New feminism, droning on about nail polish and toilet cleaning, is just a branch office of capitalism
Last week, the Guardian devoted three pages to Germaine Greer, who has written a book called The Whole Woman. Other famous feminists were asked to comment. "We should not feel guilty for cleaning our toilets if we want to," said one. "If I feel like wearing nail polish, I will," said another. There were passing references to "equality"; only Glenys Kinnock mentioned the continuing struggle of working women.
This is not surprising; the public voices of feminism, like those of the political elite, have all but severed their ties with the aspirations of ordinary women and men. Along with their mantle of semi-celebrity, they have accepted the premises of the status quo, of form over content, of undemocratic capitalist deities over almost everything. When they drone on about relationships, "lifestyle", what the kiddies said, shopping lists, cleaning the toilet, the right to wear nail polish ad nauseam, they have not been entirely depoliticised. They provide an important diversion on behalf of the social and political enemies of true, liberating feminism.
Natasha Walter, the author of The New Feminism, with whom Greer is having an arcane spat, speaks for this branch office of capitalism. While expressing her solidarity with "the women of the south", Walter admires Margaret Thatcher, who "normalised female success" and who is "the great unsung heroine of British feminism". It was Thatcher who "allowed British women to celebrate their ability not just to be nurturing or caring or life-affirming but also to be deeply unpleasant, to be cruel, to be death-dealing, to be egotistic". Above all, privilege, such as "driving sleek cars to work", is fine.
This kind of feminism has become a weapon in an accelerating class war. We are not, as Blair insists, all middle class now. The opposite is true. The British Social Attitudes Survey shows the British people believe overwhelmingly that class divisions have never been greater in the modern era and that the daughters and sons of unskilled workers are no more likely to go to university than they were in the 1970s, especially now that new Labour has ended free higher education.
The deepening poverty in this country remains largely unspoken and denied; yet Britain is to the first world the economic and social laboratory that Pinochet's Chile was to the third world. The UN Human Development Report for 1997 says that in no other country has poverty "increased as substantially" since the early 1980s, that the number of Britons in "income poverty" has leapt by nearly 60 per cent since the rule of Thatcher, the "great un-sung heroine of British feminism", according to Natasha Walter.
The author of a parliamentary report on poverty, Dr Richard Harding, says 2,000 children die in Britain every year because they are poor. Dr Ian Banks, the British Medical Association spokesman on men and health, says that suicide is "the big new killer of men and is shockingly popular - it has doubled in the past ten years. The one clear cause is uncertainty at work. Short-term contracts are a constant strain that make men ill".
With a few honourable exceptions, such as Sheila Rowbotham, feminists with public voices remain silent on these effects of economic engineering. The most vocal, be they "new" or "old" feminists, embrace the ideology of middle-classness, which under Blair has become sectarian, uniting his new establishment of the media and the City of London. Before Thatcher, when times were more secure, the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie would allot a rung or two of its ladder to the working class, as ordinary people were known in the days before they were rebranded an "underclass". Under Blair, the ladder has been finally pulled up.
Gender politics was right as a spur for the great feminist reawakening when Greer's The Female Eunuch was influential, but its power for liberation could never survive for long outside the great universal resistance, which recognises the overriding importance of class. Thatcher was no one's feminist sister. Neither are the massed ranks of female Blairite MPs, who supported the government's assault on single mothers and the criminal bombing and starving of women, men and children in Iraq.
True feminists understand that liberation is impossible while ordinary people, women and men, face a common enemy divided. This is a sorely neglected theme among female commentators, whose narcissistic trivia has nothing to do with the feminism they claim to uphold. Barbara Ellen in last week's Observer devoted her weekly egocentricities to telling us how drunk she became in her mini-skirt at the What the Papers Say awards lunch. She threw in her status as a single mother as a sort of badge of honour. The irony of this was that, apart from the well-deserved recognition of rare journalists such as Nick Davies and David Hencke, the event itself was, as Clive Anderson's presentation made clear, a vicarious celebration of the ethos of the Sun, whose sexist influence is now rampant through the media, including the broadsheets and broadcasting.
Many women journalists are used to great effect in the Murdochised media. They are required merely to be bitchy, to the great satisfaction of their mostly male executives. How many have used their privileged platform to speak out - on, say, the enrichment of the rich by Blair's government, and the disciplining of working women and men and those denied work; on the promotion of an arms trade that causes unreported Omaghs and Dunblanes all over the world, killing, among others, women who cannot afford to wear nail polish or feel guilty about cleaning the toilet?