Let’s get this straight. I’m a feminist. That’s the way I was brought up. My mum was a passionate women’s libber and I always agreed with my mum — even when she was wrong — but she was right on that one. The struggle to free one sex has liberated both. The human species is now freer, more dynamic and more fulfilled than ever.
But here’s the oddity. When I read histories of the women’s movement I rarely find any hint that men were involved at all. Men are either sidelined completely or portrayed as a bunch of sexist wreckers who strove to hold women back at every turn.
Quite untrue, of course. But a fascinating prejudice. What’s even more fascinating is to discover why it still goes unchallenged. First, a few facts. Progressive men were at the forefront of the struggle for women’s liberation. And they didn’t just support the movement; at crucial moments, they led it.
The suffragettes were part of a wider crusade against injustice in all its forms. Its brand name was socialism and its leaders were predominantly male. Marx and Engels campaigned for equality between the classes. And between the sexes. Bernard Shaw’s plays satirised the shameful position of women in Edwardian society as ornamental chattels and drawing-room jewellery boxes. The first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, along with influential thinkers like H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, Sidney Webb, John Maynard Keynes and others, argued passionately for women’s suffrage. Even that notorious womaniser Lloyd George sided with the feminists when it mattered. As prime minister, he led the all-male parliament that passed the Representation of the People Act in 1918 and gave women the right to vote and to stand as MPs. Like it or not, Lloyd George is the original British feminist. Now, it’s true that these reformers hadn’t always seen the issue in this way. But as circumstances changed, they changed their minds. And they shifted tack not because a few posh ladies chained themselves to some railings but because men, in their millions, were pursuing a typically male activity: having a war.
In 1914, men trooped off to the Western Front, and women were called in to run the factories, workshops and farms. Women built tanks and guns. They drove lorries and tractors. ‘Men’s work’ turned out to be well within their capabilities. This social upheaval dismantled all the antique patriarchal certainties. War promoted women. It gave them responsibility at work, independence at home and cash in their pockets. They were free to dress as they pleased, to socialise where they liked, to drive, to smoke, to buy books and educate themselves. The war created a vast leap forward in the rights and expectations of women. And by 1918, the pressure to make them full partners in democracy had become irresistible. That was the result of 1914-1918. Men got killed. Women got the vote.
When peace returned, so did the veterans. And being men, they toddled off to their science labs and their garden sheds to pursue another characteristic male activity: bodging and tinkering and inventing new ‘thingummies’. And what thingummies they invented. During the 20th century, men came up with a huge array of technical wizardry that freed the world from the endless enslavement of domestic toil. Toasters, blenders, tinned food, central heating, washable fabrics, lawn-mowers, power-tools, microwaves, Superglue, ready meals, powdered soup. The list is endless.
By the 1950s, this technical revolution had made domestic service — whose burden had always fallen disproportionately on women — a thing of the past. Centuries of drudgery were ending and women were emerging from the shadows. Chaps? Take a bow.
And in 1961 came the greatest single act of liberation in human history. The pill. Now, some will argue that men devised the pill in order to increase women’s sexual availability to them. Well, maybe. But that doesn’t diminish its success in freeing women from the shackles of their biology. It brought an end to the 23-pregnancy marriage. And it consigned that silent killer, the back-room abortionist, to the dustbin of deranged science. Women were now free to postpone starting a family until after they’d finished their education. Or, if they were still at home raising a couple of kids (rather than a couple of dozen), they had the chance to study at the Open University, which was created by the socialist thinker Michael Young and introduced during Harold Wilson’s second administration. Both men were, of course, men.
By the mid-1960s, women were ready to enact the final phase of their revolution: complete equality under the law. Here again, men offered a lead. The civil rights protestors in America and the ‘great march’ on Washington inspired the women’s lib movement and gave it urgency and bite. The lesson from America was that aggressive tactics were far more effective than polite lobbying. Women’s lib marchers took to the streets and demanded an end to discrimination at work. And they got it, more or less immediately. The Equal Pay Act was brought in here in 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Both are primarily male reforms, by the way, because men in the Commons at that time outnumbered women by 30 to one.
You will, of course, have spotted the glaring omission in all this. Throughout history it was ‘bloody men’ who oppressed and exploited women. But these ‘bloody men’ were merely responding to Mother Nature’s uneven distribution of responsibilities which made sexual inequality a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of years. Finally, in the 20th century, we all wised up. Enlightened men, at the insistence of enlightened women, took on the ‘bloody men’ and campaigned for a fairer settlement. And it was male habits of behaviour that catalysed the key changes: male aggression, male ingenuity and ultimately men’s sense of fair play and social justice.
So feminism is largely a male achievement. But far from getting the credit, we men have been airbrushed out of that history altogether. What’s truly amazing, given how vain and boastful we are, is that we couldn’t care less. Why so bashful about one of our greatest ever triumphs?
Here’s my explanation. The sex wars have redefined what it is to be a man and to be a woman. The tragic irony is that the new settlement leaves women — yet again — at a huge disadvantage. A woman who wants to feel ‘properly liberated’ today has to shoulder twice as much donkey work as her grandmother. Raising a family isn’t enough. She needs a career as well. And to settle for anything less is to accept a major downgrade in her status as a woman.
Men face no such extra duties. Naturally we like to ‘do our bit’ around the kitchen, the nursery and the supermarket. ‘Bit’ being the operative word. In my case I reckon I handle about 15 per cent of the housework. And my wife reckons I handle about 0.0015 per cent of it, but hey-ho. This wasn’t our revolution. They asked for it. And we bowed to their superior wisdom.
For men, the happiest result of the new deal is the quality of the women we now face across the dating table. Women are smarter, sleeker, richer, better educated and bigger-boobed than they ever were. They get drunk more easily. They have sex more readily. Sometimes they even pay for dinner as well, ‘to assert their independence’. And do we stop them? No, Madame Chairperson, we do not. We’re feminists too, of course, and we make that pledge not because we’re shamed by the historic plight of women but because we’ve learned that it’s a great aphrodisiac.
This thesis will make uncomfortable reading for women. For men, on the other hand, it’s completely taboo. We males have reached a tacit agreement to avoid the subject of women’s emancipation altogether, and to draw a discreet veil over the fabulous peace-deal we’ve signed up for. If women want to portray us as a gang of bigoted throwbacks who never lifted a finger to liberate them, that’s fine by us. Small price to pay. The last thing we want to do is rock the boat. Because from our viewpoint — up in first class, as always — this cruise has never been better.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012