December 10 2000
Fighting the fundamentalistsNeil Lyndon
The Sunday Times
The bankruptcy order made against me in August 1992 was No 213 of the Ipswich county court. I shall not forget that number. Nor shall I forget the moment when the house I had loved most out of all my houses, the one in which I had hoped to live the rest of my life, was repossessed.
I am equally sure I will always remember where I was (sitting on a bed with a rose-patterned spread, in a hotel in Manchester, on a tour to promote my book) when a lawyer in Edinburgh told me that the Court of Session had awarded full custody of my son to his mother.
Those were among the more pointed consequences, direct and indirect, of the articles and the book I wrote about feminism in the early 1990s. Other effects took more time. For four years, I was enmeshed in divorce, custody and access proceedings that must have cost about £60,000 in legal aid. The professional and social ostracism I had earned continues to the present day.
Having kept the company, through my journalistic work, of presidents, Nobel prize winners and Olympic medallists, I was reduced for years to writing about motorbikes and cars (I am very fond of motorbikes and cars but never expected that they would become the only subject I would be allowed to write about).
Troublesome as they were, these consequences were trifling compared with the effects on my son, who had been abducted to Scotland under the pretext that my views of feminism made me unfit to be his father. He was estranged from me for six years and we were not to see each other at all for 2½ years. When he was taken from me, he was a little boy who still liked to hold my hand: when he came back, he was 6ft 3in and his voice rose from some depth below his boots. In the meantime, he had been confined as the sole companion, supporter and carer of a woman who drank so much that she was frequently incapable of driving him to school in the morning or of picking him up in the evening.
Without my having any voice in the decision, he was entered on an assisted place at an HMC school in a small town in Perthshire. This school, which proudly boasts about its excellence, apparently not only failed to notice that he was often standing outside the gates at the end of school for more than an hour waiting to be collected. It also saw nothing unusual in an average of 20 days' absence per term (those were days when his mother couldn't get him to school or she was so paralysed with drink that he had to stay at home to care for her).
The rector (head teacher) of that school went along with my ex-wife when she insisted that I should receive no information about our son and he even refused to promise that the school would let me know if my son was hurt in an accident. It was obvious that he regarded me as someone who had placed himself beyond the bounds of decent society - hardly surprising, after the furious attacks and condemnations that had been published about me.
As the 1990s went on, therefore, I had plenty of reason to be sorry that I had ever given any thought to feminism and I did get angry with myself for some of the ill-considered things I had written. If I could, I would have wanted to go back and expunge whole passages from my earliest articles on feminism. These were not, however, the parts where I had expressed doubts or dissidence about feminism, still less the overall case I had gathered. The sections I regretted were those where I had shown respect for the intellectual body of feminism, where I had uncritically endorsed any of its claims.
I mentally kicked myself, for instance, that - as a slack-minded graduate of the hippie school of politics - I had ever casually borrowed the feminist language of oppression to talk about the position of women in earlier ages and other societies. How could it possibly be true or fair, I began to wonder, to say that my grandmother, who had eight children, was more oppressed than my grandfather, who worked six 10-hour days every week in a factory and also had eight children? Did either of them oppress the other or were they merely presented with conditions and ways of life that were unavoidable and natural to their time?
Was their eldest son Tom the beneficiary of a patriarchal society when he was blown to shreds near Amiens in 1918, three months after his 18th birthday? And was their youngest daughter, my mother, more the victim of oppression when she was working in Marks & Spencer and married before she was 20?
As my scepticism grew, I found it embarrassing to realise how uncritically I had acquiesced to feminist ways of looking at the world. Once I started thinking more independently, however, it was exhilarating how quickly the feminist view fell apart.
For instance, the more I thought about societies other than our own - societies in the past, societies in other parts of the world - the clearer it became that the order of relations between men and women was determined, above all, not by the power-lusts of men, as feminists were wont to say, but by the availability of reliable birth control. Where women could not control their fertility - as in the West before the 20th century and in parts of the Third World today - they were inevitably confined within a domestic life. When women could control their fertility, they automatically gained admission to the public life from which they had been excluded - education, employment and political representation.
