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Brendan O’Neill on ‘new feminism’

In his recent long article, Brendan O’Neill attempts to account for the success of  what he terms ‘new feminism’.

One of the most striking things of the 21st century so far has been the rise of feminism. No other movement enjoys as much political, cultural and media validation right now as feminism does. Things have gone so far that when British PM David Cameron refused to pose in a t-shirt that said ‘This is what a feminist looks like’, he got flak. So entrenched is the new feminism that, now, not being a feminist can land you in hot water.

(Although I think he exaggerates the degree to which opposition to feminism is pathologised or even criminalised, it’s true that ‘anti-feminism’ was equated with racism by the ECTR.)

I am most likely to agree with Brendan O’Neill on the issues where my own views/biases are non-fashionable.  With that thought in mind, perhaps it’s a promising (secularist) straw in the wind that he recently deplored criticisms of the ultra-Orthodox school which objected to women drivers.

In this new post some of his targets seemed misplaced.

UN bodies and NGOs already execute their global agendas in the language of the new feminism, using terms like ‘female empowerment’ to promote population-control measures and the policing of men in much of the global South.

The link goes through to an anti-Malthusian piece.  But supporting women having more control over the number of children they have is not generally motivated by a wish to control population.  Here’s a more balanced perspective.

O’Neill finds the popularity of ‘new-feminism’ a strange anomaly:

The rise of this new feminism in the West is strange, for two reasons. The first is that all the other political movements of which feminism was once considered a close cousin have withered. Student radicalism — of the progressive variety — is a thing of the past. Left-wing groups continue to shrink. The anti-war movement is a shadow of its former self.

But anti-racism and LGBT equality campaigns are comparable movements with wide support.  O’Neill’s explanation for the popularity of ‘new-feminism’ lies in his sense that it dovetails with anti-enlightenment thinking:

This view of feminism not merely as the securer of equality for women but as exposer of the dangers of the industrialised, Enlightened worldview has been a theme for some years. The Stalinist feminist Beatrix Campbell takes aim at ‘modernity’s Faustian recklessness’, at ‘the sexism — and destructiveness — of modernity’.

Male’ modernity wants to produce and grow and control nature, whereas ‘female’ thinking wants to force humanity, in Rose’s words, to ‘recognise the failure [of humankind’s] stiff-backed control, its ruthless belief in its own mastery, its doomed attempt to bring the uncertainty of the world to heel’.

I share his dislike of this latter trend, but am less convinced it is the answer to his search for an explanation for new-feminism’s popularity – partly because I don’t think the intersection between feminism and anti-enlightenment thinking is so marked.

Perhaps another (partial) explanation for the apparent popularity of ‘new-feminism’ is that, like some other equality campaigns, it is compatible with – and I know this is a rather annoying word – neoliberalism. A feminism which is mostly concerned with ‘cultural’ issues (though I think BON overstates the dominance of this strand of feminism) doesn’t challenge business interests in the way, say, trade union activism might do.

Here, in a related discussion, Aidan Beatty argues that support for gay marriage (while extremely welcome) and other campaigns affecting individual rights may be a mask for different kinds of inequality.

From a neoliberal standpoint, this is a remarkably convenient way to address a thing called “inequality.” In Ireland, where economic inequity has only gotten worse since the collapse of 2008, many people, including those in government and business, can take solace in the fact that debates over inequality focus so strongly on the personal rather than on larger structural issues of wealth disparity, unemployment, or access to housing and health care.

But I think I agree with Brendan O’Neill that one reason for feminism’s (partial) shift to areas of culture/discourse may be explained by the many successes feminism has achieved particularly, though certainly not only, in the West.

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