Women's Rights

Neil Lyndon’s No More Sex War 22 years on.

I don’t remember the furore caused by this book on its first publication. However my interest was sparked by this recent article and I bought the new revised edition, which includes some further articles and reflections, on kindle. Lyndon quotes an unnamed feminist on Start The Week saying: ‘What I hope most of all is that people will not read this book’ (10%).  I agree with Lyndon that this seems a daft response – if his arguments are so bad, surely they can simply be demolished? So – I’ve now read the book.

As I began to read No More Sex War, I was reminded of the arguments used by some counter-jihadists.  Their implacable hostility to Islam arises (in part) because they only accept the most austere interpretations as truly Islamic.  The book opens with an assurance that he fully supports the advances women have made over the last hundred years or so, but goes on to describe feminism as a form of ‘totalitarian intolerance’ comparable to Nazism or Stalinism.  This suggests a ‘no true feminist’ fallacy is at work here – liberal feminists aren’t really on his radar.  He also claims to have been attacked and vilified ‘more violently and unscrupulously than any writer in English in the second half of the 20th century’ (2%) – what, more than Salman Rushdie?

Lyndon opens the book by airing some reasonable concerns, and ends with some reasonable (or at least inoffensive) possible solutions. But, in the middle, he lost me rather.  He begins by describing how, in his 1990 essay ‘Badmouthing’, he observed that men were viewed in the media as problematic – slobbish, violent and mentally inferior (4%). Both this point, and the other issues he raised in that article – child custody and boys’ education, neglect of medical conditions associated with men, male victims of domestic violence – seem worthy of serious consideration.  It also seems correct to argue that, even historically, gender inequality doesn’t only disadvantage women (5%). But his version of feminism does seem a bit of a straw woman – most feminists don’t say, or think, that ‘all men are rapists’ (6%). Neither do most women think J. S. Mill a ‘rotten old patriarch’ (8%) or deny that many men have supported women both individually and collectively.  Patriarchy is viewed by feminists – some of them at least – as a system which harms both sexes. Lyndon has a tendency to make fair points and then alienate the reader through overegged rhetorical stridency – he is overfond of terms such as ‘harridans’ which I found off-putting even applied to women I also dislike.  However I certainly understand (as would many other feminists I am sure) why he is angered and frustrated by, for example, Rosalind Miles’ statement that ‘To explain violence is to explain the male. The reverse is also true’. (18%)

Some who identify as feminist, or at least find Lyndon’s complete condemnation of feminism puzzling, may still find things to agree with here. For example I agree that it is no more defensible to leap to sneering assumptions about a man’s sexual inadequacy when you don’t find his arguments palatable than it is to use a woman’s looks or personal life to invalidate her views (11%) I also agree that he asks valid questions about inequality with regard to child custody and retirement age. But then he leaps to the unnuanced conclusion that the ‘cardinal tenets of feminism’ are ‘bunkum’ (12%). Here’s one problematic moment in his argument – he offers a crude definition of feminism which includes the tenet ‘That one half of humanity (men) was inferior’ (26%), and then says that feminists who claim they aren’t that sort of feminist are being evasive rather than sincere: ‘If we cannot agree basic terms of definition, we are prevented from arguing further over interpretations’.  (Going back to my counter-jihadist analogy, I suppose us puzzled liberal feminists are just practising some kind of feminist taqiyya.) But why should I have to accept Lyndon’s definition of feminism?  Actually – I’m not that bothered.  If what he calls feminism is what I call radical feminism or just stupidity, then I don’t mind being classed as a non-feminist in his taxonomy.  But it does seem a bit like only accepting the SWP as the authentic left.

Lyndon’s understandable reaction against intolerant radical feminism seems to have led him to want to discredit feminist ideas in their entirety. For example he argues that advances for women can be attributed to better birth control rather than to feminist activism. It doesn’t seem accurate to say, as he does, that advances for women went ahead smoothly with male approval once babies were no longer such an issue. Suffrage, the right to a university education, the right to enter certain professions  – all took much persuasion. He claims that women automatically gained admission to the public life from which they had been excluded (8%) once they could control their fertility.  But in earlier centuries childless women were deprived of equal work and educational opportunities, not just women with children. Young women attending Cambridge in the late nineteenth century weren’t routinely having babies, but Philippa Fawcett still couldn’t officially be classed as the Senior Wrangler. And today, in countries where birth control is freely practiced, women’s opportunities remain severely circumscribed.  Birth control isn’t such a panacea, from a feminist perspective, as Lyndon seems to think. Rights to maternity pay, job protection and of course equal pay all had to be fought for separately.

Lyndon thinks women have farmed out too much ‘women’s work’ to low paid carers and cleaners and proposes an alternative solution whereby both mothers and fathers work part time and share responsibility for child care. (I don’t think he engages with the issue of single parents at this point.)  He blames working women for reintroducing a servant class (45%) which he sees as a regressive step.  I think it’s fine to question such arrangements and propose something better, but today’s working mothers don’t (or shouldn’t) have special responsibility for employing domestic help – in a dual income household both parents should be seen to be equally reliant on childcare. Lyndon suggests that women’s increasing participation in the labour market was a function of capitalist requirements (46%).  If this is the case – and it certainly seems that two workers are needed to maintain a lifestyle earlier supported by one – why not blame capitalism rather than sneer at and demonise middle class women for finding the idea of a professional career more inviting than housework? And if contraceptive advances have been of most benefit to bosses, rather than female workers, doesn’t that mean that one of Lyndon’s core theses (controlling fertility was the key to women’s advancement) is misplaced? In his sneers at working women who benefit from domestic help, Lyndon seems to be reversing the problem he perceives with feminism – blaming one sex for complex and systemic problems in society. However I completely agree with his dislike for the strand of feminism which maintains that ‘feminine’ virtues, embodied in women, should be promoted in order to rid society of its ills.  Such generalisations are insulting to both sexes. Whereas some have a misplaced faith in supposedly ‘feminine’ qualities, others betray a disdain for skills associated with femininity, even while ostensibly promoting feminism.  For while there is great concern over low numbers of women choosing engineering and other traditionally male careers, men’s under representation in some arts and humanities subjects is rarely seen as a problem.

Lyndon points out that many of his arguments have now been accepted – one example being paid paternity leave (10%) – even though they were greeted with ridicule at the time.  I have sometimes thought that men’s rights activists (and I’m not saying this is the right label for Lyndon) were a bit like suffragettes, raising legitimate points, not always doing so in a well-judged way, often greeted with derision or fear, but also, perhaps, shifting views on certain issues. Although he wants to dismiss feminism in all its forms, I think many of Lyndon’s ideas (such as sharing childcare) are feminist – I suspect he’s a ‘liberal feminist’ by the standards of this questionnaire. Mind you, according to this quiz, I’m an anti-feminist.