The truth about men and women
Feminist, activist, optimist - as Lynne Segal takes up her prestigious new professorship, Dave Hill asks her what gender really means in the 21st centuryDave Hill
Monday, December 11, 2000
Guardian Observer (UK)
She is a red-haired, brown-eyed, witty and wise rebuke to those who parody "the feminists" as hard-faced agents of sexual prohibition or as shrieking harpies who eat testicles for tea. On Wednesday, Lynne Segal will give her inaugural lecture as professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, the first in the discipline to take up such a post in one of British academia's most elite institutions.
Coincidentally, it will be almost exactly 30 years since she arrived in London from Sydney, a dissident scholar in her early 20s with a brilliant PhD, a boy baby in her arms and her life a total mess. "I felt so lost and confused, I almost didn't know my name," she says now.
It's been a lively three decades, if not always in the ways Segal would have wished. As an activist, writer and university teacher, she has spent them developing, sustaining and, latterly, defending the kind of feminism she says she was saved by. This begins with the feminism of the 70s Women's Liberation Movement: a feminism that was optimistic, imaginative and inclusive, that said no to sexism but yes to whatever sort of sexual pleasure a woman could find; that took issue with misogyny and male domination, but welcomed engagement with generous, thoughtful men; and that has brought a sometimes dazzling set of intellectual insights to bear on a mixed-up world.
For Segal, the crashing of feminism's "second wave" was not only desirable but inevitable: "It just had to come." The postwar contradictions that blighted women's lives were simply too absurd to be sustained - an insight first acquired through raw experience. Segal grew up in Australia in what she bluntly calls "the usual, unbelievably unhappy family of the 50s" in which her mother "cried herself to sleep every night". She says that in the manner of Jewish families like hers, all three children had to excel in education, but that unlike their older brother, she and her younger sister were encouraged to see futures in which nice, rich husbands would come first.
So, like her compatriot Germaine Greer, just a year or two her senior, Segal discovered revolt. At university, she studied psychology in order to understand people, but found that in those days "psychology meant understanding rats". So she took issue with the subject. Adapting a phrase of Wittgenstein's, her PhD was called Conceptual Confusions in Experimental Psychology ; it had to be sent to the US for marking because no one in Australia knew what to do with it.
Meanwhile, she had fallen in with a group called the Sydney Libertarians who set about "opposing the hypocrisies of those 50s lives: the incredible hypocrisies. That's how I became a progressive person, just trying to expose those vicious little secrets."
At that time she found feminists unnerving. "It was because I loved being the centre of male attention - until I accidentally got pregnant." Under pressure from her family, she spared them the shame of a bastard grandchild by wedding the prospective father. A less suitable husband would have been difficult to find. "It was clear by this time that he was homosexual - a homophobic homosexual. He said: 'If our son is homosexual, I'll shoot myself'."
It was her tormented spouse who finally drove Segal to buy a plane ticket to England. "If I left the house he would start ripping up my clothes and threaten to set fire to the building."
It is a biography worthy of being set to music and sung by Gloria Gaynor. Segal, though, has never been claimed by celebrity. She is a problem for the media because she is unable to provide them with convenient "gender clichés". Hacks and researchers call her on the phone, only to hang up disappointed. "When my book on masculinity came out (Slow Motion, Virago, 1990), they said, well, have men changed: yes or no? What are they talking about? My point is that men never stop changing, just as women never stop changing. And they say, give us the cliché, give us a straightforward polarisation between men and women. And I have to say, there aren't any!"
Segal looks on in frustration at a culture now obsessed with comforting notions of fixed sexual essences, with trying to identify crude oppositions between all women on the one hand, all men on the other. From one direction comes evolutionary psychology, feeding the media mania for genetic explanations, urging us once again that biology will always be destiny in the end.
It's time to thump the table: "As human beings, we are never in any way at the mercy of biology. We are always able to do with our biology what the cultural and social and personal resources available to us allow. Anybody, given the right resources, can be almost anything at all. But here comes Helena Cronin, and here comes Richard Dawkins saying, well, men fundamentally want to do this, and women fundamentally want to do that, and what we've learned - from the Palaeolithic age! - is that this is the way we will be happy. I mean, it could not be more stupid!"
From another direction, bearing the same conservative message, come those who positively live on gender clichés: Greer to shout that girls are much better than boys, Andrea Dworkin to demonise men, Camille Paglia to worship them. By absolute contrast, Segal poses a much better class of question: why begin with difference in the first place? Why be so preoccupied with mapping and defining things that barely exist? "The truth is, there's not that much difference between men and women. The point about being human is we're so adaptable and adjustable. Trying to tell us that there's some fixed way of being anything is always going to be more foolish than helpful."
There is another reason, though, why Segal has not become a star of the dreary old "sex war". It is that she has had better things to do. A conventional cv would say her 70s were spent teaching psychology - her kind of psychology ("They all thought I was nuts") - at what would eventually become Middlesex University but in those days was just plain Enfield Tech. Her greatest energies, though, went into grass roots politics in Islington, in women's centres, alternative newspapers, childcare facilities, socialist societies. "We tried to create a community, crossing as many lines of class, race and sex as we could. We were on the side of the dispossessed."
This grass roots socialist feminism achieved its greatest visibility when incorporated by Ken Livingstone into his Greater London Council in the early 80s. The establishment harrumphed, yet the crumbling of the left was already under way. In 1980, at the instigation of friend and ally Sheila Rowbotham, Segal had helped author Beyond the Fragments, a pamphlet arguing for broad alliances among trade unionists, feminists and left political groups. A subsequent conference drew an encouraging attendance, but the sectarian die was already cast, including within feminism. "From about 1976, if you went to a women's liberation conference, you'd have a pretty lousy time. You'd just become engaged in the fiercest rows, usually with separatist lesbians."
A desire to challenge the retreat of feminism into identity politics and defensive fundamentalism has informed much of Segal's more recent writing. Slow Motion was followed by Straight Sex (Virago, 1994) which defended the legitimacy of women seeking heterosexual pleasure, skilfully exposing the reactionary heart of the "radical" school of feminism, with its bleak insistence that heterosexual intercourse is, and only can be, the enactment of oppression. In these books she maintains the common threads of all her deeds and thinking: a refusal to believe that humankind is fixed by nature and an absolute conviction that we may still be authors of our own histories.
Her most recent, Why Feminism? (Polity Press), remakes the case for a dynamic feminism that rejects pessimism and becomes once again a "movement of transformation", able to liberate both sexes from the tyrannies of labour, of fear and, of course, gender. She looks at younger women struggling to Have It All, and the fears daily expressed for and about men and boys, and believes she just might have a few suggestions. It's a grim comment on the times that so few powerful people want to know.