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What would Mary Wollstonecraft make of today’s feminism?

7 March 2014

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and no doubt it will be marked by plenty of discussions about internet misogyny, everyday sexism, the war on women and all the other things that get people worked up. So I’d like readers to have a look at this blogpost from Australian forensic psychologist Claire Lehmann, on the subject of feminism, which begins:

‘“Pop-feminism,” as a movement, valorises feelings above reason, cynicism above hope. It has regressed to a point where anything at all, no matter how irrational or how narcissistic, can be celebrated as ‘feminist’.

‘Articles such as: I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry, or How Accepting Leggings as Pants Made Me a Better Feminist are shared wide and far on social media as feminist political statements.

‘Anyone can identify as a “feminist”. Even men who openly admit to domestic violence… Tare no boundaries, no benchmarks and no standards to which feminism will hold itself accountable.

‘It was not meant to be like this. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her basic hypothesis was that women are capable of reason; just as men are. Yet because women are denied a rigorous education, this capability is rarely expressed.

‘Wollstonecraft’s achievement was to extend Enlightenment principles to women. Women were rational. Women were not innately ignorant, or naive, but socialised to be that way because their educations were neglected. She wrote that the more educated women became, the better off society would be.’

Read the whole thing there as Lehmann pretty much sums up what a lot of people (like myself) feel about the F-word; we support the basic aims of feminism, but not much of the analysis or prescriptions, and the tone of debate makes it difficult to make any concrete progress.

Central to the problem with pop-feminism is that it is often anti-science, and simply ignores the biological as well as social causes of sexual differences. One reads of some fairly senior, influential people asserting that girls and boys are how they are purely or predominantly because of social constructs, an objective untruth that goes unchallenged by the commentariat.

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Why aren’t such assertions laughed out of town? It’s because, as Lehmann says, the debate is held in an emotional, irrational tone and criticism is misconstrued as sexism or misogyny. Human beings are not rational creatures, and in all debates much of it is to do with the singer rather than song; you can’t just place bluntly-placed studies in people’s faces and expect them to take it all on board, especially when the person presenting the argument is unattractive.

But on the subject of sexual differences, and how to achieve the most freedom and opportunity for each of us, the standard of commentary is very poor; much, maybe most of it, is written from the point of view of the commentator, and what a particular claim or study means to them, or how it affects them or their daughter. They’ll usually throw in an anecdote or two that is supposed to prove some wider meaning.

This is not confined to feminism by any means; pretty much any area that touches on human biology is filled with this sort of comment. (How DARE the Tories suggest intelligence may be hereditary! My parents are thick as two planks and I went to Oxford!) This is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I’m pretty sure that when the On the Origin of Species came out there wasn’t a comment piece in the following week’s Observer under the headline ‘Why calling my son a monkey is the most offensive thing that’s ever been said to me.’

Personally, and I may not be typical of the newspaper-reading public, I don’t really care how scientific research makes a journalist feel about themselves; I’m interested in whether it’s true, or what it tells us about ourselves as a species, how it might explain our often odd behaviour, how it may affect attempts to reduce violence; and what implications it has on policy, and the trade-offs that are inevitable in all areas of public and private life.

And although enlisting the support of dead writers is always a bit dodgy, I’m pretty sure Wollstonecraft would agree with that.

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Show comments
  • JeccaBaby

    Mary Wollstonecraft gave a radical critique of how sexual relations are feminised by sentimentality, saying that relationships between men and women should be neither sentimentalised or romanticised. Nowadays, I think relationships are unduly monetised, with ‘romance’, ‘sentiment’ and ‘allure’ manufactured and for sale. Modern capitalism has subverted sexual liberation so that women are persuaded to package themselves as love and sex objects ‘because we’re worth it’, and men are persuaded to spend their money on treating women ‘like princesses’.
    Neoliberal capitalism demands uncertainty and upgrades, and that individuals are itinerant with as few fixed ties as possible. It serves this system to keep men and women at arms length, but to find happiness we have to resist these pressures and to our own selves be true. Love is marketed as a challenge rather than a phenomenon, but relationships require patience, intellectual compatibility and a willingness to focus on the good you see in another rather than their flaws. I hate how men and women have become political enemies.

