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Is it an exaggeration to talk of a ‘gender war’?

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

What Do Men Want? Masculinity and its Discontents Nina Power

Allen Lane, pp.192, 18.99

A History of Masculinity: From Patriarchy to Gender Justice Ivan Jablonka

Allen Lane, pp.448, 25

According to Nina Power’s forceful and rather unusual What Do Men Want?, we in the West are currently engaged in a ‘battle over sex’. And while that has been going on, ‘another war is being waged. This one is against men, the whole damn lot of them!’ To back up this ‘war on men’ idea, Power cites, among other examples, I Hate Men, a book by the French writer Pauline Harmange in which she damns men as ‘violent, selfish, lazy and cowardly… men beat, rape and murder us’.

Power’s argument is that the all-out assault on men has gone too far. The mistake, she says, is in ‘treating people as mere examples of a negative category, rather than as complex individuals in their own right’. This, she argues, can be dangerously counterproductive. If you categorise men in this way, then you open up the possibility that other types can also be categorised — gay people, trans people and so on — and you merely substitute one sort of unfairness for another.

So what can we do about this ‘war’ on men? We could try understanding men a little better, she suggests, by asking them, as the title urges, what they really want. Men need to be heard. Simply shutting them out of the most important cultural conversations because of their perceived privilege only increases resentment between the sexes. Men, don’t forget, die by suicide ata far higher rate than women. Thinkers such as the academic and self-help writer Jordan Peterson have stepped in to console these ostracised men.

Power concludes by arguing that the aim of her book is to encourage ‘a general reconciliation between men and women’, though she recognises this is ‘naive, if not simply impossible’. But this statement of intent — much like the overall atmosphere of the book — has a frustrating sense of vagueness about it. The existence of the ‘war’ in question is simply asserted. It feels like a fairly outlandish and flimsy claim on which to base an argument.

Undoubtedly there are foul men, and no reasonable person would challenge the idea that men hold more power than women, and that this is unfair. Perhaps in some parts of the social media swirl, or in the humanities departments of our universities, the arguments over this injustice can take on the appearance of a gender war. But in the outside world, infuriatingly, the overwhelming majority of men and women seem to get along pretty well.

And, as Ivan Jablonka makes clear in A History of Masculinity, they’ve been getting on together for quite some time. The division between XX chromosomes in female mammals and XY in males goes back 250 million years. It was only relatively recently that current gender roles began to be forged. Population growth in the 7th millennium BC ‘radically changed the life of women’. For the first time their principal role was ‘mother’, while the emergence of agriculture coincided with increased father-to-son inheritance and an emphasis on technical training for boys. This, says Jablonka, was the moment when the ‘patriarchy’ emerged and the subordination of women began.

Throughout history, women have kicked back against this masculine control. In 195 BC, for example, the women of Rome rose up in protest at the Oppian Law, which forbade the wearing of certain clothes and jewels. Incensed, they laid siege to the forum and succeeded in having the law repealed, ‘much to the annoyance of the Roman senator Cato the Elder’.

But feminism didn’t take on its modern form until the French Revolution. Jablonka writes that ‘for women, the revolution was concerned not only with the status and roles of the king and aristocrats in particular, but also with men in general’. The word ‘feminist’ seems to have emerged in the following century as a taunt thrown by one French writer at another.

Jablonka’s history of how one half of the world’s population has consistently oppressed the other has the control and poise lacking in Power’s book. But both writers orbit the same problem without ever quite coming in to land — that our political class knows very well that such gender imbalances exist; they’ve known it for a long time but have failed to fix it. What’s more, the electorate keeps voting for them.

The two main Westminster parties are led by men. No woman has ever been Chancellor of the Exchequer. Labour, which presents itself as the party of social progress, has never had a female leader. What are we to make of this, and of people’s willingness to vote for it? That the aims of feminism are fundamentally incompatible with democracy? And if that’s the case, could the necessary change ever happen? Seen this way, the long arc of man’s suppression of woman as set out by Jablonka seems to have concluded not in the war of Power’s imagining but in something far worse: indifference.

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