There is happy news for misogynists on International Men’s Day. The feminist movement is splintered between the third wave — the shopping and sex positive wave — and the fourth wave: the angry intersectionalist wearing knitted vaginas when not on Twitter wave.
The goals are unclear. Do we want equal pay and equality of caring responsibilities — my dull Generation X ideal — or do we want a revolution that will, among other things, abolish all prejudice, and many men?
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Two new books poke the swamp and lead me to the conclusion: we aren’t really at war. We are, rather, in furious agreement with each other.
The first is The Book of Gutsy Women: Favourite Stories of Courage and Resilience by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. It is an epic made of fake humility, for these are feminists of the most important kind. It is a 442-page homage to “brave, resilient women”, including Mary Beard, whom AA Gill called too ugly for television, and Greta Thunberg, for obvious reasons. Ellen DeGeneres is included because she makes Hillary laugh, and because some people, including Hillary, think that celebrity endorsement doesn’t make feminism look ridiculous, but they are all wrong. Consider, for instance, Angelina Jolie and various drooling male politicians failing to stop rape in war. They didn’t stop rape in war because they were busy staring at Angelina Jolie, who was also the reason they turned up.
Mostly though, it is about female pioneers; it is possible that DeGeneres was the first ever person to make Hillary laugh. And, if you can bear the earnest and repetitive prose in Gutsy Women, a world of female humiliation almost emerges from its pages, because it often sounds anaesthetised. The female Clintons are attacked so often for being both Clintons and female, their writing seems designed entirely to pre-empt attacks, which is a tragedy. They have produced a glassy and humourless plea for justice, and that is interesting by default. You could call it the book of multiple Hillary Clintons, all brave, all wronged, reflected back at her.
There are nurses and inventors and minor politicians who suffered because they were women but endured anyway – as she did. It is the book of them, and of herself and, because of that, it is a minor masterpiece by mistake.
It is also Chelsea’s manifesto to the future, since it is clearly designed for the generation who will be, when she inevitably runs for the presidency, her constituency. It is garnished with respectful wokeness; it is filled with minorities, as it should be, and, since Hillary and Chelsea have met so many of their living heroes, Gutsy Women sometimes reads like a gossip column written for the female masters of Oxford colleges plus Angelina Jolie who did not stop war rape and instead made Maleficent 2: Mistress of Evil.
“Decades after her place in history was secured,” Hillary writes, “Rosa [Parks] came to Washington to sit with me at the 1999 State of the Union”. From bus to Hillary Clinton’s side: this self-importance may irritate you. But, as we learnt in 2016, the alternative to this kind of feminism — which is probably the most effective kind, since it can potentially legislate, and what else matters? — is worse. It is Donald Trump, the fish-faced enemy of the people, and the loss of everything feminists dreamed of. Against that, Twitter and knitted vaginas don’t have a prayer. Politics is about seducing your enemy. At least Hillary and Chelsea know that.
Gutsy Women doesn’t tell you anything that you could not learn from Wikipedia; even so, these are stories worth knowing and it is a fallacy of the age that you should reject truth if you do not like the mouth that it is spoken from. I am bored with telling people that just because the Daily Mail prints something, it is not automatically a lie. The same is true of the Clinton women. When they write, “Ensuring the rights, opportunities and full participation of women and girls remains a big piece of the unfinished business of the twenty-first century,” they are correct. They are irritating, and they are correct.
Which brings me to Meghan’s Daum’s fabulously titled The Problem with Everything: My journey through the new culture wars. Daum is, superficially, very different from the Clintons. They are sense and sensibility, poverty and largesse. But as I read Daum’s prose grumbles, I thought: they are not so very different. It is the presentation — the pitch of the wail — that is different.
Daum is a novelist, and The Problem with Everything is head-banging memoir; memoir being the perfect genre for neurotics. As it opens, she leaves her marriage and returns to New York, the city of her youth, to see Clinton lose the 2016 election. Clinton’s fall mirrors her own.
The internet — the crucible of madness — is destroying her mind, as she tries to replace her husband with the so-called “intellectual dark web”, a group who exist to prod the “woke autocracy” and question their certainties. All these women have suffered from the internet. When we look back, we will view this period of the technological revolution as the time we lost our minds. I hope that it is temporary. If it isn’t, we are lost.
Daum finds that she hates fourth-wave feminists — the screamers, the weepers, the women who cannot call a taxi when a date goes bad. They imagine themselves violated instead and seek to make the bad date responsible for every man who ever hurt a woman, which is a mad and pointless solidarity.
Daum screams instead for nuance, which is both typical of a modern polemic, and very funny, because she is as baffled as they are. Her dislike is not terribly convincing; it lives only at the edges. She begins her narrative as a liberal and she ends it as a liberal; everything else is grumbling. The woke, meanwhile, emerge as idealistic and traumatised. It is really the diary of an internet-themed panic attack, and on the internet, you hate everyone. That is normal. That is healthy.
This memoir is about ageing; just as the very different responses to #MeToo were largely generational. Older women, who suffered a thousand misogynistic wounds and loved their armour because, if you wear it long enough you cannot imagine yourself without it, often insulted the younger supporters, because they were not prepared to tolerate what they had tolerated. To me, this is internalised misogyny, the common cold of the feminist body because most of us catch it; we tolerated it, so why can’t you?
Of course, the fourth wave are irritating; they are supposed to be irritating. They are young and grammatically incontinent, and they pretend to be certain about everything, because they aren’t. Of course, the pendulum has swung too far. It had to, or it would not have swung at all. #MeToo was a correction to a system which smashed women’s dreams and impoverished them — the facts are all there in Gutsy Women, under the glassy prose — and it was always going to be painful.
The truth is that it is becoming less acceptable to crush women with their gender, or minorities with their status; it is becoming clear that Hillary was, actually, right all along. It was her turn to be president; and it is our turn to be paid the same as men and not be groped at the office unless we wish to be.
Why should a feminist revolution be perfect? It is a screaming pile of internalised rage and fear — can Daum not read the fear in young feminists, can she not allow them to be wrong? — and as long as the correction corrects itself, and it will, we will have made progress. I wish Daum had more faith in that. I wish Hillary could grumble more. She has lost the gift of rage. Daum, meanwhile, has lost the gift of hope.
So, here are three writers of imperfect feminist propaganda, which have more in common than you would think if you read their precis; or four if you include the Clinton’s “collaborator”, who probably wrote most of the book, which is, whatever feminist wave you surf, hilarious. Feminism should not seek perfection, but allies. That is clear from these unhappy books. When it reaches for perfection, it fails.