Christopher Owens with his thoughts on a book that slams the feminist movement.
No doubt some will look at that title and laugh.
I mean, the notion that women know what they want! And the implication that there is a limit to this wish list! Come on!
But the subtitle ('Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism') not only dispels those initial thoughts, but induces a double take: why would any woman want an end to a social/political movement that has helped bring them equality?
Known for her editorial work for Spiked, co-curating the Battle of Ideas festival as well as her various appearances on the likes of Sky News, Good Morning Britain and Scotland Tonight, Ella Whelan has been sharing her views on class, due process, society and the state of modern feminism for quite a while. Therefore, it makes sense that she wrestles with these concepts in book form.
She lays out her intent in the introduction with a missionary zeal:
This book hopes to explain that ... contemporary feminism is a far more complex - and problematic - movement than a simple desire for equal rights. Contemporary feminism is the modern, free-thinking woman's worst nightmare. From calls to regulate sex and relationships on university campuses to banning adverts for making women feel bad, feminism has become the antithesis of women's liberation ... women are encouraged to see themselves as under threat from men, society and even themselves.
A tall order, I'm sure you'll agree.
Beginning with the never ending co-option of feminism by everyone from Kristen Stewart (the one in Twilight to both that your daughter hated) through to Obama and Nick Clegg, Whelan argues that this has led an over-simplification of the message of feminism and also a widening of the parameters for policing. It's certainly a compelling argument, which also has a class element to it as well (well off, well educated famous people who are infinitely better than me, lecturing the plebs on why they should think a certain way).
The chapter outlining the battles involving free speech and contemporary feminism (taking in Trump, pornography, the internet and pick up "artists") is a whirlwind of viewpoints (some grotesque, some innocuous, some miniscule in relevance) all given the same hysterical treatment by the gatekeepers of contemporary feminism: That's Offensive!
Going through each segment with obvious contempt, but also with a passion for freedom of speech, Whelan deconstructs the obvious and the insidious. In doing so, she portrays a divide between the demands of well paid, middle class feminists vs. the rest of the population. These people view population as a monolithic blob that all feel the same way about everything, and they think that, by exposing people to views they don't approve of, this fragile blob will instantly start parroting these views. Which is rather insulting when you think about it, the overall message being "you're not capable of thinking for yourself."
Moving onto "gross-out" feminism, which celebrates self-obsession in periods, body hair and the right to engage in photographing bare breasts (unless it's Page 3/lad culture style, which is bad). It's a depressing section as the reader is forced to come to terms with the realisation that there are people out there who genuinely believe that such actions are inherently political and therefore "progressive".
Concluding with the relationship to sex, the supposed gender pay gap and motherhood, Whelan (like her colleague Claire Fox) has come up with a book that takes on strands of modern thinking and feminism, shows them to be vacuous and paints a picture of a movement which has regressed since the 1970's. Her open rejection of the label 'feminist' (which differentiates her from the likes of Camille Paglia) is probably something that quite a few women feel (and indeed, there have been quite a few online personalities who identify as conservative leading the push) but maybe do not express for a variety of reasons.
Coming in at under 100 pages, the book could have been much longer (another 100 or so pages) and could have seen Whelan discussing the likes of the Dagenham strikers in 1968 and how these women set off a chain of events that led to Parliament passing the Equal Pay Act of 1970, or even the importance of women in the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement in Dublin. In both of these cases, working class women stood up for themselves, their families and their communities and faced down political establishments that wanted them to stay put. Perfect examples for Whelan to discuss in here.
Also, and more of a minor point, the cover is fairly ropey, looking like something done in Photoshop in five minutes by a kid looking to demonstrate the hollowness of modern art by reducing it to a few squiggles. Maybe it's meant as a joke on "chick-lit" books (the notion that women will buy any old shite if the cover has pink in it). Either way, it vastly undersells the book.
Still worth devouring, and prepare yourself for a few arguments if you find yourself reading it in public (like I did).
Ella Whelan, 2017, What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism. Connor Court Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1925501476
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.