    • Spenglersdog

      You write well. I think you should expand that into an essay on the mercantile spirit pervading our culture. How everything is reduced to the balance sheet in a materialistic conception of life.

      • JeccaBaby

        Thank you very much, it’s kind of you to take the time to comment. I think Mary Wollstonecraft’s work captured the egalitarian ideals born of the French Revolution, and I agree that the rigid and self-serving mercantilism that became entrenched during the Victorian era has pervaded society ever since. I also think that it’s modern form – rampant consumerism – is pernicious because panaceas are sold for manufactured ills, and having is now an acceptable substitute for being.

        • Spenglersdog

          I never thought of it before but it is a rich seam to mine (to continue the mercantile metaphor). However I would view the egalitarian ideals and the enlightenment period itself as the turn toward materialistic rational dissection which leads inevitably to the shallow deracinated period of today. Thanks for sparking the thoughts about this. I like your phrase ‘having is now an acceptable substitute for being’.

          • JeccaBaby

            Yes, I think you’re completely right. Egalitarianism demands that the individual is honoured, and thus the snake begins to swallow its tail! Thanks for the discussion and kind words!

  • Richard

    There’s a blinding article on fgm and intersectionality in this very mag.

  • Cyril Sneer

    Feminists need to get laid, then they wouldn’t be so uptight.

    Love you all.

    Peace out.

  • StephanieJCW

    “Central to the problem with pop-feminism is that it is often anti-science, and simply ignores the biological as well as social causes of sexual differences. One reads of some fairly senior, influential people asserting that girls and boys are how they are purely or predominantly because of social constructs, an objective untruth that goes unchallenged by the commentariat.”

    In fairness those on the other side are just as bad. You frequently read: “But it’s biology!” but rarely see the evidence provided to support that assertion. (I say that as someone who thinks it probably a mix of nature / nurture.)

  • Lindsey

    As a self-identified feminist, I am very proud of defining myself by that label. But, I often wonder if the word itself hinders our ability to garner the support that already exists. As this article points out (, my generation of young millennial exhibits overwhelming support for gender equality and women’s rights, yet rates of feminist identification are so much lower because of the pervasive stereotypes. When I say feminism, they aren’t hearing gender equality and women’s rights. And feminists themselves aren’t even in agreement on what all feminism encompasses. Should I require someone to understand feminism how I define it in order to support gender equality?

    It is a branding issue, and sometimes I wonder if we are doing our cause a disservice by holding onto the rhetoric. Maybe we should be evolving it to better resonate with a new generation.

  • Liz

    I’m not sure why it’s relevant what Wollstonecraft would think of today’s feminism, or why you think feminism ought to have stood still or preserved in its most nascent state. Do you apply that principle to any other aspect of social science or philosophy?

    I’m also unsure why you think that you should keep telling women how to do it properly (which incidentally coincides with how men like doing things).

    Especially given that you know very little about it and appear to rely on the Guardian and New Statesman for your exposure to it.

    Your articles (all the articles in the Spectator on this topic) are guilty of everything you say you don’t approve of: they are pop, anecdote and superficial.

    So you’re just acting as a Pied Piper for the usual culprits; look at your comment threads, do you ever see any intellectual discourse in them? Or any more than a sprinkling of female commenters in amongst the sea of dull chauvinists who tend to people this magazine (or whatever it likes to call itself).

    If the Spectator was remotely interested in promoting serious discussion about gender politics and philosophy, it would hire some female academics to write about it instead of conservative men with a tendency for mansplaining and click bait authors, it would treat female topics more seriously, it would dispense with the condescending sexist tone of so many of the articles and accompanying images.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Would it dispense with the condescending tone of comments like yours though? Your lack of self awareness, as with most feminists, is remarkable.

      Stop stereotyping men and take a good hard look at what passes for female ‘culture’ in the mainstream, designed by and for women and consumed by women. It seems to be polarised between sleb shoe obsession and the po-faced killjoyism of the Eagle sisters.

