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Eamonn McCann on ladism , post-feminism and violence against women
Eamonn McCann, 14 Apr 1999
Most women hit by men were asking for it. That s one of the messages from the backlash against feminism now well under way, in Ireland as elsewhere.
Maybe women used to be discriminated against, runs the argument. But things have changed drastically. Now the boot s on the other foot. Men are being passed over for jobs and promotion. Men are treated unfairly by family courts and are commonly deprived of the love and company of their children. It s because men are devalued by society that they are more likely than women to commit suicide. As many men as women are now beaten up by their partners. Men are generally screwed up because they have lost any dominance they ever enjoyed, but still haven t found a new role. It s men who are oppressed now, not women.
Variations on these themes are played out in our newspapers every day. The latest book by Germaine Greer has been rubbished by reviewers, including post-feminist women, as a risible whinge. Jokes taken directly from Bernand Manning routines are recycled in lads magazines, and it s considered uncool to object. BBC2 s Counterblast slot on March 30th featured Erin Pizzey implicitly propounding her view that feminism has been a conspiracy to promote lesbianism, undermine the family and demonise men.
It was the Pizzy programme which prompted me to pay heed. I remember her well. It s possible I was the first journalist to interview her.
Back in the early 70s Erin Pizzey was something of a celebrity. She had set up Britain s first refuge for battered women, in Chiswick in west London, which I chanced on by accident. I wrote a short piece about this new phenomenon for the then-radical London listings magazine Time Out. Although I didn t allude to it at the time, it had been obvious within minutes of meeting Ms. Pizzy that she ruled her refuge with a rod of iron.
Women residents wishing to speak with her stood in supplicant attitude until she indicated they could intervene. I put this down to the fact that it must have taken a strong, self-driven individual to will such an innovative project into existence.
For a period, Ms. Pizzy was one of the heroines of the emerging women s liberation movement. But it became clear that she viewed the issue of violence against women as her personal preserve. She was outraged at the idea, which appealed to the new women s groups in London, that residents should have a say in, even control of, the way refuges were run. Her stridency against lesbians was startling. Most unsettling of all, she became increasingly explicit in arguing that the main reason for violence against women was that some women sought violence out.
I recall her arguing that women who repeatedly returned to abusive partners were addicted to violence in the way a junkie is addicted to smack.
The plainly nonsensical nature of these notions ensured that Ms. Pizzy s star waned. By the end of the 70s she had become a marginal figure. But now she s back, because the ideas she espouses are in fashion again.
The key document for new adherents of Ms. Pizzy s thesis is a recent British Home Office survey which found that Equal numbers of men and women said they had been assaulted by a former or current partner . This has been widely hailed by various men s groups and by reformed radicals like Ms. Melanie Philips (of the Sunday Times) as evidence that the facts of domestic violence have been suppressed or distorted by harridan hordes of feminist thought police to the extent that a wholly inaccurate picture has become imprinted on the public consciousness.
Of course, it is true that there are violent women who attack their partners, and men who suffer dreadfully as a result. But the survey tells us nothing about the overall balance of blame. What it shows is that both men and women who have been involved in violent relationships are likely to pin the blame on their partners rather than themselves.
More telling is the fact that in only three percent of cases of domestic violence notified to the British police is the woman the instigator.
Seven years ago in London, an outfit called Families Need Fathers set up Britain s first refuge for battered men. Since then, not one bed has been occupied for one night. FNF explain this by reference to the reluctance of men to admit to being victims of female violence. That may be part of it. But there is another and more obvious explanation for the most of it.
Only a minority of men are violent towards women. But they constitute a significant minority, and there is a high level of toleration for their violence among other men. Anyone who spends time in all-male company in Ireland will know that violence against women is commonly discussed in casual terms suggesting that it s no big deal. A man known to give his wife or partner the odd slap isn t automatically regarded as reprehensible.
In Northern Ireland in 1997, 13,836 women contacted Women s Aid for information or advice. In the same year, there were 5,326 calls to the Women s Aid helpline. Nine hundred and eight women, accompanied by 1,408 children, spent time in a Women s Aid refuge. Eight women were murdered by men in their homes.
The notion that there are comparable but hidden statistics for female violence against men is self-evidently ridiculous.
A most eloquent evocation of this on-going atrocity against women is provided in Once Is Too Much , an exhibition of art by women from St. Michael s Estate in the south inner city in Dublin, on show at the Orchard Gallery, Derry last month.
Lilies laid on perspex shelves, one for each woman murdered by men in Ireland since the project was launched in December 1995, float like Ophelias across the gallery wall. A spiked bicycle-wheel chandelier dangles a knife, a spanner, a toilet brush, a wheel brace, a hair-brush, a kitchen spatula and a hammer above a mirrored table. In a darkened room, broadcast reports of women murdered, intercut with personal accounts of thud and terror, are video-projected in rippled images onto the plastic curtain around a hospital bed. A memorial quilt, oil on silk, in 22 pieces by individual women, names Bernadette O Neill, Anne Marie Duffin, Meta Gilmore, Veronica Guerin and so on and on, every patch a death notice, and a comfort.
The works are a collaborative effort by the St. Michael s women, supported by artists Rhona Henderson, Ailbhe Murphy, Rochelle Rubenstein Kaplan and Joe Lee, the project coordinated by the inexhaustible Rita Fagan. The exhibition will be on tour in Ireland and further afield for the rest of 1999. It is powerful, visceral, vibrant with imagination, blackly humorous, and full of pity and rage. It argues more compellingly than any set of statistics that the backlash against feminism is an assault on all women.
There s one aspect of the argument which Ms. Pizzy and her supporters have gotten right. Most men don t benefit, and never have, from women s oppression. Anecdotal and scientific evidence, as well as ordinary observation, suggests that huge numbers of men are psychically and sexually screwed up, unable to play the role they believe has been ascribed them, or to deal with consequent feelings of inadequacy. This is the source of the theory that men are now as oppressed as women, and as vulnerable to violence in the home.
But the rational conclusion is that most men, too, lose out in a society which holds women down. The Shankill has never benefitted from discrimination against the Falls. Insofar as any section of the plain people colludes in the oppression of any other, they attach themselves, too, to inequality.
Life would be better for men if women s oppression were ended. Instead of embracing a version of New Laddism , which is little more than the old loutism condoned, men should support women in struggling to be rid of the sexist stupidity and violence all around us. n