Shaves and shave-nots

The New Feminism
February 13, 1998

The approach of the millennium seems to have sent everyone into a frenzy of reinventing. Feminism is the latest idea to get a makeover. In The New Feminism, Natasha Walter promises us "a celebratory and optimistic movement", in which "our souls will be free, not framed in the reductive language of victim or oppressor". This sounds like some sort of deliverance - so does the book deliver?

The New Feminism is born from a great deal of research and statistic gathering, in fact it is a veritable reference library. Walter recognises how feminism as a political and theoretical movement influences and has been influenced by popular culture: her sources include the Spice Girls and TV dramas as well as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer. She also has a great collection of interviews which would stand alone as very readable "talking heads".

With such a wide range of sources at her fingertips, it is regrettable that she frequently grasps at the most extreme examples of 1960s and 1970s feminism and the most ill-founded comments in an attempt to create a "let's be reasonable" feminism for the 1990s. In a chapter entitled "Out of the ghetto", Walter tries to explode the myth that the typical feminist is a "fat, hairy, angry lesbian". But does anyone still believe this? And if anyone does, should feminists really bring forth their most shining examples of feminine beauty as Walter does - "We can remember that ... Emmeline Pankhurst was very beautiful" - to prove these people wrong?

Walter's tendency to go down this road is a pity, because somewhere along the way she makes an interesting point about feminist attitudes to body and dress. It is true that there has been a puritanical streak in recent feminist debate that ignores or frowns on women's desire to enjoy dressing-up, wearing lipstick and so on. But, as with many ideas in the book, she overdoes the point, which rears its beautifully made-up head time and again. She says that women with long hair can be feminists and that women with shaved legs can be feminists -the reader soon gets the gist.

It is odd that Walter spends so much time discussing dress as she calls for a move away from "the ways women dress and talk" towards "the material basis of economic and social and political inequality". The chapters on material inequality are interesting in parts but uninspiring overall. Constant references to media women in trouser suits, glossy magazines and PR companies makes for a mainly self-congratulatory tone. Yes, it is encouraging to see women achieving financial success and attaining high status in typically male-dominated fields. It is also refreshing to see someone introduce these success stories into feminist debate. One just wishes that Walter did not assume so rigidly that her readership and feminism as a whole are in the same situation. In a chapter entitled, "Not just for them", we are told that "feminism now tends to be associated with MPs and lawyers, journalists and television actresses". That is news to this reviewer. Walter goes on to give examples of women living in the most poverty-ridden areas who have taken a stand against inequality and started women's support groups. These cases are more than relevant as examples of feminism in Britain today. Why then does Walter need to close the chapter with: "These women remind us that disadvantaged women want power and equality just as much as more advantaged women"? Again, does the feminist movement need reminding of this?

The New Feminism is twice as long as it needed to be. It has its moments and presents us with some valid arguments, but unfortunately these arguments are never fully examined and much of the first half of the book is plagued by Walter's apparent need to tell us that feminists can shave their legs (but it's not obligatory, you understand). The book does contribute to a debate for the 1990s, but more by splitting hairs than using a razor's edge.

Katrina Wishart is editorial assistant, The THES.

The New Feminism

Author - Natasha Walter
ISBN - 0 316 88234 8
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £17.50
Pages - 8

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