“I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is,” quipped the inimitable Rebecca West. “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”
Despite the enduring sense of West’s words, feminism has become so unpopular that it is almost wholly absent from the glut of self-help handbooks churned out for women these days. This is dangerous, argues the journalist and one-time stand-up comedian Ellie Levenson; although the “Noughties generation” (women born after 1970) has grown up sure of its rights to equal pay, contraception and the rank of prime minister, feminism is still important – and no one should be embarrassed to say so.
However, Noughties feminism, as Levenson defines it, is not quite the ideology our mothers and grandmothers would have recognised. It’s “pick’n’mix”: one does not have to know the fine points of theory of the second wave, nor of the French, essentialist or constructionist schools, and women can choose the issues they consider important, whether that be insisting that other people call them Ms or not washing their partner’s dirty underpants. “We can simultaneously be concerned about the state of the world and the state of our eyeshadow, if we so desire,” she writes. The idea, she argues, is that each woman should figure out what matters to her and stick by it. In essence: “Noughtie girl feminists reject being told what to think, whatever it is.”
So far, so uncontroversial. What Levenson is trying to offer is basic but valuable common sense. Her light and unpretentious style is a deliberate antidote to what she sees as the humourless and jargon-laden prose of the canon, from Germaine Greer to Hélène Cixous. She couches her short segments of advice with helpful headers such as “Single women are feminists, too” and “Why I think it’s funny when my husband calls me a cunt” – a particularly neatly argued nugget.
Yet, disappointingly, Levenson’s humour often relies on clichés; she cannot seem to resist using the words tampon and penis in the same sentence. Her brevity can also be unsatisfying – the fascinating, tortured question of body hair and women’s attitudes to it is breezed over in less than two pages (bafflingly, the following item, toe cleavage, gets more room). Add to this her grating overuse of “Noughtie girls do” and “Noughtie girls don’t” to prefix almost any statement, not to mention a gimmicky quiz at the beginning, and one begins to feel patronised.
Of more serious concern, however, is that her advice is spliced with hopeless generalisations. Perhaps it is impossible to avoid some gender stereotypes, yet when I read that men don’t like organising social occasions, are not interested in interior design and couldn’t be trusted to take a contraceptive pill if one were invented, I don’t recognise the world in which I live.
There are other problems; her discussion of violence against women, for example, is puzzling. Yes, domestic violence and rape are under-reported and under-prosecuted. But is a woman’s right to travel home at night without fear of being attacked a feminist issue? Yes, we should have more bus conductors, better-lit streets and higher conviction rates for violent crime, but this is a human right, not a female one. “What if men weren’t able to get home at night for fear of attack?” she asks. What if, indeed. Young men are statistically far more likely to be victims of violent crime than women of any age.
Levenson’s instincts are undoubtedly right. It is important to emphasise, as she does, that you don’t have to have a PhD to be able to understand feminism or call yourself a feminist. But what do we lose by glossing over the struggles of earlier generations because they are deemed inaccessible? Naomi Wolf warns that “feminists are in danger if they don’t know their history”.
The author does acknowledge feminism’s forebears, and she is right to argue that “where the fight is almost won, the battles are more difficult”. Men in Britain still get just two weeks’ statutory paternity leave; women continue to be paid far less for doing the same jobs as their male peers and to be vastly outnumbered at the highest levels of the professions. And did you know that beauty pageants are still the largest source of college scholarships for women in the US?
So, whether or not the pinkish red cover puts you off (as it did me), whether or not you think the argument is dumbed-down feminism-lite (as I did in places), this book remains important. In fact, the more you disagree with Levenson’s definition of the F-word, the more pressing the need to continue the argument.
Mary Fitzgerald is assistant editor of Prospect