Right Now 37, Jul-Sept 2002

Male rites and feminist fallacies

Aidan Rankin calls for a more relaxed attitude to sex equality

In the early part of this year, Conservative MP Robert Walter brought a Private Members Bill before the House of Commons. Its aim was to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to regulate the membership policies, activities and 'governance' of private clubs. Similar proposals were debated in the House of Lords. The pressure of government business has, for the time being, kicked this putative legislation into the long grass, but the sentiments behind it remain, and in a society where 'equal opportunities' fundamentalism runs rampant, they will resurface sooner rather than later.

This spring flowering of political correctness is significant in part because of what it tells us about the modern Conservative Party. It has retained, albeit in softened form, the free-market radicalism that was a travesty of traditional Tory principles. To this ideological dogma has been added a concept of group rights and group representation that is rhetorically Marxoid, but in reality closer to apartheid or the corporate state. Ideas of group rights have long been dominant in American 'liberalism'. In Britain, they were the defining characteristic of 'loony Left' local authorities, such as the Greater London Council in the 1980s, with its Women's Committee of dungaree-clad tricoteuses.

Like apartheid's devotees, group rights enthusiasts believe that 'ethnic minorities' can only be represented by their own 'race'. Women in turn can only be represented by women - and only feminist women - whilst homosexual men should be spoken for by 'gay' activists of either sex. None of these 'groups' have any say in the matter. The embrace of group rights and political correctness by the Conservatives, when they are being called into question by prominent Labour politicians, is proof of the Tory Party's desperation. Group rights underlie Mr Walter's Bill, which if enacted would have greatly increased the power of the state over both the individual and the voluntary group. It was, in the true sense, a revolutionary Jacobin proposal, and as such turns Conservative philosophy on its head.

I shall say nothing more about the modern Tory Party, for it is not my intention here to intrude into private grief. The object instead is to examine a few of the political and cultural aspects of this attack on privacy, as well as its more primitive undercurrents. Mr Walter's Bill was targeted at male clubs, especially gentlemen's clubs, but working men's clubs too, which have been objects of feminist ire since at least the 1970s. Significantly, it was written not by him but by his wife, the articulate and talented Barbara Gorna: this fact calls to mind Milton's wise admonition against, "uxorious magistrates, govern'd and overswaid at home under a Feminine Usurpation". Our minds may turn also to Trollope's Mrs Proudie, immortalised for television viewers by Geraldine McEwan's first-class performance: "The Bishop believes, and I agree with him", she proclaims as her emasculated husband nods and dithers.

Miss Gorna had been snubbed at a golf club when canvassing as a Conservative parliamentary candidate. She was not allowed into the men's bar and had subsequently refused to marry Mr Walter unless he resigned from the Carlton Club or changed its rules. Failing in the latter, Mr Walter resigned and with his new wife "decided to change the law instead" - as she expressed it in a radio interview. The Carlton, historically tied to the Conservative Party, has two categories of membership, gentlemen and ladies, with some mixed and some segregated facilities. Ladies, it is true, have fewer facilities, but they pay a lower subscription fee than the chaps. Ostensibly the Bill was not about forcible 'integration'. It allowed for genuinely single-sex clubs, including other Pall Mall clubs which do not have female 'associate members', as well as sports clubs, retired men's leagues, Scout and Guide troops or the WI.

The Bill contained, therefore, a strong element of moral absolutism. Clubs must either remain exclusively for one sex or become wholly 'mixed' with no half-measures or compromise. This all-or-nothing approach is characteristic of politically correct ideology and group rights movements such as feminism. It differs radically, however, from the British tradition of reform, which has (at least until recent times) been piecemeal, allowing for individual exceptions and taking specific circumstances into account. Despite the collectivist zeal inherent in the Bill, there was no overt attempt to pretend that 'race discrimination' and 'sex discrimination' are identical.

This wilful oversimplification, promoted by feminists and their allies, has led to men's clubs in some American cities being treated as if they were 'racist' institutions and forcibly 'integrated' by judicial activism. The Gorna-Walter Bill allowed for the existence of single-sex clubs, but the hidden agenda became more public when the couple were interviewed by Radio Four. Mr Walter complained that the laws covering 'gender' were 'behind' those covering race, whilst Miss Gorna announced her desire to "get rid of men's clubs". These comments, and the unhappy experience of American men's clubs, should warn us of planned legislative adventures. Crucially, they also outline the psychological impulse behind this campaign: a wish to invade enclaves of male privacy and so destroy masculine independence.

Such attacks on single-sex clubs are based on an underlying assumption that private associations are, in some way, public property. As such, their rules are not simply their members' business, but the business of political activists and the state, which can assume the right to interfere.This assumption undermines the whole idea of private clubs, on two levels. The first of these is quite obvious: private clubs belong to their members, who voluntarily consent to a series of rules. There is no reason at all why the principle of consenting adults in private, once noisily championed by liberals, should apply only to the sphere of sexual relation-ships. At a more profound level, clubs do have a public function, and one that goes well beyond charity fund-raising. For paradoxically, clubs are a part of civil society because they afford the possibility of temporary withdrawal. Such withdrawal serves a wider social function, because it enables individuals to put politics and ideology in perspective. Edmund Burke, the conservative thinker and critic of the French Revolution, famously cited the 'little platoons' of voluntary associations as the staples of civilised living. In a similar vein, George Orwell - that most English of socialists - believed that the British devotion to hobbies and leisure pursuits was a brake against extremism of all kinds:

