Feminists barely acknowledged the significance of what we now know to be the momentous changes which were taking place around them and because of them. The changes were seen as either not deep enough or in danger of being overturned. At the very moment when feminism could have changed its rhetoric as many of its objectives were being met, there was instead a reassertion of its basic propositions. Why?

When I announced to friends and family I was resigning from my civil servant job to travel with my wife Stephanie to Australia, many asked what I would then do when I got here. I explained the procedures required for making a visa application to stay in the state, that I would probably not be able to work for several months at least. Quite a few folks that I spoke to about this became alarmed for my future prospects. So I was just going to sit at home while my wife went out to work? What about my morale, how would I fill my days?

Personally I saw an upside to all of this. The chance to read as much as I like – hence this blog. Maybe even improve my writing – the #Nanowrimo competition was a godsend. As the months have passed though I do find myself regretting not having a professional income, that sense of achievement that comes with a salary, an acknowledgment of the work you have done. Volunteering has filled a gap I did not anticipate. At no point have I thought of myself as less masculine because of my financial circumstances. The received wisdom, despite the advent of contemporary feminism entering the mainstream, remains that the breadwinner for a household has the authority. And authority, as any traditional feminist will tell you (and on that point their Right-wing opponents agree) is first and foremost an expression of patriarchal power. My relationship with my wife, our desire to live as equals regardless of our circumstances, I realize is quite unusual for many people.

Rosalind Coward‘s book argues two main points. Firstly that feminism has achieved much for women that feminists themselves rarely recognize. To do so, it appears, would be to admit that the disparity between the genders has lessened. This, in turn, would weaken the force of the feminist argument. Her second main point is that in engaging the political right in this continuing argument of extremes – single mothers are the greatest problem facing society; masculinity itself is under threat; women who wish to ‘have it all’, are merely greedy – feminism itself has been caught in a reductio ad absurdum. The dialectic has been beached on confrontational bear-baiting by both sides.

The caveat to this is of course that feminism as a whole is not guilty of this. Just that the most visible proponents of feminist theory in the media continue to repeat the same aphorisms as if nothing has changed. Women in the workplace who balance their family lives with their careers are noticeably quiet. The position of men could be said to be under threat, because they in turn have not chosen to review their status in a changing world.

I fear I am putting words in the author’s mouth. Coward discusses how social inequality, that stalwart point of Left politics, has been replaced by politically correct musings on the nature of the family as an essential element in society. The role of the father, by this rationale, has been undermined, leading to youth crime and failures in education. She notes at one point that while feminist theory once pointed to the poor exams results of female students as proof  of discrimination, similar results attributed to male students from the 90s onwards have been dismissed.

Indeed Coward terms ‘womanism’, as the assertion that where men once assumed an innate superiority over women, now the fairer sex has been proven to be on top. The notoriously anti-feminist Margaret Thatcher is nevertheless embraced as a symbol of the capability of women to rise to the top.

There is a failure to recognize that while historically power may be said to be gendered, the desire for power is not.

Coward examines not only contemporary academic works on feminism, but popular novels such as Erica Jong‘s 70’s classic Fear of Flying and changes in media such as the ‘Diet Coke Break’ ad campaign, to demonstrate how shifts in culture have occurred, but the rhetoric has stultified.

Refreshing and challenging.