Women’s wars

Peter Phelps

Forty-nine years ago, at the age of 29, Billie Jean King changed the perception of women’s sport forever by defeating Bobby “No-Broad-Can-Beat-Me” Riggs in a “Battle of the Sexes” match that became the most-watched US tennis game of all time. She later declared that beating her 55-year-old male opponent “meant nothing athletically” but “it was what it represented” that mattered. King went on to lend the weight of her incredible career – she won 39 Grand Slams, including twenty Wimbledon titles – to the campaign for fairer treatment of professional women players.

Thankfully, few now speak of war between the sexes, although new gender conflicts have emerged, most notably the often-hostile debate within feminism about the relevance or otherwise of biological sex in any individual’s identification as a woman. It would be both foolish and insensitive for a man to wade into arguments that have ensnared such seasoned campaigners as JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood (see Sonia Sodha). But it is worth noting a significant phenomenon of the witch trials of the seventeenth century – such as those at Salem in Massachusetts – which was that most of the accusers, as well as the accused, were women. They were of course all being manipulated one way or the other: all victims of the warped patriarchy in which they lived. 

Four centuries later, the fight for gender equality – the fifth of the UN’s sustainable development goals – goes on. Our recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has reminded us that some of the world’s women are denied even the most basic rights, including that to an education. And others are subjected to extreme misogynistic violence, such as FGM (see Nimco Ali). But even here in Britain, the fight for equality is far from over. Most often this is considered in purely economic terms, and indeed a significant gender pay gap remains (see our survey). But money is really just a symptom of a bigger issue: an imbalance in the exercise of power. Notwithstanding all the women in the Cabinet and all the high-profile women business leaders, power in our society remains overwhelmingly in the hands of men. Even the so-called progressive side of politics is not immune: as Simon Heffer writes, despite its surfeit of female talent no woman has ever led the Labour Party.

Take a more tawdry example, the latest episode of the perennial cash-for-access saga: last month’s exposé of a “secret advisory board” of Tory donors given direct access to the gentlemen of Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street in return for their generosity. Given how desensitised we’ve become to corruption on the part of our political masters, could it be that the most shocking aspect of this story is that thirteen of the fourteen regular members of the board are male? Or is it that the sole woman is Lubov Chernukhin, a dual Russian-British national, who has donated over £2m to the Tories since 2012? One can only imagine what insights Chernukhin might have about Russia’s war on Ukraine, given she is the wife of President Putin’s former deputy finance minister (see Nathanial Tapley).

This issue of Perspective has long been planned as a celebration of International Women’s Day, but as we go to print it is impossible to ignore the murderous violence the Russian president has unleashed on European soil. And of course, few situations bring the skewed power dynamics between men and women more sharply into focus than war. Fighting is no longer the sole preserve of men, if it ever was. Women the world over serve in combat roles, including in Ukraine, where they make up to twenty per cent of the armed forces, although they only gained “equal rights” with their male counterparts in the last few years (see Louisa Young). But it was only Ukrainian men who were temporarily banned from leaving their country following the Russian invasion, and the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands fleeing into other countries have so far been women and children. As well they might. While men are more likely to be killed in action, women often suffer in more drawn-out and degrading ways, including individual and gang rape, used by men since time immemorial as a weapon of war.

Whatever men and women’s differing experiences, there will of course be few winners in Putin’s war. But it highlights that this ultimate exercise of power – the ability to wage war – lies almost entirely in the hands of men. And as an example of everything that is wrong with misogynistic, patriarchal government, Putin himself could hardly be bettered.

As men, we don’t have to be tyrannical megalomaniacs to acknowledge the fact of male-dominated power structures in our own lives, and our collective responsibility for gently dismantling the patriarchy. It is not a case of subjugating ourselves to women, but of representing a positive mode of masculinity that is not threatened by sharing power with women on an equal footing. Women would not have to fight for territory if it was ceded graciously. Change becomes easier when we recognise that patriarchy operates to the detriment of men as well as women. The victims of abuse in Catholic Church institutions over several decades, for example, were mostly (although not exclusively) boys.

“The Child is father of the Man”, wrote William Wordsworth in 1802 – a sentiment echoed recently by the Duchess of Cornwall on BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour, when she spoke of the need to instil respect in children, for each other and for themselves, if we are to end domestic violence in the longer term. If gender equality is to be achieved in our society, if the battle of the sexes is to be declared an amicable draw, then that sounds like a good place to begin.

Peter Phelps is Editor at Perspective


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