Fay Weldon is a grande dame of feminist literature - albeit a renegade one. She chose her choices - and does it make her less of an icon?
I'll confess, I've only read five of the famously prolific Weldon's more than 30 novels, plus of course her ubiquitous journalism, contrarian critiques, and her invariably entertaining appearances on the BBC. I enjoyed them more as portraits of a time, of a psyche, of the position of women writers than I did as works of lit, stringent and often funny though they can be. Weldon, along with Doris Lessing and Germaine Greer, is one of those writers defined as "feminist," and proud of it - and like Lessing or Friedan, she's one of those who lived as adults in the pre-feminist world. But she's also of the generation that, being of the true vanguard, sometimes seems as addicted to contrarianism, to the opposition of doctrine, as to set-in-stone principles. And that's why she's so interesting (and frustrating to many), as an interview in the Guardian , prompted by her latest novel, makes clear.
Weldon was always atypical: the daughter of a writer who left her husband during Weldon's childhood, Fay (born, rather awesomely, "Franklin Birkinshaw") studied psyc and econ in the early 50s, had a child out of wedlock, married and divorced when it was still outre, and carried on a career after her marriage. Her novels - the best-known are surely The Life and Loves of a She-devil and Praxis, dealt with women oppressed by the Patriarchy. But Weldon was always contrary, and at times has seemed as heedless of the opinions of the feminist establishment she helped promote - and who, some would argue, made her iconic - as of the old order she opposed. She's never had a problem changing her mind: After years of avowed atheism, she converted, a few years ago, to Christianity. She makes no secret to her devotion to celebrity gossip on the Daily Mail website, her plastic surgery, or for her unapologetically commercial work for Bulgari.
She's also critical of modern feminism; she, along with Doris Lessing, notoriously declared that "Our duty now is to become masculinist. It is time we looked after the self esteem of the little boys...Feminism was a revolution that happened. It was an amazing movement that worked. Everything is completely different to what it was 25 years ago.But what happens with all revolutions is they become the Establishment.
She has advocated faking orgasms. And in 1998, she made waves when, speaking of her own sexual assault, declared that rape "isn't the worst thing that can happen to a woman...rape is nasty, death is worse."
In the current interview, she declares, among many, many other things (and do read the whole thing),
She recently said the problem with most feminists was that they were so boring. "They're getting a bit better, because at least they are more interested in women in other lands," she says. "In the last five years, it has been so inward-looking – they have been worried about pay gaps, worried about the minutiae of things – that it got up its own arse. Now, [the feminist movement is] looking outside – you see what's happening to women in Afghanistan and you see the necessity of fighting back. You need to work in those areas. It is too easy for women [in the west] to see themselves as victims and oppressed by men. I think one has to be more rational."
It's this sort of remark - a combination of good sense, hyperbole, gratuitous dismissal, condescension, and contrariness - that will, I think, be Weldon's true legacy. Was she a feminist icon? In a way - as she puts it, "It became obvious that you had to be a feminist because it was such a ridiculous state of affairs." She calls herself "the only feminist there is" of her generation, and in a certain sense, nowadays, she's right: she was, and is, a "choose-your-choices" modern feminist before that was kosher. But whether that's regarded as bravery and independence, or merely weakness when the world needed rigor, the truth is that I think it's this very quality that exempts Weldon from the pantheon of feminist icons. In a sense, she is perhaps a "true" feminist - certainly her real respect for a woman's individual choices, her ability to be an individual, are as feminist as it gets, to my way of thinking. But she faught against being defined by ideology, and she wasn't. And as a result, she is distinct from a figure like Germaine Greer who, while perhaps more doctrinaire, provided a strict and recognizable framework when one didn't exist. Weldon was, and is, an individual - that was her choice, and her legacy, but that can make someone a lot harder to fit into history.
'I'm The Only Feminist There Is – The Others Are All Out Of Step' [Guardian]
Fay Weldon Turns From Feminism To Boy Power [Independent]
Fay Weldon: Rape Isn't The Worst Thing That Can Happen [BBC]
Lie back and think of Jesus [Guardian]
'If you want to find true happiness, just fake it' [Guardian]
How The Spice Girls Have Killed Feminism, Subverted Morality And Embarassed Us All [Daily Mail]