The class war between the sexes that had been declared by Engels and trumpeted by Germaine Greer and her 1960s sisters was nothing more than a historical and intellectual misprision - like something nasty on the pavement that had got stuck as human beings paced along and was difficult to scrape off.
The longer I went on thinking about feminism, the more I found that I doubted everything. It even happened that an ultimate Heresy of Heresies edged its way into my mind. Had I become the vessel of Lucifer himself when I began to question how much influence the suffragettes had, in fact, exerted to bring about votes for women? In what perverted state of mind would a man have to be to think such a thing, questioning the standing of the greatest saints of feminism?
Well, perhaps everybody should try thinking about it. The franchise was first extended to men in Britain in 1832 but universal suffrage for men of 21 years of age or over was not introduced until 1917. Only 11 years later voting qualifications were made equal for men and women. The normal view of this history is to say that suffrage for women was delayed and resisted by a male establishment desperate to retain its powers over women.
Another view is possible. You could say that the most striking feature of this history is the speed with which change for women was introduced and accepted. If you take that view, the history of women's suffrage is, among other things, a tribute to the willingness of men to embrace change for women. Men such as Gladstone and Disraeli did oppose votes for women (partly because they were toeing the line drawn by Victoria); but it is equally true that men were among the most active advocates of change for women. After Mary Wollstonecraft, the most influential 19th-century promoters of women's suffrage were John Stuart Mill, John Bright and Richard Cobden. The first British women's suffrage association was founded in in 1865 by John Stuart Mill - that rotten old patriarch.
Why, then, do we continue to teach our children in school that women got the vote only because heroic suffragettes rose up and tore it out of the ungiving hands of horrible men? The answer is, I think, that there is much about feminism, about the apparent victimhood of women, that our age profoundly needs to believe and we are determined to believe it regardless of reason, evidence and truth.
As Bertrand Russell said in Sceptical Essays: "The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders' lack of rational conviction." That remark applies generally to feminism. It applies in spades to the phenomenon of domestic violence.
In the mid-1990s, I co-wrote an article which proved that a number of accepted feminist claims about domestic violence were false. For all the difference it made to what people believed then and believe now, I might as well not have bothered.
This article in The Sunday Times was written with the statistician and social analyst Paul Ashton. Drawing upon published and reliable research, we showed that only 5% of women claimed to have been attacked by the men they live with. This compared with 11% of men who claimed to have been attacked by the women they live with. Violence seems to be at least as common between gay couples as between men and women and, whether between homosexuals or heterosexuals, violence in the home usually follows the consumption of drink and drugs. In some measure, domestic violence, like much other violence, can most usefully be seen as a correlate of excess drinking and drug-taking.
In other words, this article showed that women are not so much in physical danger from the men they live with as everybody has been led to believe; and it also showed that domestic violence is a more complex subject than we have been given to understand.
How much difference did these interesting findings make? Not a jot. In newspapers and on television, domestic violence is broadly portrayed today in exactly the same terms as it was 30 years ago, when feminists began to monopolise the subject. Campaigns supported with public funds such as zero tolerance continue to allege that one woman in four suffers domestic violence - even though there is not one scrap of dependable evidence to support that claim.
Police forces continue to report the number of calls they receive asking for help in domestic conflicts as if those numbers give a reliable picture of domestic violence (they don't). Decent people everywhere believe that good, defenceless and non-violent women in millions are knocked around by brutal men ("everybody knows men in the northeast beat up their women" protested a lady editor on The Independent when I wrote a piece for it about domestic violence).
Our society has sealed its mind shut on the subject of domestic violence and no argument, no evidence will open it. We profoundly would prefer not to know anything that contradicts our beliefs.
That, in my experience over the past 20 years, is true of feminism as a whole. My sorest self-reproach is that, when I was younger, I really did take it for granted that, as feminists claimed, feminism was a catholic body of thought, with sophisticated intellectual standing. I believed - because they assured us that it was true - that feminism was open to debate and was evolving through argument. My experience has taught me that feminism is more accurately described as a closed system of prejudice which its adherents are terrified of opening to question.
