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?