“Swept Aside By Feminism”

In the latest of Alexander McCall Smith’s absolutely delightful “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books, Blue Shoes and Happiness, there’s a passage about feminism that I thought was hilarious. The character Phuti Radiphuti, a rather shy, earnest man, who is engaged to Mma. Makutsi, is contemplating:

For far too long men had assumed that women would do their bidding, and if women were now questioning that, then he was quite happy to agree with them. Not that he was sympathetic to those people who called themselves feminists: he had heard one of those ladies on the radio and had been shocked by her aggressiveness towards the man who was interviewing her. This woman had more or less accused the reporter of arrogance when he had questioned her statement that men had, in general, fewer abilities than women. She had said that his time was “over” and that men like him would be swept aside by feminism. But if men were to be swept aside, wondered Phuti Pradiphuti, then where would men be put? Would there be special homes for them, where they could be given small tasks to perform while women got on with the important business of running things? Would men be allowed out of these homes on selected outings (accompanied, of course)? For some days after he had listened to the interview, Phuti Radiphuti had worried about being swept aside, and had experienced a vivid and uncomfortable dream– a nightmare, really– in which he was indeed swept aside by a large feminist with a broom. It was an unpleasant experience, tumbling head over heels, covered with a cloud of dust, in the face of the frightening woman’s brush-strokes. (p. 53-4)

Phuti musters up the courage to ask Mma. Makutsi if she is a feminist, and she replies “Of course I am. These days most ladies are feminists.” This causes some concern for poor Phuti Radiphuti, and as a result for Mma. Makutsi, who is warned that it is unwise to talk to men about feminism as it makes them run away. Fortunately, all is resolved happily in the end.

When feminism is discussed, one of the anxieties which frequently seems to emerge is something along the lines of, if feminists get their way, will men be “swept aside?” I’ve heard it argued, for example, that if women had the priesthood they would take over the church, and men would no longer feel they had anything to contribute. But I’m not convinced that it’s necessary to frame this as a kind of zero-sum game. If women had more formal authority or a greater voice, would this cause men to “lose” something– or is it possible that both men and women could benefit from such contributions?


  1. Oh, NO!!! You mean to tell me that after _ # of books, Mma. Makutsi and Phuti Radiphuti STILL haven’t gotten married? I’ve only read the first in the series, and now I’m getting worried! I adore them both and I will be devastated if things don’t work out. I’ll probably cry and write Alexander McCall Smith personally, begging him to renege.

    At the moment I’m afraid I have no profound thoughts on the problems of feminism as a zero-sum game. But I love the passage you quote. It’s priceless.

  2. No worries; if you’ve only read the first book, you’re probably thinking of Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. (I have a hard time keeping the names straight, too!) Anyway, I’m glad you liked the passage I quoted; I laughed and laughed.

  3. Later on in that same book Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was thinking of feminists. His thoughts were along the lines of “they say that men are so awful, but I don’t think men really are that bad.” Then he considered his apprentices and thought that feminists were probably talking about men like them, and they were probably right about men like them.

    I love those books.

  4. That’s right–the infamous apprentices, who are far more interested in chasing girls than in working.

    I also love his Portuguese Irregular Verbs trilogy, which a brilliant satire of academia.

    I’ve been wondering whether my feminist credentials would be better established if I purchased a large broom. 😉

  5. What a relief! Now I can go on with my life in relative tranquillity.

    I love the apprentices too. I especially like the passage in the first book in which Mma Ramotswe reads a shocking article that describes how much men think about sex, and she looks over at the apprentices and realizes that they are probably thinking about sex THAT VERY MOMENT! (I’m butchering it, but it’s great.) I also like the fantasy Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has about Mma Ramotswe. The way he tells it is so funny.

    The Portegeuse Irregular Verbs are fabulous too. I love all of his pointed satires of academic life. (For example, the main character having to supervise the amputation of three of a sausage-dog’s legs because he’s accidentally been presented as a veterinary expert rather than a linguistic one.)

