Does Feminism Discriminate against Men? A Debate

August 14, 2008

It is tempting to dismiss this volume as part of the well-documented backlash against feminism, but that would be unfair to James Sterba, who argues that feminism has rightly challenged the various forms of discrimination that women face.

But of course this very comment appears to demonstrate the kind of prejudice that his co-author Warren Farrell outlines. In order, therefore, to allow that Farrell might have something to say, we are drawn into considering an argument that suggests that in all sorts of ways - for example, promotion in the US military and unequal (that is to say favourable to women) treatment in law - women are now vastly more privileged than men.

Men, according to Farrell, are seldom given credit for their hard work, their commitment to their family and willingness to carry out useful tasks around the house.

It is unfortunate that Farrell's section of this book is written in the style of Reader's Digest in the 1950s ("Three hundred things you need to know about Communism"). There is a breathless display of statistics and evidence, all of them pointing to the demonisation of men by feminist interests within various social institutions. In the welter of information, there are three aspects of Farrell's case that are particularly contentious: the assertion that men are misrepresented in the media; that interpersonal violence is as dangerous to men as it is to women; and that "care work" is as much done by men as by women. I would argue that in all these cases - at least in Britain rather than the US - Farrell is wrong, a view shared by Sterba.

So the book could provide (and perhaps this is its justification) useful reading for a kind of slanging match about gender. But I would suggest that, among those who want to discuss questions of feminism, very few people think in the confrontational terms that are set up in the very structure of this book and so vehemently expressed in its first section.

It is a great shame that debate about gender and feminism should be presented in this way because it reproduces some of the worst excesses of binary arguments about biological difference. Despite all the protestations Farrell makes about his commitment to the "female" worlds of home and family, there is a sense in which the arguments set out here return endlessly to a world of static, highly essentialist simplicities. The second-wave feminism that he is so cross about did not just happen because feminism wanted to "discriminate" against men, but because many people recognised that various forms of social arrangements about gender needed to change, and for all sorts of reasons. Some of those reasons were about emancipation and civic equality, and others had more to do with the workings of the economy. Sterba recognises much of this complexity and is aware that, for example, when we discuss different achievement rates for schoolchildren we also have to discuss social class.

There is a great deal more to be said on the question of gender and social change but not, hopefully, in the sensationalised way in which Farrell presents his case.

Does Feminism Discriminate against Men? A Debate

By Warren Farrell (with Steven Svoboda) and James P. Sterba. Oxford University Press. 2pp, £21.99 and £9.99. ISBN 9780195312829 and 12836. Published 24 April 2008

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