To mark International Women’s Day, I decided to attempt a conversation about feminism with my wife. I reproduce it, or a version of it, here. I should say that I offered her the chance to write her own words, but she declined, reminding me of her low opinion of journalism. You can ventriloquise me, she said — isn’t that the sort of thing you claim to be quite good at? To put my opening words in context, I had just brought her a cup of tea in bed.
Me: I know it’s early in the morning, but what is feminism?
Wife: Go on then.
Wife: I suppose you have some new theory you want to tell me about. Go on then, let’s see where you’ve got to.
Me: Well, OK. I was thinking, feminism seems to be a mix of two things. It’s a movement that opposes sexism, that wants certain political and cultural changes. But some of the things it complains about can’t really be changed by any political reforms, so it’s also a wider statement that women are disadvantaged by their biology.
Wife: So it’s women whinging?
Me: Er, well my point is that the practical political agenda is doubtless largely justified but it can never really be satisfied, because it blurs with the biological side — and it’s a fact of nature that women have periods, and give birth, and maybe also that they’re objectified by lusty men. So the result is that being a woman is seen as a sort of victimhood that has the righteous aura of a political cause, but can never be politically solved. And in our era having that claim to victimhood is actually a major psychological advantage.
Wife: And that’s unfair on men. Poor men. Have you been watching Jordan Peterson clips again?
Me: Yes, in fact, I re-watched the Cathy Newman interview. And I felt it’s pretty odd the way she keeps trying to raise the gender pay gap. As if it’s so obvious that being a woman gives her the moral high-ground. She personally is not a victim of the gender pay gap, as she earns far more than the average man — but…
Wife: Let’s not get into this again.
Me: Well it raises the question of who has the right to feel aggrieved. If middle-class women go around sounding angry about women earning less than men, while actually earning more than most men who hear them, that’s a problem, isn’t it? It causes resentment, ill-feeling.
Wife: They’re entitled to express solidarity — and even if they are not disadvantaged in that respect they share in the wider issues…
Me: Do they? Surely a middle-class woman is not really disadvantaged by her gender — except in terms of biology.
Wife: Well there are structures that impede women’s career progression…
Me: How have you been negatively affected by such structures?
Wife: Um, not in any obvious way.
Me: Right. So all I’m saying is a privileged woman should be wary of speaking like she belongs to some morally righteous cause like she is one of the oppressed. It’s like me claiming to be oppressed because I’m a Christian, as Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world — that would be grotesque.
Wife: First, calm down, you’re shouting. Second, you can’t separate the biology and the culture, and women do still have major disadvantages relating to the fact that the world has been designed by men. So feminism is saying, let’s restructure things to accommodate women.
Me: OK, but the biology is a given.
Wife: Yes, and women aren’t complaining about their biological difference, or they shouldn’t be. We’re proud of it. We’re saying let’s have more autonomy over how it works.
Me: OK, but you’re also claiming a sort of aura of moral righteousness, as if all the goodness of humanity resides in your gender.
Wife: Well, that’s a natural corrective to centuries of men defining moral righteousness in their terms.
Me: OK, so I’m ready to move on from that and say that it’s bad for either gender to lay claim to moral righteousness.
Wife: That’s big of you. But there’s still this huge inheritance we have to oppose. What you don’t even begin to understand is that the world just affirms you, in terms of your gender, it’s made for you. And we’re still partly in opposition, all the time.
Me: Go on.
Wife: For example I will sometimes have this intense vulnerability, and sadness, this overwhelming mood, and then I realise, oh it’s my period. So every month we’re reminded we’re part of nature, not detached rational individuals in the same way you are…
Me: Right, that’s biology. So you’re complaining about your natural characteristics.
Wife: No, we’re pointing out that the world has been built around seeing women’s bodies as weird and problematic. It’s been built by male logic, it sidelines the way we are. And that subtly disadvantages women in terms of things like career progression — things are organised around ignoring such natural cycles — why shouldn’t things be organised around women having time off each month? And why should it be so problematic that we have a break from our careers when we have babies? But it’s wider than any particular issue like that. It’s that all of civilisation is in tune with male logic, male detachment from nature. And feminism is saying 'Let’s restructure things to accommodate the female experience of life'. And that’s a massive shake-up that the conventional structures keep wanting to resist. It’s a system that wants to perpetuate itself, and it’s responsible for lots of the ways the world is screwed up.
Me: The patriarchy?
Wife: Sure. If women ran things all along, we’d all be like Red Indians! It sounds trite but women are more in touch with nature, they can’t slip into the detached abstract mode so easily. And I realise that’s not ideal for men — you’re more alienated, and it makes lots of you miserable and nuts.
Me: But what also contributes to men feeling miserable is a sense that women are the good gender, that being female is belonging to this great moral cause. As if all the old idealism of humanism is now taken away from men, but given to women. So they’re affirmed and celebrated in all these ways, almost like it’s our new national religion — they’re special, they’re deep, they’re brave, and by implication men are not.
Wife: Where’s that littlest violin?
Me: Well hang on why is that a bogus gripe? Surely it is a bad thing if our culture vaguely allows moral righteousness to belong to one gender — the other will be demoralised, literally.
Wife: Yes, it’s crude and clumsy but it’s a way of breaking with the past. Sorry chum, it’s the war of the sexes. It’s a way of saying to men 'wake up from your assumptions that you are the owners of the world', that your logic is king, that your viewpoint is the natural one. And you’ve internalised that in a hundred ways, you’ve been educated to think you can rise above nature and see things as they really are.
Me: But you’re implying men have it easy, but they evidently don’t — plenty of them struggle to feel at home in our culture, the suicide rate’s higher, they do worse in education…
Wife: Yes, things can go very wrong for men, but for women there’s a sort of built-in insecurity, by virtue of their bodily existence. As a woman you know that the carpet can be pulled from under your feet any minute.
Me: What carpet?
Wife: Your being accepted as a serious person, having authority, the right to be there. Someone can suddenly make a comment that declares that women are sex objects, not people with authority. That can’t happen to a man. You remember that guy at work? For some reason he was suddenly talking about thongs, you know, the stringy underwear, in front of the whole office. He said, ‘The thing about thongs, they look great on Kylie Minogue, not so great on Ann Widdecombe.’ And it was like he’d suddenly rubbished the whole idea of a woman having authority, being seen in terms of her engagement in the world of politics or work. That’s what we’re contending with, that’s what semi-justifies the over-the-top adulation of women. Because without our constant effort, we’re back in our box of silly totty or ridiculous old hag, it’s like Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit — that way of seeing us is suddenly re-imposed, despite official talk of equality. And men have been bred not to notice that whole drama, to think we have no grounds for complaint any more, so we have to drum it into you — drum, drum, drum. Women are great, women are great, women are great.
Me: Are you drinking your tea? It’s getting cold.