In praise of older feminists

It’s a rite of British public life to be on the butt end of Jeremy Paxman’s theatrical contempt (Newsnight, Monday-Friday BBC2). It’s more cathartic than illuminating, a national ceremony in which the mighty humble themselves. Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, submitted himself to it on March 2, part of his taking it on the chin over cutting some BBC output. Interviewing him, Paxman ridiculed the previous evening’s BBC4 menu – repeats, and an animal documentary called Paws, Claws and Videotape. A shrewd jibe: BBC4’s audience remains small and no one likes intellectuals, for whom the channel was created.

But it was an empty jibe. Even on that uninspiring BBC4 evening, one of the repeats was a lovely Storyville film, Rise Up Reggae Star. The Storyville strand of documentaries is worth the licence fee alone. At its best, BBC4 does two big things: it showcases material – such as the French detective show Spiral and the transcendent US series Mad Men – which gains a wider following, and it puts on stuff that prods you to think. One example of the latter is Women (BBC4 Mondays).

The three-part series is what the filmmaker Vanessa Engle does best. She points the camera at people and lets it linger. From behind the camera, she goes through a repertoire of probing questions.

Last week’s opening episode featured the veteran founders of the feminist movement – Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn French, who has died since the documentary was made, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Ann Oakley, and Sheila Rowbotham. All – as Engle’s camera and insistent interviews revealed – could be falsely self-deprecating, sincerely arrogant, touchy and sometimes oddly (for liberationists) embarrassed when talking about sexuality. But you became aware, too, of these women’s achievements, both in their once-untiring activism – marches, occupations, confrontations – and in their writing. All but Brownmiller, who worked in television, were or are academics, and their books were weapons of mass destruction of a time when men still commanded and women obeyed.

To be sure, they did not acknowledge that the changes with which the programme credited them were already in train and that they – largely graduates of elite universities – had greatly benefited from them. They exaggerated the submission of women in the 1950s and 1960s: the social reforms of the postwar era had increased their rights and status, and were continuing to do so. But their courage and energy probably spurred these reforms. More, it shamed men of reasonable good will who had accepted unthinking superiority at home and at work; most of all, it gave women of their and later generations a sense that they should not take it – “it” being a place and a role defined in advance.

Feminism and gay liberation have been the two shock-and-shame transformations delivered to the postwar generation of heterosexual men in wealthy societies. For many of their, and even the next, generation, feminists were infuriating ball-breakers; facing the ridicule they evoked demanded the courage they showed. Bit by bit, a response of defensiveness or hostility passed on to recognition and came to full-throated acceptance.

In the second of the episodes, to be shown next week, you will see the contemporary descendants of what some 1960s feminists hated: the wives and mothers, still caring, cooking and cleaning. But carping? Hardly ever. In one case, a successful illustrator and businesswoman and her house husband have reversed roles; she doesn’t know, nor cares to know, her daughters’ shoe sizes.

In several instances, both partners work and share tasks. In more examples, the woman has chosen to rear two or three young children and has come to an explicit agreement with her partner that this is her domain, while earning a living is his. In only one case – that of two surgeons – does the woman point out, forcefully (with her husband present) that she does all the organising (they have a 12-hour-a-day nanny); in another, a wife is gracious while her lawyer husband, who seems an arrogant sort of a chap, says that he has never cleaned the tub after bathing, expecting “it to be done”.

The final week’s episode is as fascinating – though with longueurs – focusing on the small feminist movement that still exists. The members are mainly young (in their twenties and early thirties); a conference in autumn 2008 attracted 150 attendees.

Their activism is engaged mainly against sex shops, pornography and strip clubs; they express loud disgust over tabloids such as the Daily Star; they picket a lap dance awards ceremony. They don’t have the intellectual heft of those women who could be their grandmothers; their own mothers, interviewed by Engle, usually don’t see what the fuss is about. The shallowness of much of it repelled: I wished these younger women could discriminate more between lads’ mags and rape, between the Daily Star and forced prostitution. As Engle’s unsparing camera and questions gravely note, they can wear short skirts and paint their nails red, and deny these are sexual signs. But, if all over the place, they are, at the least, generous-minded.

And they made you think: illuminating more than cathartic.
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