Over a drink recently I sat next to a man who announced, barely before he’d taken his first sip, that he was a feminist. ‘Like you,’ he added ingratiatingly.
Poor sap. Did he imagine that this creepy statement would actually endear me to him? That I admired his courageous stand and was prepared to hang on his every word? Not a bit of it. From that moment, I despised him.
Firstly, I’m no feminist and never have been. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, I’m an equal-but-differentist, or would be if such a thing existed. And I have no desire to get my own back on women’s oppressors, if indeed, today, in western society, they are oppressors. I’ve never experienced them as such. I come from a family of women who endlessly smashed their way through the glass ceiling. My mother was completely self-sufficient — a professor — as were my not-over–privileged great-aunts, one a surgeon in Delhi in the early 1900s, with her sisters variously a doctor, a headmistress and a mathematician.
Of course there are women all over the world who have been and still are being cruelly oppressed. Young girls are forced into prostitution by male sex gangs (but there again, so are young boys). In the Middle East there is an entirely patriarchal society, criticism of which frequently prompts defensive references to ‘cultural differences’ — an excuse that’s never wheeled out for the benefit of white working-class men.
In the UK, until quite recently, men — and only men — were conscripted into the army, many to face certain death. And there are men who have been completely cowed and often terrified by their womenfolk. Data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales show that men make up about 35 per cent of domestic abuse victims each year.
And who doesn’t recognise the legendary matriarchs who rule many Indian families? The Jewish mother who controls her husband and the children with a rod of iron has, until recently, been a classic comedy figure. Men’s terror of women has been well-documented, epitomised by those tough old boots of the North, who demanded men’s pay-packets every Friday night. (Remember Andy Capp, the poor beleaguered anti-hero of the Daily Mirror cartoon, whose wife waited at the end of each strip with a frying pan or rolling pin to give him a good hammering because he’d spent too much money at the boozer?) Not to mention Les Dawson’s ferocious mother-in-law and Giles’s Gran in the Express.
There are three reasons men declare themselves feminists. Firstly, they’re frightened. They’re so terrified of women’s rage that they want to make it clear from the off that they’re not one of those abusing, bully-ing men they’ve heard about. They want to ingratiate themselves with women by announcing their reconstructed ideology. Like guilty dogs rolling over and thwacking their tails on the carpet in supplication, they seem to be pleading: ‘Don’t hit me! I’m harmless. I’m a feminist!’
There’s another category of men who simply hate themselves. Little do they know how unattractive this is to women as they announce, thinking they’re being honest, that they’re actually loathsome, vile human beings, horrible people who can’t help thinking about sex all the time, slimy abusive toads, worthless fantasists who, if it weren’t illegal, would, at the drop of a hat, love to be popping out from behind bushes to assault passing women. They go along with the idea that men are the oppressor class, attributing collective guilt to an entire category of human beings. And we all know where that kind of thinking leads.
And finally, there are the ones who declare themselves feminists in order to establish male superiority. They know we’re weak and vulnerable, and they want to take care of us and protect — all of this with the deeply patronising assumption we need protecting. Listen to Robert Crampton, the Times’s self-styled (typically) Beta Male. He always sounds like an amiable bloke, but riddled with self-doubt. Except when it comes to feminism. He clearly wants to be thought of as ‘on side’.
‘I welcome the fact that #MeToo is concentrating on less serious forms of abuse…’ he wrote last year. ‘The vast majority of decent blokes have nothing to fear from a widening of the net. We have, rather, a lot to gain. I don’t want my wife or daughter to be subject to the beeping car horn in the street, the bellowed yell, the growled reference, or the sly, salivating suggestion.’
There’s something about the phrase ‘I don’t want my wife or daughter’ that reeks not of care but of ownership. Far from striking the right-on note that he may have intended, it makes him sound like Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the judge in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial, whose much-quoted opening remarks questioned whether Lawrence’s novel was the sort of thing you’d want ‘your wife or servants to read’.
Isn’t it up to the wife or daughter to say whether she hates being subjected to the beeping car horn and so on? Speaking personally, from my youth onwards, I, like many of my contemporaries, felt extremely pleased to be wolf-whistled in the street and I’ve always walked even taller after the merest mutter of appreciation.
Rather than stop men wolf-whistling at women, what about encouraging women to wolf-whistle at men? Even I, at my great age, have occasionally found myself captivated by some sexy bloke with a beautiful figure, beautiful face and beautiful clothes opposite me on the Tube. I’m no sexual predator, but all I can do on the journey is to stare at a reflection of him in a window with one eye while keeping my other focused on some dreary article in a free newspaper.
Occasionally I dare to say to these blokes, as I step swiftly off the train, ‘I love your look’ (the rather pathetic female version of a wolf-whistle). And in their grateful smiles of pleasure I don’t get the feeling that they feel abused.
Of course we want to be loved for our hearts and minds. But to be appreciated as a sexual object — why not? Admiration is always welcome. The more the merrier.
We women are quite powerful enough not to need men to protect us, like princesses in fairy tales. The reason some men have taken up the feminist cause is precisely because latter-day feminists actually espouse an anti-feminist movement, because in defining women as ‘victims’ or ‘vulnerable’, they infantilise them, making them out to be like characters in a Victorian novel.
No wonder some men want to join them.
Virginia Ironside is a writer, agony aunt and former rock critic. Her most recent book, No Thanks! I’m Quite Happy Standing, was published in 2016.