eclining on a heavily cushioned wicker chaise
longue to rest her back Lynn embarked on a brief summary of
the vicissitudes of the modern Women's Liberation Movement.
"The WLM had begun to grow too big for its marching boots
by the end of the 1970s. Those slogans chalked on the walls
of the first Women's Liberation conference at Oxford exactly
30 years ago sound pretty weird now: 'Women in Labour Keep
Capitalism in Power/Down with Penile Servitude'.
Both slogans suggest more about the effects of economic change
and the significance of ageing on women than anything else
right now, since it is currently women in the workforce who
seem to keep profits afloat and job assessment criteria, more
than penile servitude, that exhausts older women today. Replacing
the demos and slogan writing, a rich diversity of political
and cultural objectives have drawn feminists along many different
pathways. Some entered the academy, as the rise of Women's
Studies and Gender Scholarship began to provide one of feminism's
continuing, if elite, strongholds allowing space, increasingly,
for ever more sophisticated theorising of subjectivities,
identities and differences.
Others entered mainstream politics, with its harsh vicissitudes
as inequalities of all sorts have continued to rise ever since
1979, when some memorable events were set in motion. In fact
what we find today, under Blair, is the 'mainstreaming' of
a type of equal opportunity feminism, many feminists regard
Some feminists sought to pursue earlier objectives inside
the caring professions or within the ever-expanding alternative
and therapeutic scene. Others stayed put, campaigning to prevent
violence against women, fighting racism or working in solidarity
work with women around the world-most recently through the
ever growing expansion of NGOs, epitomised by the remarkable
Beijing gathering in 1995.
So overall, feminism has continued to act as a catalyst of
struggles for change to improve the lot of women , as well
as to rethink the meanings of womanhood, personal life, sexuality,
pleasure and violence."
The early chapters of the book retrace the highs and lows
of seventies feminism. She writes fondly of her friend Sheila
Rowbotham with whom she co-authored with Hilary Wainwright,
now editing Red Pepper, the seminal Beyond the Fragments.
Her concerns in the book are with the reactions against feminism
of the last few years. The rise of new laddism, the idea of
a post-feminism, that women have it all and in particular
the theories of post-structuralists and the modern Darwinian
fundamentalists, as she calls them. On the way she repudiates
ex-feminists like Melanie Phillips and Ros Coward who spend
more of their time "haranguing the successes of feminism".
The chapter on genes and gender is a powerful demolition of
the evolutionary psychologists and Darwinists, who in the
footsteps of Richard Dawkins advise Blair and the world of
our basic evolved human natures.
"They describe a world where women and men are stereotyped
as almost opposed species, the nuclear family is endorsed
and where mothers are most contented when home alone with
their children in traditional families with fathers restored
to their role as breadwinners and where rape and social violence
are explained through men's frustrated breeding habits."
These arguments have gained a foothold, she argues, with
feminists, cultural critics and social scientists all accused
of disdaining biology in their supposed obsession with language
and culture. "Not only is it bad biology it is also a
perfect way of refusing to analyse the complexities of, for
instance, what mothers actually say they need and want.
"This is yet another backlash against feminism. They
argue there might have been certain changes but in the end
we know things can't change too much because there is this
fundamental difference between men and women. Because our
reproductive ends are different and therefore our sexuality
and basic sentiments will always remain different as the male
predator needing to spread his seed and the female needing
to nest build and choose her mate cautiously will always remain
the blueprint that monitors our behaviour. I've seen the rising
popularity of this approach as an attempt to soothe the feelings
of those who are threatened by gender changes. It's a gender
"The rise of evolutionary psychology and new genetics
also fits in with a more individualist society which is less
and less social democratic and interested in expanding welfare
but rather interested in emphasising only individual responsibility.
Soon women will be held responsible for breeding 'perfect'
babies, and social services will no longer be necessary.
"Mainstream culture and mainstream politics has found
so many ways of accommodating feminism. On the one hand we
have equal opportunities managerialism everywhere which can
be quite a useful way of getting us all back into the workforce
as efficient workers, particularly when women are young. Whether
or not they have children they tend to be more productive.
The contemporary goals are despite the lip service paid to
the family and to caring. The norm is to see everybody as
part of the workforce. In particular, anybody who might be
making demands on the welfare services.