  6. If the men don’t have some job at church that only they can do, they won’t do any job at all. It’s because there’s no one else that gets them out of bed at 3 am to give blessings across town. It’s because there’s no one else to carry the load they go to those stupid meetings all day Sunday.

    Wish I could see it some other way. But honestly, when I first brought home that crying baby, I kept taking care of her because there was no one else.

  7. I’ve wondered about similar issues, mother of all. In contemporary America, men are less likely than women to be involved in organized religion; giving men status and authority, specific tasks which only they can do, could make sense as a way to encourage greater male participation. I have mixed feelings about such an interpretation, but I can at least see the case for it.

    I do wonder whether this has to be tied to gender exclusion, though. One of the real strengths of the LDS system, I think, is the heavy lay involvement, which means that “regular” members of the congregation feel involved and needed in making the ward run. If women also had the priesthood, I don’t think that would necessarily change; men serving in the calling of bishop or home teacher would still be answering those 3:00 am calls, not because no one else could, but because that was part of their particular responsibility.

    (Just thinking out loud; I could be completely off. 😉

  8. In my little branch, we have about 20 people sitting around in Elders Quorum, virtually callingless, while we are lucky to get 5 people into RS since women staff primary and YW. I know, you say why not give men primary callings? Why not, indeed, except that apparently we do not now trust them with children.

    As a women with 4 callings (not including VT), I am not eager for more to do.

  9. I was just thinking about this issue the other day when I watched one of my favorite movies – “The Full Monty” – which, some critics say, is a movie reacting to feminism. Unemployed men feeling helpless and frustrated by their situation (their wives all have jobs) resort to taking off their clothes for money. It’s a lighthearted movie, but brings up the same issue – why do we need men if women are fully capable of supporting themselves and their families?

  10. Why do we need men if women are fully capable of supporting themselves and their families?
    For the same reason we need women. If a person is useless or not needed merely because that person isn’t responsible for supporting a spouse and children then women have always been useless, and are just now starting to become useful. “But women were important because they gave birth!” If that is a good enough reason then men can be important because they give sperm.
    I guess the whole idea of men (or women) becoming redundant through increased opportunities for women (or men) is repelling to me because a person is useful and important by mere virtue of existing. Whether or not they will help do the work that needs to be done is a matter of character. If men are only active in the church because we give them leadership opportunities then there is something deeply wrong with the gospel (and the only man at church on Sunday would be the bishop).

  11. A specatator, wow! Four callings! (Definitely sounds like a branch.) I can certainly appreciate your not wanting anything added to that. And I think the point you raise is an important one, that many LDS women already feel overwhelmed and are likely to be less than enthusiastic about anything which looks like it might make that situation worse.

    Elisabeth, I haven’t seen The Full Monty, but I’ve heard good things about it. It’s a fascinating issue.

    Something I find a bit odd is that when this gets discussed, I often hear what sounds to me like an implicit belief in male inferiority. In other words, if women “act like men” (one of the standard critiques of feminism), they’ll be so good at it that men will no longer be needed. Yet oddly enough, this is usually coming from people who want to assert some kind of gender essentialism. It doesn’t make sense to me–if women are in fact naturally different from men (and this is the reason why they’re assigned a different role), why would anyone worry that they would be so much better at traditionally male tasks that men would become superfluous? I would think that people with such a perspective would be the ones least threatened by feminism, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Starfoxy, I like your observation about a person being useful and important by virtue of existing. Something’s gone wrong if we’re measuring our value based on the fact that we can do something that some other group of people can’t do.

  12. why do we need men if women are fully capable of supporting themselves and their families?

    Coming from a situation where I “had a man” (aka married), but have now been “man-less” (aka divorced with kids) for nearly seven years, I can tell you that I do not need a man, except in the eyes of the church which says I cannot be exalted or sealed to my children unless I find some temple-worthy man and go through the hassles of dating, temple-divorce, remarriage, step-family and new sealings. Forgive me, but that’s the sort of stuff I don’t need added to my life.

    In the big picture, though. I don’t think it’s about needing one another, but rather about enjoying the companionship of one another. (Then again, I have been single for an awfully long time -wink.)


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