Joanna Williams, Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars. Emerald Publishing, 2017
When I was a youngish academic reviewing a book of legal essays, I remember being nonplussed by a leading-edge feminist writer who, in the middle of some dense and abstract prose, criticised a previous (fairly eminent) author she disagreed with on the basis that he seemed to have got stuck in an empiricist time-warp. At the time this struck me as odd: in normal intellectual life, the reasoning ‘if my theory doesn’t fit the facts, there must be something wrong with the facts’ doesn’t sound very promising. But then I wondered if there was some deep feminist insight I’d missed, and concentrated my criticism on other matters.
If Joanna Williams’s splendid book Women vs Feminism has done one thing, it is to give me confidence and persuade me that I was right first time. As she points out, it was a feature of the so-called second-wave feminism of the 1970s, to which the writer in question belonged, that its adherents did indeed claim the right to reject traditional knowledge structures, including empiricism, as simply a reflection of a male-dominated hierarchy. It followed that any properly liberated woman who knew her Horkheimer from her Habermas was, in her own terms, entirely entitled to disregard any mismatch between theories and old-fashioned evidence. Of course, the difficulty is obvious: as soon as one moves away from discussing things at least against a background of verifiable facts, then argument of any sort becomes impossible. But for some kinds of feminists that’s no difficulty at all; indeed, it is an inestimable advantage. Once you can claim for yourself the right to reject as patriarchal constructs all the fact-based intellectual premises we are used to, or that women think differently from, and better than, men, they can never be refuted: which, of course, makes it all the easier to demand that their point of view be accepted as entirely valid by government and civil society.
The joy of reading Joanna Williams’s writing is that you quickly realise that she represents a rare combination. She knows her feminism theory inside out, from Mary Wollstonecraft to the mysteries of intersectionality theory, not to mention the problems of how to construct a feminist theory in these days of gender fluidity and the right to self-declare as almost anything; she believes in old-fashioned equality; and yet she also sees immediately where contemporary feminism becomes misguided and pernicious. For example, it is now easy to forget that women actually have the upper hand in much of the medical and legal world; that much the same goes for students in most schools and universities; and that, properly looked at, the ‘gender pay gap’ trumpeted by activists and academic bodies who should know better, such as the universities’ silly and costly Equality Challenge Unit, shows no evidence whatever of male prejudice or structural female disadvantage. Again, Williams brings out the embarrassing fact that for feminism to show it still has a worthwhile role, its proponents are constantly having to find new ways of making women feel unhappy, put upon and victimised, and to seek out ever more novel and convoluted forms of perceived oppression. More seriously, a feature of this is that with every passing year feminism is itself becoming more withdrawn into itself and less attractive to the average woman in the street. It is increasingly showing itself as po-faced, prudish (witness #MeToo), and authoritarian (indeed sometimes violent: remember the TERF wars of 2017?). At the same time it resorting to ever more trivial matters to make its point: the lack of pictures of women on banknotes, the design and colour of baby clothes, song lyrics, and so on and so forth. The brouhaha over Sleeping Beauty and the shock horror of its supposed support for sex-pestery by embodying a stolen, non-consensual kiss unfortunately came too late for inclusion: but it serves to illustrate all too well the sorry state to which contemporary feminism has reduced both itself and the females it claims to champion.