"A lot of people like to attack feminism for being responsible
for an impasse where everybody is supposed to be a worker
whatever else they're doing. It's only really our careers
as paid workers that matter. That's a complete caricature
of what feminism is about. The demands of feminism were always
about making paid work and caring work more compatible with
each other and having men as well as women more involved in
the work of caring and the home. So it was all about creating
a more egalitarian society."
So is this what she meant by the notion of the dismantling
of gender archetypes setting feminists against women and gender
"Because we were questioning stereotypes of women we
tend to get blamed for being against women. What this sets
up is an inevitable contradiction of feminism because what
we were really pointing at was that we wanted to be free to
decide how to live alongside men deciding as well. We wanted
to step outside constraining stereotypes, but at the same
time there's always going to be a contradiction at the heart
of feminism because we were also going to be aware that the
main way in which sexism operates in culture is to devalue
the feminine. We have to question all the ways in which women
have been seen at the very same time as criticising the ways
in which women habitually have been seen as diminished and
as secondary. So again instead of looking at the complexities
of what feminists actually said it's easier for critics just
to stereotype feminists against women.
In terms of gender against politics this raises a third thing
that feminists have been blamed for by some of the old left,
namely the sidelining issues of class or race. This is precisely
what we didn't do when we started talking about the situation
of women. When you look back to the early wave of feminist
writing in the 1970s in this country as well as the US it
is so strongly out of the left and was completely aware of
issues of class and race. Although we would be accused of
being predominantly white and therefore not allowing enough
space for black women and so on. What has really happened
is that we've seen a collapse of the left itself, followed
by a way of paying attention to gender issues once they can
be redefined as issues of equal opportunity in order not to
look at issues of structural inequality like race and class
which of course effect women as much as anyone else, as we
always knew. You will find people on some of the hard line
left who instead of saying the left has got so much weaker
and that socialist aspirations have declined so much in cultural
significance you somehow get feminism blamed for that having
happened rather than looking at the ways in which that aspect
of feminism has declined along with the left. That is, there
is no longer such a confident socialist feminism as there
once was because there is no longer such a confident socialist
movement as there once was."
Instead of thinking about the complexities of what's happened
to feminism, she explained, people collapse social problems
and the way in which shifts in gender relations have thrown
up new problems into pretending that somehow it is feminists
themselves who are responsible. "Feminism is very much
a product of all those gender changes and was never unfortunately
the driving force of change. The driving force has been technological,
the decline in the industrial sector and the rise of the service
This sounded plausible, but in the book she seems to adopt
a more defensive position talking of the fragmentation of
feminism, its inability to transcend the limits of race, class
and sexuality. All other radical ideologies had equally failed
to do this, wasn't it too much to expect feminism to unify
all before it? "As feminism became more successful more
and more competing voices and quarrels between different groups
of women were raised. Each argued their own issues and agenda
should receive more attention. For instance, the fact that
some demands made in the70s didn't take on board some of the
main issues black women might have wanted, for example criticisms
of the male breadwinner or the nature of family relations
needing to be rethought in relation to ethnic groups.
But the worst quarrels came from issues around sexuality.
Black feminism was very important in the 80s and was one of
the strongest forces. The destructiveness came from issues
around femininity, particularly those around the populist
radical feminism associated with Andrea Dworkin and Catherine
Mackinnon which began to focus all attention down on the dangers
facing women via male sexuality and to push for single issue
campaigns around the elimination of pornography."
In Is the Future Female (1987) Lynn had voiced her
criticisms of this cultural feminism which dominated the 1980s
depicting the problem as patriarchy and masculine values.
Alongside many other feminists she viewed this radical feminism
with its focus on pornography as reductionist and simplistic.
But why did the likes of Dworkin and MacKinnon become so dominant?
"Partly it was the decline of the left but more generally
the fact that we were in more pessimistic times with Thatcher
coming to power in Britain and Reagan ruling in the US. A
populist radical feminism with its focus on women as victims
chimed better with these conservative times where it seemed
harder to demand and win the types of social changes which
we had been arguing for earlier, namely, expansion of welfare,
more nurseries, more of everything. With the rolling back
of local government and the slow decline of the labour movement
the expansion which feminism was adding to left agendas became
harder to fight and win. It was not impossible and many people
did stay in those spaces."
Was it not also to do with some feminists' over economistic
approach, the preoccupation with bread and butter equalities
issues to the detriment of qualitative issues in the realm
of personal safety, women's space, rights to sexual freedom?
