The word "feminism", like "conservatism" and "art" and many other words, can pretty much mean anything you want it to mean. I think it would be nigh-on impossible to disagree with every proposition that has been put forward in the name of feminism. So I could surely get away with calling myself a feminist no matter what I believe. But all the same, I don't. I'm not a feminist. I might even be an anti-feminist.
Why am I so reluctant to call myself a feminist?
Well, one reason is that I always cringe when a man calls himself a feminist. I always suspect he is just saying it to impress some woman, or some group of women.
But the more important reason is that I dislike the whole atmosphere of feminism. And feminism seems to me more an atmosphere than a philosophy. After all, there are so many contradictory schools of feminism. I remember one feminist writer boasting how a journalist had asked for her opinion of Madonna, and how she had flabbergasted him (or so she thought) by launching into a eulogy of the pop-singer. She thought that Madonna was a wonderfully liberated, self-possessed, self-aware paragon of womanhood. Or something like that.
Some feminists seem to think that women should have a place at the table with men (who are all supposedly smoking fat cigars and calling for more brandy). Some feminists seem to want to break up the table altogether and build a new one-- or maybe have everyone sitting cross-legged on the floor instead. Some feminists detest any form of discrimination. Some feminists demand more discrimination. Some feminists seem to think we are all too hung up on the difference between the sexes and other feminists seem to think that we don't take it into account nearly enough. Some feminists appeal to Mother Nature and other feminists seem to think nature is a tyrant to be slain, or else a mere figment of the imagination. Some feminists are pro-life while other feminists seem to base their entire philosophy upon "reproductive rights" (or anti-reproductive rights).
But one thing seems to be common to all feminism, or at least, all of the feminist discussion I've gingerly turned an ear towards. And that is an atmosphere-- an atmosphere of resentment, sullenness, suspicion, self-pity and bitterness. I don't think such an air is ever healthy to breathe.
The beleagured man who reads pretty much any feminist tome soon comes away with one impression; that anything men do is wrong, whatever it is. If sailors affectionately refer to their ship as "she", it is not a sign of respect and affection for the female sex, but rather a form of objectification and condescension. If an Irish patriot personifies his country as Kathleen Ni Houlihan, it somehow indicates a pathological hatred of women. If men exalt the role of reason in public affairs (which I personally have never felt the least temptation to do), they are thereby excluding women. If a man celebrates his wife as the angel in the house, he is demeaning her as good for nothing but housework. If a man shows an intense devotion to the Virgin Mary, he wants all women to be meek and unquestioning handmaids. If a man avoids swearing in front of ladies, he gravely insults them. (Oh, and by the way, don't call them 'ladies'!). If men talk about football in front of their female colleagues, they are excluding them. If they avoid talking about football in front of their female colleagues, they are also excluding them. And so on to the Crack of Doom.
Doubtless I am being unfair to many feminists. But on the whole, I think my description of the atmosphere of feminism is a fair one.
Perhaps my antipathy towards feminism might be pathological. When it comes to the sexes, my attitude of "vive la différence" is so intensely held that I probably over-react to anything that I think (truly or falsely) might be tending to make them more alike.
Nothing gives me more pleasure, in the contemplation of this mighty world, than its dizzy diversity. The wealth of different national cultures, regional cultures and local cultures; the myriad of different ways human beings earn their living, and all the slang and solidarities and stereotypes rising out of those livelihoods; the even more stupendous amount of ways human beings spend their leisure hours, collecting chocolate bar wrappers or carving sculptures from ice or chasing storms; the galaxy of different philosophies of life and of politics and of society, from anarchism to authoritarianism; the uniqueness of every workplace, every family home, every single individual, right down to the way a person chews his spaghetti or names her pet cat.
And all of that-- all of that titantic tapestry of human variety-- seems to me centred on that eternal knot of man and woman. No difference seems more fundamental or fruitful. To untie that knot seems to me the most wanton, life-hating vandalism I can imagine. The difference between men and women is the paradigm of all differences.
So what do I think about women?
I love women. No, I adore women. I have spent vast amounts of time thinking about women and wondering about women and watching women, ever since I was a tyke. I care intensely about what women think and say about men. I always feel mortally wounded when a woman attacks the male sex per se-- I'm not talking about eye-rolling exasperation here, but actual antipathy.
I love the way women talk. I love the way they move. I love the way so many of them make up their faces in public, in such an endearingly unselfconscious way. I love the intensity of friendships between women-- male friendships may be as deep, but they never seem to be so intimate. I love women's love of pretty things. I love their sense of occasion and formality. I love that, when two women are talking about a girly subject, all divisions of age and personality and social status seem to disappear for the length of that conversation. I love women's insatiable fascination with the human interest of every situation, their tendency to ferret out the life history and personal circumstances of everybody they have to deal with.
Are these generalisations? Yes! Are they sweeping generalisations? You bet they are.
I think it would be an awful thing if men and women stopped making sweeping generalisations about each other and themselves, just as it would be an awful thing if the trade in national stereotypes were to cease.
When you think about it, all civilisation is based on exaggeration. The function of architecture is to give us shelter. But what if it stopped there? The function of food is to sustain us. But how much that leaves out! The function of clothes are to keep us warm and (perhaps) hide our nudity. What a bore that would be by itself. The function of transport is to take us from place to place. But how impoverished the world would be without the figure of the train-spotter and the collector of model airplanes!
In the same way, it might be true that the significance of sex differences can be boiled down to reproduction. (Though who knows what horrific Frankenstein bio-technology might make even that difference obsolete, some day?) But why should we lament that men and women, over the millennia, have added layer upon layer upon layer of elaboration to that brute difference? Why should we regret the jokes, the courtship rituals, the codes of chivalry, the gender roles, the taboos, the conventions, the costume, the million other patterns that humanity has spun around the spindle of sex?
I recently read a book about the traditions of Halloween in Northern Ireland. The (American) folklorist pointed out again and again how the various traditions in the province were "gendered"; it was mostly men and boys who built bonfires and exploded fireworks, and it was mostly girls who took part in the divination games which were supposed to forecast your future mate. It seems to me that the spontaneous, healthy instincts of humanity always celebrate the difference between boy and girl, man and woman.
Nor am I "on board" with the various efforts to achieve a mathematical equality between the sexes. Why should we expect that a parliament should have just as many female deputies as male deputies? Maybe men are just better at politics. Maybe women are just less interested in politics. And why should we worry that there are more women teachers or more women nurses? Why can't we accept that women are better at those vocations? Why should we fret about the fact that girls consistently do better at school and outnumber boys at university? Why not just accept that girls tend to be brighter and more motivated?
I think a society without all-girl's schools and all-male clubs would be a poorer society. I take pleasure in the fact that there are all-male and all-female environments, even if I never frequent them myself.
And, yes, being such an enthusiast of social diversity, I am glad that feminists exist-- even the more militant and extreme feminists. They make the world a more interesting place.
But I passionately hope that their efforts to untie the eternal knot of Man and Woman will come to nothing, and that the delicious differences between the sexes will never be done away with.