Take, for example, my friend G. She is a university teacher. When I first met her, more than 20 years ago, she described herself as a Marxist feminist. During the decades we have known each other, I have moved from a general conformity with feminism to a position of outright opposition. G still describes herself as a feminist (the Marxist tag seems to have slipped off some time ago) and it is obvious she still likes me, but what is most peculiar about our friendship is that she will not read my book.
I gave her a signed copy. She promised to read it and send me a letter, setting out her disagreements (the implication was that she would put me right on my errors). She never read the book. I kept on nagging her and teasing her and, year after year, she would say "I'll definitely read it this summer" or "I promise I'll read it by Christmas". Ten years have passed. I think it's safe to assume she is not going to read it. This is peculiar. The etiquette between friends who write books is well understood. The author gives a copy of the book to the friend. The friend then reads the book and concludes the transaction by telling the author that it is wonderful. The process is then ready to be repeated in reverse.
I have read G's books. She won't read mine, even though she knows that I, her old friend, believe my book to be the most radical, progressive and egalitarian critique of feminism published in the past 50 years. G was not the only one of my friends who would not read my book. Nor was she the only one who promised to write a letter and defaulted (two other academic feminists made the same patronising undertaking and never delivered). But she was the only one who gave an insight into her reasons when she said: "I am afraid to read it in case it makes me think that I have been wrong all these years." She cannot afford to have been wrong.
She is in her fifties, internationally recognised in her field, on course for a chair if she wants one, perhaps a peerage, certainly a spot on a quango or two. Her entire career depends upon the veracity of the feminist viewpoint. If she had to change her mind about the fundamental claims of feminism now, all the work of her adult life would have to be re-examined. It might turn out to be worthless. She dare not face that risk.
An entire literary, journalistic, academic and political establishment in Europe and America now takes the central components of the feminist ideology to be unquestionable articles of faith. That establishment stretches from the German Greens to Tipper Gore. It includes both Blairs and both Clintons (probably not a Putin). Its members cannot conceivably embark on an intellectual re-examination of the credo they have shared since they were young. They have too much to lose.
Take editors like Rosie Boycott of the Daily Express or Janet Street-Porter of The Independent on Sunday; take columnists such as Polly Toynbee of The Guardian or Jenni Murray of Woman's Hour and the Express. Every week, their work includes some direct or tacit reassertion of feminist principle. It is as likely that they might reconsider the notions that have propelled their professional lives as it is that the Pope might own up to having second thoughts about women priests. Feminism will remain a forceful element in the establishment's attitudes so long as the present generation of feminists, now in their fifties and sixties, retain their powers (not much longer, therefore, thank God).
A review of my book in the New Statesman asked, incredulously: "Does Neil Lyndon really imagine that we are all going to say that we were wrong about feminism and think again?" Something like that had indeed been my hope when I wrote No More Sex War.
How hopelessly naive I must have been to expect that the 1960s and 1970s generation of leftists - of whom I was one - might think again and admit the possibility that they (we) might have been mistaken. The beautiful people of the 1960s, the generation of love and revolution, do not have it in them to admit error about anything at all, least of all feminism. If they were mistaken about feminism, somebody might see that they actually have been wrong about everything.
Feminism was the last remaining conceptual spar from the wreckage of the 1960s to which that generation was clinging. Though we might not admit it, we had achieved nothing to change or stop the progress of the Vietnam war.
The cold war had threatened the extinction of the planet and then come to an end without its leaders showing any susceptibility to the thoughts of our generation. Far from ushering in a new epoch of love, peace and a saintly renunciation of property, my generation had let in Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and then taken material greed to new heights. Former hippies became billionaires and competed for the most exclusive possessions. Former revolutionaries spent fortunes on cocaine and exercised their free-love philosophies on each other's spouses.
The changes that had incontestably occurred in the position of women were my generation's only claim to have achieved anything lasting in the world. If the assertions of feminism should turn out to be bogus - if it was recognised that women's lives had changed for reasons that had nothing to do with feminism - my generation's most radical and original contributions to the political world would be the penological thoughts of Jack Straw, George W Bush and Ann Widdecombe.