      Women, feminists, claim their right to distinct and privileged identity then demand absolute equality and attack any male claim to distinct identity. Get real. Stop blaming men.

      • Liz

        You don’t know any feminists, Colonel, and you most definitely don’t know most feminists.

        • Colonel Mustard

          You don’t know that. But in any case that doesn’t disqualify comment on them since they occupy and articulate in public space as you do.

          One might as well assert disqualification from commenting on UKIP through not knowing any UKIP members or most UKIP members.

  • allymax bruce

    Interesting article, Ed; ‘differences’ being made too responsible for the demarcation of social amiablity between the sexes by you though.
    I’ve noticed in Scotland women feel enfranchised, and this inevitably provides some women a sense of justification to be rude, obnoxious, and disrespectful to men; and blatantly malicious to men they don’t like; using the Postmodern tools of Equality like ‘offensive’ to be rude, obnoxious & malicious. But these women are the minority, and have character flaws they project through this new enfranchised vehicle called ‘feminism’. Being rude, obnoxious, and malicious to men is not what Mary Wollstencraft had envisaged for ‘feminism’; in-deed, it is the reverse of what Mary was trying to achieve for women. What we are seeing is the ‘social interactions’ between the sexes being played out through the emotional arena; the mostly aggrieved emotional arena in these malicious women. This makes for bad customer service, ineffective customer relations, and damaging inter-relational cooperation between the sexes in the workplace, in the home, and in society. Equality? Men, and women, are very different emotional animals; men have codes of conduct, guided by ethical mores like honour & sincerity; I really can’t speak for women, but I’ve never seen two women greeting each other with a handshake. But having said that, I’m also saddened at seeing two men gossiping like old fishwives! Seems the low-grade minority of both sexes are giving the impression they are the majority.

    • Damon

      I always remember an interesting comment made by a woman student when I was teaching English in Germany a few years ago. The subject of courtesy had come up, in an unrelated context, and a female student (adult, educated) said, “Yes, but you have to be more polite, because you’re a man.” The fact that it was said purely without irony made it even more hilarious, disturbing and bizarre.

      • allymax bruce

        Yes, in-deed; it seems the ideal of ‘feminism’ has been able to use the Politically Correct tools of Equality, enfranchising women, but disenfranchising men; allowing the women in society to believe men still have to acredit women with a gentleman’s respect. I was visiting a local Council building in Florida, when I arrived at the main doors just before a woman; I opened the door, and held it open for the woman, so she could enter before me; she walked through the door, gave me a dirty look, and said, ‘I can hold my own door open’!
        Charming! But this is the minority-obverse of what many of the majority pleasant-mannered women’s public behaviour is. A good example happened to me two months ago, when my local authority housing officer asked me to come in to meet and fill in some forms with her. She guided me into a glass-surrounded cublicle, of which her part adjoined onto the back offices by a glass door. As I was sitting speaking to my housing officer, a woman stood at the adjoining glass door, staring at me, drawing me hostile, dirty looks; even stopping other female colleagues passing by the door and pointing at me. I asked my housing officer what that woman was doing? My Housing officer looked round, seen this bad behaviour, and put her head in her hands, and said just ignore it. My housing officer is a lovely woman, and it seems she was affected by the bad behaviour of her female colleague too. Do men ‘just ignore it’? Should men have to ‘put up with it’; especially from public sector institutions like local authority female staff? I believe this grievous & female bad behaviour is damaging our society; for both men & women.

  • Bill Habergham

    The discussion regarding feminism always seems to devolve it on us versus them! Another way to look at it ,perhaps,is that men and women are two halves of the same coin. They need each other. It is impossible to perfect a man. But the strengths of a woman are the weaknesses of a man and vice versa. Put the two together, perhaps in a life long partnership, and just maybe you have the have the perfect human.