"It was a common story that 70s feminism was an equal
opportunities feminism that gave way to a difference feminism
in the 1980s. I don't agree with that analysis. It's much
more complicated. Seventies feminism was not primarily about
equal opps but about transforming society. The issues around
women's safety and women's right to choose their own sexuality,
campaigns against violence against women were strongly taken
up by socialist feminists. Neither is equal opps feminism
opposed to difference feminism."
We then moved into the 1990s. A feminist post-modernism is
a composite stream that she is at pains to disentangle. Three
strands are identified; that of Lacan, Derrida and Foucault,
which Lynn argues have been lumped together. So what does
she see as the limits of so-called post -structuralist feminism?
"Post modernism is a very trendy term which is bandied
around. A lot of people don't know what it means. These three
strands are very different from each other. Lacan is all about
seeing the inevitability of the construction of sexual difference
and the inevitability of women taking up their place in language
negatively. Whereas that's in no way central to the deconstructionism
of Derrida. The problem in terns of its influence on feminist
thinking is that it is very much taken up by one side of feminism,
namely in the Academy. But this move in the universities to
thinking about subjectivities, difference and identities rather
than social transformation is no longer in touch with an activist
Feminists like Judith Butler who take up post structuralist
feminism are concerned with the role of language in shaping
subjectivities, the way we think about ourselves, the body,.
It's fairly distanced from the types of struggles around welfare,
working conditions which are far more specific and separable
from the issues of how one theorises the nature of femininity,
understands the contradictions, fluidities or fixities of
language and self perceptions academic feminists are increasingly
engaged in. This follows a shift in influence from social
sciences to the humanities. It's also connected to what is
happening in the wider world with the decline of socialism
and types of struggles in which people were using Marxist
and post Marxist thinking to grapple with.
Autobiography, personal life and slinking off to therapy
become more interesting when change is not on the agenda."
We then talked about the big influences on her feminism,
besides close contemporaries like Sheila Rowbotham. She cited
the American socialist feminists Barbara Ehrenreich and Linda
Gordon, but really warmed to Simone De Beauvoir. "She
was always someone very influential on second wave feminism
whether we were loving her or hating her. I never moved from
loving her. De Beauvoir was always struggling with the problem
that she wanted to deal with the situation of women in the
world while finding it rather hard to rise above the way in
which the feminine always seemed to denote something that
was secondary to and less important than what it was to be
a man. She gives an excellent description of that and the
way in which women are trapped by their situation in the world
and remains politically active in her life."
So what is the future of the bond between feminism and socialism?
Is there a future for socialist feminism?
"If it's unpopular to call yourself a feminist, it's
doubly unpopular to call yourself a socialist feminist. I
could only be a socialist feminist because women aren't simply
their gender. While it's true that gender is an aspect of
every part of life it could never be the case that we can
imagine a society where we are free from the trappings of
gender. However, hopefully it's becoming easier to imagine
a society where gender no longer has the same grip on all
our expectations of what it is to be a human person, male
or female and that it is somehow at the core of what we are.
However, as I argue in the book, we move in and out of the
gender settlements in the cultures in which we live. Therefore
at any point in our lives, what is most significant to us
as women, may not be a gender issue. It might be our race,
our ethnicity, our poverty, our appalling overworked working
conditions (women will soon be more than 50% of the working
population ). The typical female worker isn't going to be
the professional woman earning a typical man's wage but a
care worker who is badly paid, working long hours, with children,
whether or not she has a husband, working all the hours she
can just to pay for her own housing and care for the children.
So it is not simply a gender issue."
Feminism too is very much around both to inform us and be
critically assessed by us. As is always the case, once issues
of equality and gender are posed alongside (rather than against)
questions of cultural identities and belonging, both the domain
of feminism and the domain of politics itself always immediately
She warns of the hard and soft ways of accommodating feminism.
"As in the superficially feminising rhetoric of Blair, Clinton
or the Pope, apologising for the most eclectic abuses of state
power, all of which share only one common feature, that they
are in the past, no longer demanding action: from bygone imperial
misdemeanours to the Irish famine, the Holocaust or the false
imprisonment of the Guildford 4, while remaining more 'macho'
and aggressive than ever when it comes to handling the actual
social problems currently confronting them: from asylum seekers
to young offenders, drug taking, teenage pregnancy or the
treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill.
So, any analysis of possible feminist futures will need to
be looking both at the continuing potential of feminism for
demanding change, while remaining vigilant in addressing unforeseen
contradictions or complications in its political demands."