I think that was one of the reasons why, when my book was published, the establishment of beautiful people closed together to annihilate the danger that it might have posed. Their desperation not to allow debate was startlingly naked. "What I hope most of all is that people will not read this book," said a feminist on Start the Week. The feminist QC Helena Kennedy even included my book among her selection of books of the year in a newspaper's Christmas list and urged readers not to buy it.
There was an incidental benefit for me in this expulsion from London's fashionable media establishment. It also freed me, at last, from my lifelong attachment to the left.
Having joined CND in 1961 when I was 15 and dallied throughout my teens with the Young Communist League, the left had been my political family home all my adult life. All my closest friends share roughly the same kind of political history.
Belonging to the left must be like being a Catholic or a mason because it imposes a permanent sense of collective loyalty and mutual admiration. I always be-lieved as an automatic creed that, as a Cambridge girlfriend said, "the best reason to belong to the left is that you meet the nicest people there". No doubt Young Conservatives feel the same thing about each other but there was a particularly powerful tribal sense of belonging about the 1960s generation of the left. Anybody who had been on an Aldermaston march with the Committee of 100 (I had), to Grosvenor Square in 1968 (I had) and to the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 (I had), had secured lifelong membership of a political and social club that may not have been as exclusive as the Athenaeum but whose members would ultimately wield serious power.
When I published my book, I effectively tore up my membership card for that club. Just as those bastards turned their malevolence on me, so I washed my hands of them. My book had been, in many ways, a characteristic product of the 1960s and was written in the authentic voice of that generation - egalitarian, libertarian and absolutely non-sexist. It had been intended to reinvigorate discussion about gender on the left, instead of which it was denounced by leftist halfwits, most of whom had not read the book, as being right wing.
I was glad to free myself from those people, even if it meant that I would never write about anything in the future except cars and motorbikes. If that is my punishment, I can take some more of it.
Meanwhile, things have been looking up. Nearly all the inequalities for men that I described 10 years ago have been recognised to some degree and are being considered. Last week, the government announced proposals to give fathers paid leave when their babies are born - a recommendation that I think I was the first to make in 1989. Last week on Woman's Hour, Jenni Murray gave a grave hearing to a medical expert who said that men's illnesses were neglected because, as a society, we prefer to see women as being natural victims. This is precisely what I was ridiculed for saying in The Sunday Times Magazine in 1990. I do not see any immediate sign of ratification for my idea that every MP's job should be shared by a man and a woman, thus eliminating the gender imbalance of parliament; but it has only been 11 years since I first advanced this suggestion and changing parliament, as the suffragettes discovered, takes at least half a century.
So far as the position of men and boys is concerned, I am more optimistic now than at any time in the past 15 years because it is obvious that rapid change is in the works.
For myself, too, some improvement can be reported, if anybody is interested. The 1990s continued to visit upon me some trials that might have tested Job. These included the death of a baby in 1994; a near-fatal accident in 1995 when the horse I was riding was hit by a lorry (my skull was saved by my riding hat but the horse's pelvis and spine were smashed and he had to be destroyed); and the failure of another marriage, which finally broke under the strain of so many relentless troubles.
But my son and I were reunited at the beginning of 1997 and he came to live with me later that year. During the years when we were apart, I once told an Edinburgh barrister that I imagined and feared that my son's circumstances might be so nightmarish that he could be thinking of killing himself.
The advocate's reply began: "Setting that aside . . ." When my son and I were reunited, however, and he began to talk to me about his life in the previous six years, it became apparent that my most terrible fears were not far from the truth. When he was still only 14, he had been contemplating the possibility that he might end up in care.
I had the great good luck to be able to look after him for the last three years of his school career (he stayed at the same school in Perthshire, where the rectorship changed hands). He is on his way to university now and, so far as I can tell, he seems to have survived intact the unendurable horrors of his earlier life. When he left school, his school magazine described him as "the star of his year both intellectually and personally: one of those comparatively few pupils whom many teachers will always remember." You might guess that I am proud of him.
So the only regrets that I am left with from my years in the lists with the feminists are that I wish I hadn't held back so much and been so polite about feminism.
And, yes, just in case anybody is wondering, I have got a lovely girlfriend. "Magical," my son calls her. Some guys get all the luck.
© Neil Lyndon 2000
Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.