“VICTIMISATION fatigue has become widespread. Not least with the affluent voices of the feminist movement.

Naomi Wolf’s belated revelation that her former Yale tutor Harold Bloom groped her is a case in point. New Statesman editor Christine Odone says Wolf has “trivialised what should have been a serious investigation into Ivy League misogyny”, giving victimisation a bad name. Australians might agree.

Put beside the story of a 20-year-old woman allegedly pack-raped by a group of Canterbury Bulldogs players, with a criminal investigation under way, a real victim isn’t hard to pick.

Feminists are frustrated by younger women’s indifference to the cause. In late 2003, Natasha Cica predicted Anne Summers’s The End of Equality (Random), would “walk off the bookshelves and into livingrooms from Coogee to Cherrybrook”. The book didn’t walk off the shelves anything like Summers’ earlier work Damned Whores and God’s Police. Even Cica ended her very favourable review with a note of exhaustion: “Overall The End of Equality left me not just flattened – this subject matter is gruelling, sometimes nearly beyond belief – but also a bit flat.”

Young women, enjoying freedoms Friedan feminists could only demand, live in a competitive society. Anne Summers rightly points out that some women have achieved all that any man could, in an age where legal, cultural and attitudinal barriers have come down. But there are others who are worse off. Yet this is not just because of retrogressive government policy. Some women benefit at the expense of other women. If the government allocates funding to self-funded retirees (male and female) or first-home buyers (male and female) over funding for paid maternity leave or subsidies for child-care, some females have voted to make it harder for single working mums who can’t afford to buy that first home.

Caitlin Flanagan, in “How Serfdom Saved the Woman’s Movement” (Atlantic Monthly, March 2004) compares slave-owning rich white women and the affluent professional American woman of today leaving her children at home with the lowly paid (often illegal immigrant) nanny. In a backhander at Naomi Wolf’s experience of mothering in Misconceptions, Flanagan quips, “She wanted a revolution; what she got was a Venezuelan.” Feminism’s problem is the phoniness of a group that has made it, while continuing to protest as if they hadn’t made it – like Naomi Wolf’s long ago grope from her tutor.

Gail Collins’s America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines (William Morrow, 2003) is timely in all of this. Collins is the first woman to take the helm on the New York Times editorial board.

The United States makes an ideal canvas for Collins study – size, newness as a nation, diversity – in the extremes of social contact and experience and, not least of all, the relative liberal traditions of its past two centuries. Her narrative begins with an observation as true now as 400 years ago: “The history of American women is all about leaving home – crossing oceans and continents, or getting jobs and living on their own. The centre of our story is the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it.” Australian women will empathise.

Larry McMurtry (The New York Review of Books) says the book tells “a story of abuse, heavy drudgery, inequality, violence, suffering, and early death; and the distance travelled, in terms of equality, was purchased at a very high cost.”

Collins’s vast span of experience throws up patterns that resonate. And by viewing all those women, so much less fortunate than women today, we get a better sense of what a struggle the battle for women’s rights has been, of the wretchedness of its opponents and the bravery, even nuttiness, of its champions.

Take away the relative differences of historical experience – the isolated and frontier nature of settlements, clashes with indigenous Americans, the era of slavery, wagons rolling westward in ignorance, penury and disaster, civil war, impoverished immigrants and the like – and there are universal moments.

Early colonial isolation stripped away many old-world restrictions. Women lost their legal rights upon marriage. Margaret and Mary Brent of 17th-century Maryland never married, owned and managed property and were granted land. Other women did well out of taking a number of husbands and being left as widows many times over.

As farms took on cash crops, women were trusted with the first stage of their children’s intellectual development. By the 19th century, girls’ education had improved and women could teach. Women also entered factory work and gained a public foothold. Middle-class women could afford not to marry – it even became fashionable (sound familiar?).

In wartime, women took men’s jobs. They gave them up on the men’s return, but it changed the notion of “woman’s work”.

For black Americans of slave backgrounds or immigrant women, being a stay-at-home mother was liberation from servility. For others, with the invention of new household implements, women often found their tasks increased as husbands expected more from them.

America’s Women puts perspective into the debate over notions of gender equality. Compared with the first 350 years of Collins’s study, the last 50 have been full of advancement for American women – changes replicated in all Western democracies. Which is why younger women now react with indifference to calls to protest their inequality. They see more complexities while acknowledging there is a need to go further.

With today’s flexibility, opportunity, affluence and pragmatism, women’s groups are opting for negotiation rather than revolution. Programs to mentor women, groups willing to activate female friendly websites, women networking, prodding behind the scenes with those who make the rules, overt targets for the number of women MPs, women in high office supporting other women and so on.

Protest will no doubt once again find its moment. But right now it’s more appealing to use the liberation so bitterly and bravely achieved by women like those in Gail Collins’s vast tapestry of “dolls, drudges, helpmates and heroines”.”

Article published in The Canberra Times