The Times

Sunday June 20 1999

Rosalind Coward changed sides in the sex war when she saw the problems faced by the men in her family

The Feminist Who Fights for the Boys

In the past few years, I have become very disillusioned with feminism. In fact, I found myself more and more uncomfortable with calling myself a feminist, which is strange because feminism has been incredibly important to me; it was my intellectual and political formation. Yet after 20 years of feeling that it was a struggle growing up as a girl and fighting hard for women's rights, I realised that I no longer accepted the feminist way of seeing the world. It dawned on me that I felt more concerned about what was happening to boys and men.

What had changed? The first thing that made me question my beliefs was the recession of the early 1990s, when a huge number of men lost their jobs. Economic patterns had changed and my partner, John, had a particularly hard time. He was running a company with someone who had a prolonged illness and eventually died. The death was devastating for John and was accompanied by tough times at work. Then his father died, too, and he was left grappling with problems in the business and grief for his dad and friend. On top of all that he was also trying to be a good father to our two children and contribute at home.

It was a very difficult time for all of us and during it, I felt that feminism just didn't have anything to say to me. Feminists were going on and on about work and childcare and average rates of pay. Their refrain was that women should be able to have it all, that they still needed special pleading. "Why won't men pull their weight?" they moaned. "Why do women have to do all the work?" But this just didn't ring true any more. Around me, I saw fathers who were very hands-on and trying just as hard as women to work and be good parents. These men were making huge changes but they were being given little credit for their efforts. No wonder that last week academic research was published showing that contemporary fathers feel under enormous strain.

These days, I am more worried about what the future holds for my son than for my daughter. She will be a working woman and will also have the choice of becoming a mother.But my son, Carl, 14, and his friends face a much more uncertain future. Boys are doing significantly less well at school than girls. The old roles are gone and my son and his peers are thrashing around in a new world in which they feel demoralised, the second sex.

Their feelings are not surprising. Modern woman has an inbuilt moral superiority from which men are excluded: she works, has her family, does everything in the home. By contrast, men are depicted as useless, redundant prats who can't even manage to do the washing up.

>From observing my son and his friends, I see that boys have lost their confidence. Their future is complex and uncertain, their role models muddled: new lad or new man? The old male-dominated career structures are ceasing to exist - there is no guarantee that today's boys will leave school and work to provide for a family. And, more than anything, boys fear humiliation. To expose themselves to the risk of failure is a real problem for boys. Rather than trying, it is easier for them to act indifferent, nonchalant and hostile.

Today's economy is gender blind. Women are no longer discriminated against and men do not get preferential treatment. In fact, there's some evidence that it is the other way round. Today's girls are buoyed up by a tremendous sense that whatever they do is new and positive - the girl power syndrome.

My son and his friends hear feminists saying girls "need extra support and encouragement and positive feedback". Then they look around and see incredibly together, confident girls doing much better than they are at school. Of course they think: "Hey, hang on. Look at how girls get all this extra support and encouragement and positive feedback. But we don't. That's sexist." If I point out that women have been dominated by men for centuries they don't care: nothing will shake these teenage boys from their belief that sexism now operates against them. I have heard my son and his friends say that they think that feminism is sexist. Some women might think this is typical of a kind of laddishness but I think things have changed so much that the boys have a point.

As a mother I am worried about the pressures on my son's generation. They are, I think, tremendously at risk. Boys, not girls, get picked on by gangs of other boys; and it is boys who are much more prone to depression, anxiety and suicide.

What bothers me is the contempt with which feminists treat men and boys. "What woman in her right mind would want to take one of these yobs into her home?" asked Sue Slipman when she was director of the National Council for One Parent Families. Typical. If that wasn't bad enough,

Bea Campbell, a leading feminist said: "What feminists, like women in general, have longed for from fathers is something so simple and elusive - co-operation."

In other words, feminists want men to have a walk-on role! Fathers can be chief bottle washer and pram pusher but feminists are reluctant to admit they might bring something positive to parenting, too.

At this point I have a confession. With my own children, I realised it wasn't that my partner was reluctant to help, but that I was reluctant to let him. I was trying to fulfil all the roles: I wanted to work but also to be in the central place in the home. Eventually, John said: "I don't want you hovering, trying to control from a distance. Let me do it my way."

I think I am typical. It's easy for feminists to say that men come home and put their feet up. The truth is women are often too controlling to let men pull their weight.

Just as women changed dramatically in the 1970s, which had enormous implications for the whole of society, so men are changing themselves in the 1990s. If you look at EastEnders or books such as Nick Hornby's About a Boy, you see men transforming themselves, becoming emotionally in touch and concerned about becoming proper fathers.

Men have begun to transform themselves. Just as we women started to think about our mothers, because a lot of feminism came from a reaction to them, so men are thinking: "I'm not going to be like my father. I'm going to have a better relationship with my kids." But whereas men were generous to women during the transition, women are being horrendously ungenerous to men. I think women are worried that men might manage too well: so well that we will be made redundant.

It would be much easier for me, personally, if I could hang onto the old feminist truths, the sacred cows which form the title of my new book. If I did, I could carry on saying it's harder for me because I'm a woman and to demand special privileges to make up for centuries of oppression. But I don't need special treatment. In fact, I think, women sometimes have advantages.

There is huge hostility to what I am saying from feminists. Recently, when I gave a paper on the subject, two feminists, Polly Young-Eisendrath and Susie Orbach, were very critical. They said that I had failed to acknowledge the continuing subordination of women by men. Didn't I know that women still earn on average less than men? Didn't I realise that women still have to do most of the housework? That they are still raising the children? What I am saying, they told me, only applies to well-off women. The majority of women's lives are just as subordinated as ever.

But surely it depends on how you look at that. Average pay is calculated on time and there is quite a lot of evidence that women are choosing to restrict their hours. I think the key questions for most people, including me, are: how am I going to renegotiate my relationship with my partner or husband? What quality of life can we get when we're both working? What about our sons as well as our daughters? What about their future, too?

For years men have had advantages that women haven't had. Because of that, gender was central to how we experienced the world. Take off the specs. It just isn't like that any more.

Sacred Cows by Rosalind Coward is published by HarperCollins, 16.99.

Rosalind Coward was talking to Ann McFerran

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.