teenage abortions …” Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Hull North, mentioned in passing that she’d been surprised by the casual misogyny she’d noticed among the new intake of MPs: she had no chance to expand, as everyone was too busy stating tehir support for abortion in the most embarrassed way possible.

Later on, Williams notes on the moral panic over the issue of drunken women making asses of themselves in the streets at night, noting that nobody ever responded to the issue with “this is what happens: the end point of equality is that women can mess things up as men can. So bring on the drunk women. Bring on the women getting arrested. Because the alternative to that is women at home, sober, not because they choose to be, but because they do not have the freedom to behave as men do”. But feminists, when it suits them, do demand special allowances for women. They not only expect free abortion on demand, but they also demand clemency for women who kill violent partners, even with premeditation in some cases. Don’t get me wrong - women who kill their partners in self-defence shouldn’t be sent to jail, but premeditated murder should have the same result for women who do it as for men. And “free abortion on demand” is an exception to the normal rule that killing innocent people is wrong, and it serves mainly to protect women from the consequences of their actions and from the hardships of life. Some abortions are performed for rape victims, but by no means all, or even most.

Towards the end, she calls for old-fashioned feminist thinking to be applied to such matters as date rape:

Nobody was saying: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” Nobody was saying: “A woman might well go out dressed to seduce one person, or a whole heap of people; that doesn’t give everybody carte blanche to rape her.”

But in this day and age, people do not in general say that it does (at least, it’s not common currency; a few years ago in Scotland, a teenage rape victim was asked in court to hold up her skimpy underwear and read out the slogan on it, and although the culprit was found guilty, the victim later committed suicide, and the case caused outrage; and the issue of “fusty judges”, as one politics textbook called them, and the crass remarks they have been known to make, is a whole book in itself). The debate is not about rape in general but about drunken women having advantage taken of them by men, and whether it really is sensible for women to drink themselves into such a state. The problem is that “behaving as men do” has different consequences for women: women can’t handle so much drink, they cannot fight off some men as well as a man might, and they get pregnant and men don’t. To paraphrase one letter in a London newspaper, no woman deserves to be raped, but a man has every right to walk through any rough patch of town with £50 pound notes sticking out of his pocket with expensive jewellery on display, and it doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to rob him.

I think one of the main reasons why the feminist dialectic has lost so much credibility is that the polarised politics of the 1980s, when the hard left dug themselves into local government and parts of the education system when they found themselves shut out of political power, are now a thing of the past. When I was at college (Aberystwyth) in the mid-1990s, the student body was not involved in any great numbers in union politics, leaving it vulnerable to the predations of idiots, such as the Marxists who used a barely-quorate General Meeting in the autumn of 1995 to call a rent strike, which fell flat on its face when it actually came to the students being called on to pay their rent to the strike committee. The policy of that union was that it insisted on “free abortion on demand”, and union officers had to stick to that policy when representing the Guild.

And the fact is that “free abortion on demand” is a preposterous demand, every bit as preposterous as the notion that men should not presume that their opinions on the subject matter because they cannot get pregnant (women, on the other hand, may speak freely, even if they have never been pregnant themselves). Interest groups are sometimes known to make preposterous demands: trade unions sometimes demand unreasonable pay rises, while commercial lobbyists demand (more quietly, and with money, avoiding looking like noisy rabble) that politicians refrain from trying to control their pollution of the atmosphere or stop them paying their workers miserable rates. Williams seems disappointed that even pro-choicers are willing to admit that abortion is a bad thing, and that people have “problems with abortion”, as Tony Blair said he did. But the very nature of abortion means that the feminist position that it is a woman’s body and therefore her choice and hers alone will never come close to convincing everyone.

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