Feminism in the 21st century

Lynne Segal, professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, speaks to Dave Hill exclusively for Guardian Unlimited

Dave Hill
Monday December 11, 2000
Guardian Observer (UK)

Dave Hill: Tell me about the theme of your inaugural lecture. What lies behind the title: Back To The Boys?: Temptations of the Good Gender Theorist?

Lynne Segal: Well, although this is a rather august occasion, there's obviously a tease in the title. Should we be going back to the boys? Why is the gender theorist, who of course came out of women's studies, talking about men and masculinity at all? That's a serious issue for some feminist scholars, who fought hard to set up women's studies programmes in the 1970s, usually only found a home in the academy in the1980s, and didn't appear in the old universities ­ if at all - until quite recently.

Moreover, that move has accompanied a switch of designation from women's studies to gender studies, incorporating the immense interest in men and masculinity, burgeoning since, and only since, the 1990s. Some feminists see gender studies as a way of sidelining women and the problems they still face, while allowing men into the spaces which women fought to open up. But I don't see this, in itself, as such a serious issue, because as I see that feminist scholarship now has emerged within all the disciplines. Or at least, that's what we're fighting for, and that's the important thing.

DH: Your most recent book asks the question, "why feminism?" But what is feminism these days? And why is it relevant to today's society?

LS: Lots of people like to see feminism as part of the problem of the present overloaded working day. Both the workplace and the home are now such demanding and divided terrain to occupy. If we want rewarding jobs, we're all expected to be able to sacrifice our home lives for them.

And feminism is blamed for this, as if all we wanted was to exchange our primary concern for the home for career success. In fact, of course, what feminists fought for was the negation of this: to make the demands of the job better suited to the demands of the home and participation in wider community life.

And we wanted the joys and burdens of caring for ourselves and other people, of raising our children and building communal lives to involve men. This meant shorter working time, shorter working days; men as well as women helping to create richer lives for all. And in that sense, feminism failed.

Nothing upsets me and those feminists I was closest to more than to see how we are nowadays portrayed. We hardly have been more concerned, or emphasised more often, that in trying to create a new world for women we were creating a new world for men. If you read what people like Sheila Rowbotham wrote, there's no mistaking it. Nobody's saying, "Right! All women into the workforce! We can all work longer hours!"

DH: What do you make of the recent appearance of some prominent women in public life, as in the House of Commons or the House of Lords?

LS: It's a question of how one looks at it. Another way in which 70s feminism has been caricatured is by naming it "equality feminism". It is an odd move, when its goal was to transform the world, not just see women in powerful jobs.

But, of course, I'm I want to see women on top, women having it all, if they can, and want to. But at the same time I think any formal equality agenda misses out on much of the feminist project.

But the first thing to notice, of course, is that prominent women MPS have come and gone rather fast. And when they go there's usually a lot of sneering following them - whether it's Harriet Harman or Mo Mowlam. You almost hear the top boys' sighs of relief. Blunkett or Brown never seem to be in the same sort of jeapody, and when Mandelson went he popped up again pretty fast. The women don't.

DH: Well he's gay so that's all right, isn't it? [Laughter]

LS: Except that gay men, too, may yearn for all the symbolic trappings of manhood. Women in power come in for more stick. It's the contradictions which women so obviously represent once they are in positions of power. It's very easy to attack the powerful woman, who should carry the burden of representing the softer, gentler values - wherever they are!

DH: How do you evaluate the current anxieties about boys and their performance in schools?

LS: Just a few months ago Blunkett was fulminating about the fact that equality had gone too far in the schools, and there was going to be a serious backlash. A backlash? This was all because 0.6% of boys - less than 1% of boys ­ for the first time ever, had done worse at A-levels than girls!

Nothing could be less enlightening here than to make a gender comparison, blaming the girls and the attention they receive, rather than make the more relevant comparison between boys, to see which boys were failing and why. That, of course, would bring out factors about class, about neighbourhoods, about state schools - all the things that Blunkett himnself is responsible for. He's simply refusing to tackle the problem.

DH: Blair seems to vacillate over the kind of man he wants to be seen as. It's partly just trying to be all things to all people - as politicians must. But you know, he's the man who takes a bit of paternity leave but not too much in case it looks bad. There's this anxiety about giving it up isn't there?

LS: That's right. Again it comes back to the question of "what is masculinity?" Well, it is primarily about what it a man is not: not feminine; not passive; not gay; not subordinate.

Showing you are not anything which could be seen as inferior. And this goes very deep.

There's also nothing new about it - it's always been there. Nowadays there's more and more work being done on the history of manhood. Youšll find it was the same a hundred years ago: this fear of effeminacy; fear that you had to take the boys away from their mothers or else they wouldn't be manly enough to out and defend the British empire.

Indeed, it's thought to be why the empire was lost. There's always been this horror and fear that men won't stay on top. It's also just as traditional to blame all social problems on women, and women usurping men's place.

DH: I'm fascinated by the David Beckham phenomenon, the whole public performance. I think the hatred he inspires in some men is about more than jealously over the fact that he's rich, talented, married to a pop star and got sent off in the World Cup.

I think it goes much deeper. It's to do with the fact that he is a tough, competitive, aggressive athlete and at the same time a devoted partner and father, vain, beautiful - all those "feminine" things. People just can't stand him being both those of qualities simultaneously. It's breaking all the rules. It literally horrifies them.

LS: Yes, he's in women's space as well isn't he? He exemplifies the problem all men face on a smaller stage. Because in a sense the more tough and manly you are, the more danger you face, as figure of fun, object of desire, or some other negative.

Just look at Sylvester Stallone, grunting, suffering, flexing his muscles and preening like a beauty queen. You're absurd, and displaying masculinity itself as a joke, as not something to be taken seriously.

But also, the only way we can know things are securely masculine is if they occur in a space that women, or anyone else who can be seen as inferior (whether black men or other subordinated groups of men) are excluded from.

And that's why football, in its media versions, can be a place that substitutes for masculinity. You have to have this space that excludes women, and then what men do there can be solidly masculine!

But no place ever eternally excludes women, or gay men and their desire, or the desire of straight men for narcissistic mirroring. That is the basis of homosocial. bonding. For men to identify with other men, they must not fancy them. But, of course, they do. And so homophobia also has to be written into the script of what it is to be a man.

DH: But boys and young men have got to find new ways of being men, haven't they? They're not all going to be footballers? They're not even going to be coalminers either, are they? Or website millionaires?

LS: That's the problem. What are they going to be? Well, the first thing they've got to see is it's certainly not going to be very different from what the women in their groups are going to be.

They hopefully want to have meaningful jobs. They want to have good relationships, and more equal relationships, if they are to happy relationships - unlike the unhappy homes I and so many of us came from. And they are hopefully going to find ways of raising children not in poverty.

There you are. I think that covers the lot, doesn't it?