  • lukelea

    My own view is that what you call pop-feminism is a kind of “orthodoxy” which is subscribed to in certain circles of (mostly) academic society. It exemplifies a more general phenomenon, namely, the almost incredible power of conformity, especially conformity of opinion, among the cultural elites. They (in fact all people) value being accepted by their friends and colleagues far more than common sense, reason, evidence, or just about anything else. It is a little like clothes fashions. As for who sets these fashions in motion: I am guessing it must be a product of competition within the opinion making elites, which is probably what produced other strange fruit, as for example the religious dogmas of the Catholic Church, Freudianism, post-structuralist de-constructionism a la Derida, etc. We are social creatures far more than we are rational creatures, men as well as women. True nonconformists are rare genetic sports.

    • Damon

      “[T]he almost incredible power of conformity, especially conformity of opinion, among the cultural elites.”

      Indeed, and nonconformity among cultural elites does not merely invite group ostracism, about which such elites care a great deal. It’s also potentially dangerous to their careers, about which they care even more. Fancy coming out as a Tory-voting playwright, a climate-sceptic physicist or a devoutly Christian “Women’s Studies” lecturer?

      Me neither, although there are honourable exceptions.

  • Angry Harry


    “the debate is held in an emotional, irrational tone and criticism is misconstrued as sexism or misogyny”

    Yes, but it is purposely miscontrued, in order to silence debate by intimidation; i.e. by proclaiming that any criticism of their persistent misandry and dishonesty must be due to a hatred of women.

    Basically, they are bullies. And they have been getting away with their bullying for far too long.


    • newname

      Why is disagreeing with a view, however vociferously, called “silencing the debate”? As far as I can see plenty of people here and elsewhere are expressing the views you claim have been “silenced”. This happens in other discussions as well…

      • Blazeaway

        The hectoring tone does silence debate. It involves saying that any questionning of the orthodoxy must be based on sexism/racism/homophobia etc etc.
        It allows no room for honest probing of the issues and the misrepresentation is deliberate. It is often emotional and regards objective debate as offensive.
        I have never seen such abuse in public life as we see now.

  • Colonel Mustard

    The latest Europlan to criminalise psychological harm in a “controlling” domestic relationship is clearly propositioned with women as the eternal victims again. But in the UK it is apparent that in 99%+ of relationships women do most of the “controlling”.

    New kitchens anyone?

  • Liz

    You are confusing commentary, journalism (and online journalism at that) with peer-reviewed journal articles.

    And as to reason, I suggest you read: The Man of Reason, “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophyby Genevieve Lloyd to understand the context of the Enlightenment “reason” and the folly of using it as a neutral benchmark.

    • James

      Peer-reviewed articles about feminism? Gibberish, unless of course you find using big “scientific” words to say absolutely nothing, informative (see

      Quantum Feminist Mnemotechnics). Besides, for every article purporting to be “true feminism”, with their meme of “everything is a social construct even when it’s not”, there are a dozen others claiming that Trans-women are born women on the inside. Contradicting hogwash, claiming to be peer-reviewed.

      • Liz

        You know it’s entirely your choice if you want to ignorant, but there’s no need to compound the problem by thinking you can be condescending from that standpoint.

        • Blazeaway

          Your language is very opaque. Can you be clearer?

        • Colonel Mustard

          I suppose you think only you should be allowed to be condescending? Read your first eleven words and think again.

      • allymax bruce

        CrossFit — Sued By Transgender Athlete …
        Seems women don’t do equality when it doesn’t suit them.

    • allymax bruce

      ”Battered”, (Erin Pizzey)
      ”Who’s Failing the Family”, (Erin Pizzey).

  • Blazeaway

    An observation: people are afraid of criticising ‘pop feminism’ because of its hectoring tone.

    Anyone who points out, as a UKIP MEP did recently, that women are held back as much by their desire to care for children rather than male prejudice, will get unfairly attacked as being ‘mysogynist’, sexist etc.

    You can’t have a rational discussion in this atmosphere.

    Same with the ‘female head on currency’ thing. Anyone who pointed out that the women candidates were insufficiently noteworthy was abused.

    There really is a bullying tone to much public discourse these days, with many people simply being afraid to speak out. It’s very unhealthy.

