John Lennon

Eamon Delaney in The Times.ie

‘Woman is the ni–er of the world’, sang John Lennon ruefully once and its a line that I often think about, especially lately.

Its a shocking line and meant to be : Lennon was using the nasty slur about black people by those who would push them down and he was basically saying : there is an even bigger underclass than people of dark skin and it is 50% of the human race – as in, your sister, your wife or your mother. Women.

The fact that Lennon’s partner was the avant-garde modern artist Yoko Ono, and that they were a loving couple,with a great influence over each other, added to this bitter perspective. The fact that Lennon said it in 1972 but that it is still partly true shows how far we still have to go.

I think of the line because in recent years, such has been the focus on the rights and equality of almost every group and community, from LGBT subsets to those with disability, impairment or a past incarceration in an institution, that you sometimes wonder : what about all the great mass of humanity called women?

Well, now things have caught up, and we are living through another wave of feminism. As someone who watched my mother reading original feminist texts by the likes of Betty Freiden and Gloria Steinem – and the Irish variation in Mary Kenny and June Levine – I am amazed that this battle is still being fought.

But something happened in the meantime, not all of it the fault of men. The progressive decades after the counter-culture of the 1960’s were replaced by a strong anti-liberal reaction and a rampant commercial culture which proclaimed individual freedom – and the right to be sexist – as well as a marketing strategy, which said depicting women in glamourous and even sexist terms was something consumers (including women) seemed to like.

Indeed, women were often part of this counter reaction. Many of my mother’s generation, felt ‘well, we’ve achieved our goals broadly speaking so everyone can relax now’.

Clearly, this was not the case, and now there is a renewed battle over the depictions of women in mainstream culture and over the actual status and responsibilities they can attain. Incredibly, we are still arguing about equal pay for equal work, with nebulous arguments about maternity leave being used to justify gender inequality.

So the great value and purpose in much of current feminism is to be welcomed – on women’s roles, and on pay and promotion. However, like many men, I would be a bit wary of the more strident assertions made by some feminists, especially around the area of sexual relations, and about some of the alleged depictions of women in media and politics.

On the bigger issue, however, it is hard to believe that women have been shut out of positions of power for so long. And our institutions and society have also suffered as a result. Female qualities are sorely missing from business, politics and governance, and I genuinely believe that we would not have as much testosterone-fuelled war and conflict in the world, for example, if women had more influence on things.

In Northern Ireland, the Women’s Coalition in the 1990s – like the Woman’s Peace Marches in the 1980s – were genuinely constructive and broke down tribal sectarian barriers, But then such macho barriers reasserted themselves and women were sidelined again. War is a male pursuit – from US foreign policy to Islamic radicalism – and for centuries it was treated like a sport, and still is.

The worst of it is that women have to women pick up the pieces after men’s wars – literally. In Africa, the women toil and struggle to provide for their children, while men go off killing each other. Some disagree with this by citing strong female leaders like Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, who also waged war. But these are exceptions. Thatcher also signed peace agreements, after all. She is also often rejected as a feminist icon because she is on the right, which makes no sense.

At the risk of stereotyping, women tend to nurture and are cautious, while men assert and take risks. The writer Garrison Keillor has a great line about the schoolyard and all the boys are running around pretending to shoot each other, while the girls are building huts and feeding their dolls. Who do you think should run the world?

But its more than that. Its also about communication- the staple of our modern era. Women are usually more direct and responsible and less inclined to waffle. On RTE radio last Sunday, John Bowman’s archive programme was about Conor Cruise O’Brien and the amount of pomposity and self importance was astounding, from all the voices, which were, of course, entirely male.

This is why the Dail, and even more so the UK House of Commons, is out of date with the parliamentary culture in the rest of Europe which is more considered, cooperative and non confrontational precisely because of strong female representation. Bears pits are macho things of the past. After the leader’s TV debate in a recent UK election, the female leaders of the Greens, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru gave each other hugs while the male politicians looked on agog.

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So the maturity and constructive difference that feminism brings is long overdue and still to be developed. However, merit and actual performance are also important. And there is tendency now to sometimes claim that a woman is being treated unfairly because she is a woman, in comparison with a man. Certain Irish politicians and their supporters have played this card and its too easy.

In terms of image and appearance, much of the conditioning, towards feminine ‘standards’, is done by women themselves, be they stylists, editors or image makers, and not by lazy men. Indeed, in many ways, things went backwards in the 1990s, which had a sort of post-modern, ‘its okay to be laddish but also to be a chick’ attitude. It was a case of ‘get your high heels on and forget about po-faced progressiveness’.

But things have changed again. And this which is why when it comes to sexual behaviour, men can be a little confused. They would feel that some feminist voices are more painting all men as nasty and sexist predators, as much as it is about securing safety and equality for women.

Granted, there are very serious issues to be addressed in terms of sexual behaviour, and public depictions of such, but there is a danger that we will row back on personal choice and freedom – including and especially for women themselves – and create a new era of Victorian morality with the added ugliness of easy male bashing.

So let’s hope the bigger valuable goals of feminism, in terms of society and skills, don’t get lost in a row about censorship and policing the bedroom.

 

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