Modern feminism seems to have moved beyond fairness and equality, to non-stop virtue-signalling about issues that are often not relevant to the systematic problems women still face. Indeed, campaigns against “grid girls” or allegedly “sexist” adverts seem to make more headlines than genuine abuse cases, begging the question: is feminism still rooted in liberalism and advancement for women, or a new stick with which to beat people whose lifestyles we don’t like or understand?
All of this weighed on my mind when I picked up Victoria Bateman’s latest book: The Sex Factor: How women made the West rich.
Would it be yet another attempt to portray women as oppressed, or would it highlight their strengths? To my delight, it was very much the latter – a fascinating perspective on history, which emphasises the vital and expansive role women played in the development of nations and economies.
Bateman delves into the pivotal role women, and equality, have played in the economic growth of the West, arguing that the failure of women to advance in other, poorer countries across the world is a large part of what is holding them back.
The notorious feminist – known to many as “the naked Brexit protestor” – claims that economics has a serious sex problem. History shines a light on the huge advancements made by male inventors and industrialists, yet women’s achievements barely get a look-in. The liberation of women is seen primarily as a by-product of economic growth, rather than an integral part of the process.
Bateman touches on an array of theories and examples from around the world, and spans across vast periods of time to explore the history of gender inequality – a fast-moving rollercoaster for the reader, which takes us from looking at how female autonomy is vital for economic development and productivity, to the importance of access to birth control, over to the liberation of women in hierarchal structures in families and society.
A few statistics stuck with me and challenged me (having always assumed if I had been born a few centuries ago I would have been married off in my teens, I was amazed to learn that from the 16th through to the 18th century, the average age of marriage in Britain was around 25 years old!)
From historic examples of British institutions to modern examples of family planning (in the US, 60% of births are as a result of unplanned pregnancies), Bateman creates a holistic picture of the evolving role of women across time and place, exploring along the way the advancements and decline of equality.
While Bateman’s book focuses on instances of unfair treatment of women, there is a streak of liberalism and individualism that shines through the book, separating her from many of her feminist counterparts.
Women’s bodies are the battleground of our time, she argues, from access to birth control and abortion, to the right of women to sell their bodies. Like Bateman, I agree that increasing rights women have gained over their bodies have led to improvements in a number of areas, including the family structure, the freedom to work and the increased independence women have gained over their own lives.
But Bateman warns that one should not assume that progress is a one-way street, even in the West, citing the US as an example of where we are witnessing increasing restrictions on women’s rights to have an abortion.
Bateman’s take on sex work is one of the most interesting, and controversial, parts of the book. She focuses on the stigma of sex work, which restricts women from monetising their bodies in the public domain, ultimately forcing transactions underground, making the sex industry significantly less safe for women. Bateman wants to see our social norms change, which, she argues, would have a transformative effect for women around the world. If women can sell their brains, why can’t they sell their bodies?
Whilst I enjoyed and sympathised with many aspects of Bateman’s book, I craved a harsher criticism of feminism’s flaws, which were never fully tackled head-on.
Bateman explains that gender equality is never a given nor constant, and must be fought for and protected. She’s probably right (indeed, liberal thinkers have learned a similar tough lesson recently, as socialist arguments we thought were demolished years ago are suddenly back in fashion). As Ronald Reagan once said, “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.”
But the need to pursue fundamental equality is exactly where modern-day feminism goes wrong. The movement, having done a wildly successful job in securing our legal rights over the past century, has lost its sense of purpose, meaning and mantra, often clutching at straws to find new (and lesser) problems in order to justify their very existence.
By placing women at the centre of the “battleground” in rhetoric, as Bateman’s book does, we only reinforce a victimhood narrative, which can often result in taking steps back rather than forward.
Bateman’s book does a huge service to women, and men, by highlighting the achievements and contributions women have made to get us to the liberal and prosperous age of 2019. But it is not obvious that today’s achievements will be overlooked in the future; nor is it obvious that what’s needed to take women to the next level today is feminism. That’s what women are telling us anyway, as over 90% don’t classify themselves in the feminist camp.
Bateman’s brand of feminism is certainly at the more liberal end of the spectrum. Even so, it often remains within the confines of “identity politics”, with its focus on group-specific grievances. The main feminist battles have been fought and won. We should not forget them, but there is no need to constantly refight them either. A more fruitful approach for our age would be to move beyond identity politics altogether, and to defend a universalist concept of freedom instead.