Personal and political front line

Making Trouble
April 13, 2007

Lynne Segal, a professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London, is an academic who has written widely on sexual politics. Making Trouble is an absorbing tale of the personal and political journey of this socialist feminist who cut her teeth in the 1970s women's movement.

Segal was born in Sydney to a family that distanced itself from its Jewish past. Both her parents were doctors, and her mother was the second woman in Australia to qualify as a surgeon. Her less distinguished father is remembered for his infidelities, irritability and teasing, which created an unhappy home life for the three children, especially the sensitive, asthmatic middle child who in later life writes this story. Even today, Segal can recall her mother's oft-repeated bitter words: "I always knew how to get a woman with an infertile husband pregnant: send her to your father." It is hardly surprising that when the 18-year-old Segal enrolled at Sydney University in the 1960s she turned to radical politics to fight for a better world and to make sense of her life.

The bohemian intellectuals she joined were advocates of "free love". Why did I hop into bed with whoever took my fancy? Segal asks honestly. It was mainly because she was seeking love, not marriage, which was considered a flawed institution. The affairs were always closely intertwined with radical politics, such as protests against the war in Vietnam. But the academic Segal grew tired of it all and stepped sideways into the Sydney counterculture while also studying for her PhD in psychology. She fell in love with an artist whom she married when five months pregnant. However, the union collapsed soon after the birth of a son, mainly because her husband was homosexual.

As there was little hope of employment at Sydney University, the single mother decided to move with her boy to London. They arrived in September 1970, and Segal, through friends, found a job, covering classes for a lecturer in psychology at what was then Enfield Technical College. She stayed 29 years as the college transformed into a polytechnic and then Middlesex University. Drawn into the 1970s women's movement, Labour politics and community activism, Segal found her niche. Always believing that the personal is political, she set up a collective household in the large house in Islington, north London, she had bought with her sister.

Close ties with other local groups - gay liberationists, anarchists, radical philosophers and philosophical radicals - made for lively debates as well as disagreements. "Men were entangled with feminism from the start," Segal insists, though many battles were fought with them over shared housework and childcare, sexual autonomy and women's marginal place in the public sphere. Nonetheless, the aim was always to fight class inequality, to build a socialist society for women and men. The return of Margaret Thatcher's Tory Government in 1979 put paid to the optimism, just as sectarian divisions on the Left, as well as the collapse of communism a decade later, shattered many socialist dreams. Yet personal happiness came Segal's way. By the end of the 1980s, she was living with the great love of her life, the radical philosopher Peter Osborne. They shared 14 years of happiness before he fell in love with someone else, in 2000, when Segal was in her fifties.

During what she terms these "most romantically cosy" years, Segal made her mark as a scholar of gender studies, writing books that appealed to academic and popular audiences. In Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism (1987) she argued against radical feminists who said that only women, because of their greater humanity, could save the world from disaster. The task was for feminism to transform socialism and end men's power over women, thereby forging a new future for both sexes. In Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men (1990) she suggested that male sexuality should not be equated with male violence, pointing out that there were many differing patterns of masculinity.

Issues around men and masculinity have often preoccupied Segal. The most poignant chapter in Making Trouble is titled "When sexual warriors grow old". Segal finds growing old alone difficult. In our gendered cultures of ageing, she muses, older women's sagging bodies and wrinkles are not objects of male desire. "It is by other women, rather than by men, that I more often feel myself desired nowadays," she confesses.

Segal, now exploring her Jewish identity, has turned her political activism to international issues, such as peace in the Middle East. This account of one feminist's life story makes us realise with a jolt how many of the demands of the women's movement, such as more nurseries, shared parenting, refuges for abused women, free abortion and acceptance of homosexuality, are now part of mainstream culture. But it wasn't just socialist feminists, as Segal implies, who voiced these demands. Radical and liberal feminists argued, too, for such reforms.

There are also some anomalies in this book. Why does Segal speak of "post-feminism"? There are still feminist battles to be fought over women's unequal access to power, money and justice, as well as violence against women and sex trafficking. And why is Segal silent about the alliance between some Left-wing groups and Islamic patriarchal conservatism? Nonetheless, Making Trouble is an engrossing tale because it is more than just one individual life story, it is also an account of the rich contribution that second-wave feminism has made to modern Britain.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

Making Trouble: Life and Politics

Author - Lynne Segal
Publisher - Serpent's Tail
Pages - 320
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 978 1 85242 937 9

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