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August 27, 2001

Icons of feminism rue their legacy

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Amid the gushy sentimentality that permeates the Hallmark store near where I work, amid the cutesy stuffed animals and the guardian angel pins, a serpent lurks. It takes the form of a 3-by-4-inch gift book titled What Women Say About Men. Within its 70-odd pages there's Lady Nancy Astor remarking: "I married beneath me -- all women do." There's Roseanne Arnold insisting: "A good man doesn't just happen. They have to be created by us women." And Madame de StaŽl declaring: "The more I see of men, the more I like dogs."

Eight years after it first appeared, this toxic little volume is still in print -- presumably because it sells well. Which helps explain why, at Scotland's Edinburgh International Book Festival earlier this month, Doris Lessing became Britain's third prominent female writer in as many years to issue a passionate plea on behalf of men and boys. She is, she says, "increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed."

Following the publication of her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, the now 81-year-old Ms. Lessing became a feminist icon. But after watching the women's movement transform much of the Western world, she says something went terribly wrong along the way.

There are "many wonderful, clever, powerful women everywhere. But what is happening to men? Why did this have to be at the cost of men?" she asks. During a recent visit to a class of 10-year-olds, Ms. Lessing saw the female teacher "telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit, while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologizing for their existence."

Fay Weldon, the author of such novels as Down Among the Women and Female Friends made similar remarks in a May, 1998 Harper's Magazine essay. While acknowledging the low status of women in countries such as Afghanistan, Ms. Weldon says feminism has gone too far in Britain, and that the pendulum "needs nudging back to a more moderate position."

Somewhere along the way, she says, the "gender switch was thrown" and it became men who were "slighted, condemned by virtue of gender to casual and automatic insult. 'Oh men!' say the women, disparagingly. Males hear it all the time, in the workplace and in the home, at the bus stop and over the dinner table, and suffer from it. No tactful concessions are made to male presence. Men, the current female wisdom has it, are all selfish bastards; hit-and-run fathers; potential abusers/rapists/pedophiles; all think only with their dicks, and they'd better realize it."

Ms. Weldon has little patience for people who consider this fitting payback for the sins of these men's fathers. " 'Serves the men right,' I hear the women say. 'We're glad if they suffer a bit, after all those centuries! Give them a taste of their own medicine.' Except, except!" she protests, "Feminism was never after vengeance, simply justice ... 10 wrongs don't make a right. And since the men seem too terrified to speak, or are too extremist to be taken seriously, someone has to speak for them."

A year later, that someone was Rosalind Coward, a columnist with The Guardian and the author of books such as Our Treacherous Hearts: Why Women Let Men Get Their Way. After devoting 20 years of her life to feminism, Ms. Coward says she no longer finds it relevant. In July, 1999, she told The Sunday Times she now feels "more concerned about what [is] happening to boys and men."

After watching her own husband and others struggle through the economic recession of the early 1990s, Ms. Coward says she realized feminism had nothing to say about men who didn't fit the patriarchal oppressor mould. "Around me, I saw fathers who were very hands-on and trying just as hard as women to work and be good parents," she says. "These men were making huge changes but they were being given little credit for their efforts."

While Ms. Coward says she has few worries about her daughter's future since today's "girls are buoyed up by a tremendous sense that whatever they do is new and positive," boys are a different story. "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 demoralized, the second sex."

Feminism was never supposed to be about beating up on little boys. When astute social commentators such as these begin warning it has come to this, it's time to give the matter serious consideration.

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