Sacred Cows: Is Feminism Relevant To The New Millennium? by Rosalind Coward - review by Joan Smith

Joan Smith

Have Things Changed?

Sacred Cows: Is Feminism Relevant To The New Millennium?


HarperCollins 256pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

The fact that a millennium lasts a thousand years is, you might think, self-evident. So there is something distinctly odd about the subtitle of Rosalind Coward’s new book, which asks whether feminism is relevant to the new millennium: not the next decade, or the next fifty years, but the next ten centuries. This is surely publishing hype, an attempt to persuade us that this small, hesitant book is really a big, important one. I can’t believe Coward is seriously inviting us to consider whether women will be campaigning for equal pay and affordable childcare in AD 2720.

I hope not. It would be nice to think that women will achieve equal pay in my lifetime, rather than to watch gloomily as statistics continue to demonstrate that we have not yet caught up. Look around any boardroom: female chief executive officers are still a rare enough breed, in this country at least, for the few who make it to the top also to make headlines. As for politics, when are we going to see a female Minister of Defence? A woman Chancellor? Think of the way Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton have been repackaged, from alarming career women to smiling – or weeping, on appropriate occasions, such as meeting Kosovar refugees – appendages to their husbands.

Let’s look at what the Central Statistical Office – hardly a body known for its radical feminism – has to say about the relative positions of men and women in Britain. On income: ‘While women in non-manual occupations clearly earn more than women in manual occupations, women in both occupations earn less than their male counterparts.’ On resources: ‘On average, women have roughly half as much “independent” gross income as men.’ On housework: ‘ [Men] were still much less likely than their partners to do the household cleaning and washing and ironing.’ This last inequality is such an issue in Germany that the Greens have, rather sweetly, mooted the idea of a law compelling men to do their share of housework. That they face an uphill task is demonstrated by the fact that the recent appointment in Germany of a woman who did not have blond hair to read the evening news caused an outcry.

This brings me to a good example of the way in which Coward argues selectively. When she remarks that ‘in the late 1990s, the fashion has been for female newsreaders’, she fails to add that they tend to be pallid, Princess Di lookalikes, whose bland features are guaranteed not to disturb viewers. And let me throw in a final figure: amid all the hoo-ha about men’s lives being ruined by false allegations of rape, the conviction rate in British courts has actually gone down to only 9 per cent.

In this context, Coward’s question about the relevance of feminism seems bizarre; as do the publisher’s claims for the book, such as: ‘there is no longer a clear-cut distinction between male advantage and female disadvantage.’ Coward herself dismisses the issue of equal pay on the first page, calling it ‘a mantra’. She goes on to complain that feminists insist ‘there is still an overarching system of sexual injustice, with men always advantaged and women disadvantaged.’

Always? I think not. Throw class and race into the picture, as some of us have consistently tried to do, and you get a rather different picture. But the fact that all men do not benefit equally from patriarchy does not mean it has ceased to exist or that, as the blurb would have it, we now live in a society in which ‘women are assumed to be the equals of men’. Most of us are capable of holding a more complex thought in our heads: we’ve come a long way, baby, but we can’t sit back and congratulate ourselves yet.

Coward, by contrast, appears to view feminism as something that got going in the 1970s, did its little job in the 1980s, and is now mostly out of date. Her timescale is so abbreviated, ignoring the great feminist campaigns of the nineteenth century and the suffragettes at the beginning of the present one, that she cannot envisage feminism remaining relevant even for the next decade. Actually, it is not clear whether she thinks it will not stand the test of time, or is hoping to persuade waverers that feminism has succeeded beyond its ‘wildest dreams’ and is therefore redundant. Perhaps she isn’t clear herself, and that may be why the text is littered with long pieces of soul-searching about her reluctance to go on identifying herself as a feminist.

Coward has never been much of a stylist: she turns out serviceable prose in her books and columns rather than setting the world alight. Sacred Cows is short of ideas and jokes, and is a superficial analysis of the past three decades, corning to the tentative conclusion that ‘it may be time to reconsider whether we want to promote rights and positive discrimination along gender lines.’ Given that there has never been unanimity among feminists about positive discrimination and women-only shortlists, this is hardly revolutionary. In the end, Coward’s book demonstrates only that people who think they are slaughtering sacred cows often end up in a pointless dialogue with themselves.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend