Women never cease to amaze me: their diversity, their resilience, their eccentricities, their good humour. I suppose that's a roundabout way of saying they captivate me as fellow human beings. One brand of feminism - let's call it "liberal feminism" - arrived on the scene three decades ago and did a lot to make this fellowship possible. Such feminism has always commanded my unqualified support, even while more virulent strains provoke my opposition and criticism.
I turned 30 a few weeks back. That makes me part of the first generation in recent western history able to enter reliably, normally, into relations of mutual assistance, camaraderie, and respect with women in any given sphere of life. Perhaps my experience was more intense than most. I grew up with mainly female friends; thanks to my fleet-fingered typing, I spent most of my time in the working world alongside predominantly female co-workers and bosses. Frankly, it never occurred to me that a woman could be something inferior. In fact, the opposite was true: my toughest competition for a place on the junior-high honour roll came from the tenacious female intellects in the next aisle. To underestimate them was to learn humility in a hurry.
I don't want to paint too rosy a picture of emerging gender harmony. There is still a divide between young men and women centred around the minefield of heterosexual intimacy. I felt that keenly growing up, too: the mystery of women; the power they had to counter my clumsy indications of interest or attraction with a casual, crushing dismissal. In recent years, of course, that messy process of communication and interaction has been rendered even more explosive - politicized in a way that was scarcely imaginable in my youth. I know as well as most men the feelings of anger and frustration at seeing mainstream discussion of heterosexual relations cast more than ever in terms of male initiation/aggression and female response, surrender, or victimization.
The prize now stands ready to be seized. But meanwhile, feminism's centre of gravity has moved away from the original, more generous approach to men and the masculine predicament. It's a development I deeply regret. But it doesn't mean women themselves are abandoning the generosity of vision that once characterized mainstream feminism.
Indeed, it's striking how far feminists have managed to alienate what should be their natural constituency - the younger generation of women. Surveys show a majority of young women now disclaim the label of "feminist." But if you press them on a given issue - for example, should women have rights and opportunities equal to those of men? - their answer would overwhelmingly be, Of course. What they are rejecting is the bitterness, the petty sniping, the vulgar propaganda that characterizes so much feminist commentary.
Just you wait, many feminist commentators respond. They think they've got it easy now. But sooner or later they'll run into the brick wall or the glass ceiling. Then they'll realize we were right all along.
Well, speculative though this may be: I don't think so. Younger women today - my friends, co-workers, students, acquaintances, lovers - don't necessarily think they have it easy. But it's getting harder and harder to deny that they have it fair.
In the arena that has consumed the most feminist attention over the years - the workplace - equality of opportunity and material standing for younger women is virtually a done deal. The Globe and Mail editorialized on this theme a few months back, writing: "One would expect to see the tremendous changes in attitude towards working women reflected most in the younger generation, and one does.
"When comparing only single women to single men, the gap narrows further still. Single women aged 25 to 34 make 90.5 per cent of what single men of the same age do, while the most educated members of this age group - those with university degrees - make 94.7 per cent of what their male counterparts earn." The New York Times similarly reports that in the U.S. "Women in economics with Ph.D.'s, for example, earn between 95 percent and 99 percent as much as male peers with the same experience."
Meanwhile, of course, men's traditional "privileges" in the workplace are evaporating at a dizzying pace. "Recession hits men hardest," The Globe and Mail headlined in January of this year. The Vancouver Sun weighed in with a feature claiming: "In this economy, when you're white, male and unemployed, 40 is anything but the prime of life. ... The number of people unemployed for longer than six months has nearly tripled in the last three years, and reached 509,000 in May , including 312,000 males and 197,000 females." This at a time when women make up nearly half the fulltime workforce.
The picture is a grim one, and a young woman looking at her job prospects has no reason to feel particularly confident or self-assured. But she has no reason to feel less confident or self-assured than the man next to her, or to seek preferential treatment and consideration on the basis of her sex.
In conversation, I've found many women will own to their far greater degree of freedom and latitude when it comes to expressing affection or desire for the opposite sex, in the working environment or outside it. For a female co-worker to come up behind me and run her hands through my mass of curly hair, with appropriate cooing noises, may strike me as a little pleasurable, or perhaps embarrassing. But the fact is, she can get away with it. And these days, I probably couldn't.
Several months ago my boss, a woman two or three years younger than I, invited me to call her home phone from the office so I could listen to her risqué answering machine message ("Sorry, I've been kidnapped by aliens and hooked up to a multiple-orgasm machine, so I can't come - to the phone, that is"). A day or two later, amidst much giggling, my boss and my co-workers (all women) showed me the instruction manual they'd prepared for the word-processing system we were using. The illustration for the "line-draw" function was a robotic-looking male, naked, with his genitals rather prominently and artfully drawn by computer.
This kind of interaction has been more the rule than the exception in
my workplace dealings with women. And I enjoy it: it's a delight to find
women can be every bit as bawdy and uninhibited as men. But I envy these
women their greater ability to express their playful and sexual selves,
in the office or elsewhere - without serious risk of being dragged before
a tribunal the first time someone of the opposite sex takes offense.
The broader question of sex and sexuality has preoccupied me for the last couple of years. (Well, O.K., for longer than that - but I've only recently started to intellectualize it.) Recently I've made a point of carrying on much more direct and exploratory conversations on this theme with female friends and acquaintances. The results have been a revelation. One close pal, a college student, cheerfully confessed she loves nothing more than being tied up and ravished by her male partner. When I finally allowed myself to unburden some of my own secret desires and fantasies to (platonic) female friends, the response was: Sounds fun, what's the big deal?
Buoyed by these early results, I took the rather radical step of sharing with two or three female friends some of the erotic fantasy fiction I like to write - very explicit, along the lines of most X-rated films, though with more imagination and greater attention to character and personality. [Link to samples of my erotic fiction.] The result? Without exception, they were dying to see the next chapter. One told me how glad she was to have a boyfriend handy - so she could release some of the sexual energy my fantasies filled her with. We've come a long way, baby.
I sat down to write this piece wanting only to pay tribute to some women of my generation who have made my life more rich and rewarding, and who fill me with hope for the future. The women now poised to move into positions of social and economic power in this country carry with them, for the most part, the experience of growing up alongside males. They are used to talking more openly with men, flirting more equably, working together more comfortably than any of their forebears - stretching back at least as far as the medieval era.
That's something to celebrate: equality in action. The fact that most women would hesitate to call it "feminism" only shows how utterly the more extreme feminists, with their harangues and cheap shots and distortions, have failed to move or persuade them. That, too, is something to celebrate.
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if source is author is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.