We are … a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup of tea'. The liberty of the individual is still believed in … [but] this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.… Like all other modern people, the English are in the process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, 'co-ordinated'. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or 'spontaneous' demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.1

Voluntary associations, in other words, allow the individual to preserve a sense of proportion. Hobby or activity-based clubs enable an escape from the pressures of work, or in some parts of the country - and for men especially - the pressures of lack of work. They are an outlet for freedom and creativity within an economic system that, despite its pretensions to enterprise, favours conformity and obedience. Single-sex clubs (or single-sex facilities in mixed clubs) allow to men and women the chance to escape from each other. They defuse tensions between the sexes, both innate tensions, which are part of a natural interplay, and tensions specific to our present social predicament, fuelled by the breakdown of family structures and the competitiveness between men and women that the 'equal opportunities' cult enjoins.

"Feminists, like religious fundamentalists and other fanatics, oppose the distinction between private and public spheres. They regard all aspects of life as political and, by extension, their business"

Men's clubs, specifically, are oases of masculine conviviality. They keep alive a tradition of male friendship that is insufficiently valued in the present phase of mass democratic culture, which out of misguided egalitarianism attempts to compel the universal 'integration' of the sexes. Ironically, the traits of boorishness and machismo that feminists claim to deplore in men are almost entirely absent from the men's club. They are places of relaxation and refreshment, good conversation, food and drink. They enable men to express the 'softer', kinder sides of our natures and so become more rounded as human beings. Far from competing with each other, men at men's clubs treat each other as equals. In an atmosphere of civility, distinctions of income and profession dissolve, whilst young men and older men show mutual respect. There are no social distinctions either between married men and bachelors, or (as liberals should note) between heterosexual and homosexual men. Indeed, beneath the progressive façade, opponents of men's clubs are heterosexual supremacists. In the name of equality, they wish to remove one of the last remaining areas of life where a man's sexuality is irrelevant and private.

It is the sense of privacy and intimacy between men that feminists most dislike about men's clubs. This is not just because they are male enclaves in a unisex society, but for a larger ideological reason. Feminists, like religious fundamentalists and other fanatics, oppose the distinction between private and public spheres. They regard all aspects of life as political and, by extension, their business. The goal of fundamentalist movements, feminism included, is nothing less than the abolition of intimacy. Feminists claim to be working towards 'equality' between men and women; indeed, they go further and claim exclusive insights into 'what women want'.

They also claim, disingenuously, to be concerned about men as well, or to aspire to a more humane society for both sexes. However the ideological rhetoric of feminism combines the totalitarian impulses of 'Left' and 'Right'. At one level, it parodies the Marxist class struggle by promoting an economic and social 'battle of the sexes'. At another, it mimics the rhetoric of National Socialism with men as the new scapegoats: the claim by some 'eco-feminists' that women are closer to nature than denatured men echoes the claim that Jews were a 'denatured' people, in contrast to Aryans.

In practice, feminism does not seek a healthy balance between male and female principles. On the contrary, it seeks to universalise the 'macho' values of competition and vaulting ambition. The prototype for the modern power-feminist is Lady Macbeth, who called upon super-natural powers to "unsex me here" and fill her with "direst cruelty". Were she alive today, she would most certainly demand admission to her husband's club. The feminist blueprint is an updated version of Hobbes's competitive 'state of nature': a war of every woman against every man, and vice versa.

'Progressive' movements, including feminism, appeal to uncompromisingly modernist concepts of equality, reason and abstract principles of human rights. This language of modernity thinly conceals the emotionalism that gives such movements their staying power and the primordial feelings of anger, fear and jealously that are their true basis. Mircea Eliade, the ethnologist and chronicler of ancient belief systems, gives us insights into the psycho-logical motives of feminists in his comparative study of male and female initiation rites:
The tension between two kinds of sacrality implies both the antagonism between two magics - feminine and masculine - and their reciprocal attraction.

Particularly on the levels of archaic culture, we know that men are fascinated by the "secrets" of women and vice versa. Psychologists have accorded great importance to the fact that primitives are jealous of "women's mysteries" especially of menstruation and the ability to give birth.

But they have failed to bring out the complementary phenomenon - women's jealously of men's magics and lores (eg hunting magic, secret lore concerning the Supreme Beings, Shamanism and techniques of ascent to Heaven)2.

Archaic societies, with their sense of the sacred and the importance of mystery, were often better than modern democracies at controlling and channelling such primordial jealousies. The Plains Indians of North America, for example, established a high level of equality and balance between men and women. Their system of men's and women's societies - which were in some ways not unlike clubs - combined the social with the sacred, whilst their initiation rites for men and women were more successful than modern unisex 'education'. The radical secularism of mass democracy, by contrast, is based on a denial of any sense of mystery, including masculine and feminine mystery. Its emphasis on the intermingling of the sexes at every level, and large-scale abandonment of specifically male and specifically female rites of passage, is a significant cause of the upsurge of violence and self-harm among young men, eating disorders in young women and the trend towards addictive or compulsive behaviour in both. In this context, men's clubs are far from retrograde. They are vestiges of a more balanced, holistic approach to masculinity and femininity, to which the wider society might look for inspiration.

1. George Orwell, 'The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius', in The Penguin Essays of George Orwell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp.146-7.
2. Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth (Woodstock, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1995. First published 1958), p. 80

Source: http://www.right-now.org/