    If anyone takes to twitter etc to voice differences they then get accused of ‘cyber-bullying’. Ridiculous. Men and women who differ are just keeping their heads down for fear of misrepresentation.

    • Liz

      Because women and feminists are a homogenous whole? They all react alike?

      • James

        It’s funny, because you are acting the same way the article said you would.

        • Liz

          How am I reacting?

    • Liz

      “that women are held back as much by their desire to care for children”

      Why would a predisposition to caring for children hold a person back – in a fair society?

      • Blazeaway

        You have missed the point in such a spectacular fashion that I susoect you have done so on purpose. Only you can explain why.

        It’s really simple enough for a child to grasp – if a woman takes 10 years out of her career to look after chilodren she will be 10 years behind everyone else when she returns to work.

        I really don’t know how I can explain it more simply or why this is contentious.

        Unless you are suggesting that women don’t want to be in the home – but that some man (shock, horror!) has made her stay at home. Well, anyone who believes that knows very little about women.

        Is it sexist to say that? If so, why?

        • Liz

          And why would that hold a person back – in a fair society?

          • Angi Hillin

            Fairness has nothing to do with it. You can hardly expect your job to be waiting there exactly as you left it. The world moves on, new things happen, discoveries are made. If you take off for 10 years you are 10 years behind any advances and changes, so the idea that one can re-enter the job force 10 years later and be at the level you would have been had you NOT left the workplace is not rational. The people who stayed and those more recently educated will receive preference because they have the skills needed for the job.

            It’s completely fair. Because I chose to stay home with my children I am 12 years behind in the computer industry. I was VERY good, but being a parent I haven’t had the time to really keep up with learning the new advances and techniques. Totally fair to hire someone who has those skills than to hire me and hope I get them as fast as possible. I’ll have to apply for an entry level position because that’s where my skill set is. This also means that it has taken me 12 years longer to get to the same position my husband is in. It will take me 12 years to make the same kind of money he makes. Not because I’m a woman, but because I was busy doing something else for 12 years that we both felt was more important. We all make choices. Now, if I had stayed up with the newest advances and techniques I’d be able to prove that and as long as they don’t punish me for having a 12 year employment gap since I was raising children and not serving a prison sentence, we’re good.

        • StephanieJCW

          “It’s really simple enough for a child to grasp – if a woman takes 10 years out of her career to look after chilodren she will be 10 years behind everyone else when she returns to work.”

          But why should a woman have to take 10 years out of her career? Why is it not possible to do both?

      • terregles2

        Well said Liz
        Children are our future, It doesn’t matter what we feel about children they will replace us.
        People who care for children should be given more respect than bankers and politicians. In Scorland we are even having debates about free school meals. The unionists don’t want todiscuss nuclear weapons but want to discuss feeding our children who are our future, I would rather have a child than a politician any day of the week. Some mightargue that a politician is a failed child.

      • StephanieJCW

        Nail on head Liz.

        The conversation is too simplistic. The reality is many women, have to choose between career or children. I think it’s shameful we haven’t yet arrived at a better society than that.

    • StephanieJCW

      “Anyone who points out, as a UKIP MEP did recently, that women are held back as much by their desire to care for children rather than male prejudice, will get unfairly attacked as being ‘mysogynist’, sexist etc.”

      This annoys me, not because it is ‘sexist’ but because it is so lazy!. It stops the speaker having to think, to actually poll women or to look at the very complicated thing that is our societal set-up which is still based on a breadwinner / home-maker model.
      It’ not about being held bad by a desire to care for children, it’s that it’s impossible to realise one’s ambitions and also care for children as our working world makes it so.

  • Chris Bond

    Comeing to a town near you thanks to the EU and UN. “Gender mainstreaming”. Because Male and female is so bourgeoisie. Lets make every one a new neutral gender.
    http://www.theguardian (dot) com/commentisfree/2014/feb/11/poland-sexual-revolution-reverse-education-contraception
    http://globalvoicesonline (dot) org/2014/02/12/opponents-of-frances-school-gender-equality-initiative-wage-misinformation-war/

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