Read 'What Women Want' by Ella Whelan (but don't take it to The British Library)
Updated: Sep 16, 2018
Upon entering The British Library near King’s Cross it is common to have one’s bag inspected and on this occasion the security guard pulled out of my rucksack a copy of What Women Want by Ella Whelan. In loud fits of laughter he showed the book to two colleagues who also started laughing. It’s lucky for them, drunk with mockery, that I wasn’t trying to smuggle something untoward into the library. “I don’t need to read it,” howled one. ‘You don’t know this?’ wept the other guard, referring to the book’s title, and looking at me.
No, is the answer.
Ella Whelan’s book though is not a self-help guide aimed at middle aged, heterosexual men, any more than the Mel Gibson movie of the same name. To be fair to Whelan, the subheading better describes her book’s intentions: Fun, Freedom And An End To Feminism. So when those security guards find out that the book is written by a writer who aligns herself to old school, feminist views and is sceptical (to say the least) of contemporary, ‘third wave’ feminism, the laugh will be on them.
As I surveyed its thinness, I was initially disappointed to receive Whelan’s book; I still half suspect that I have an abridged version. It is even more disappointing when finding out that Whelan has the caustic wit and candour of a late night, stand-up comedian. What Women Want is an opportunity for a few withering put-downs and I suppose the best put-downs are short - why would the writer elaborate too much on those who irritate her, even if she is funny?
I think that the main target of Whelan’s polemic are rich, often famous, public figures (not always women) who claim to speak in the interests of all women. In prioritising concerns about twitter invective and Donald Trump these public figures are overlooking something: female liberation trumps everything and nothing is more important to Whelan than free speech. Moreover, women’s freedom and potential is threatened by any attempt at singling them out for special protection:
More dangerous than any tweet or Facebook comment is the idea that women should be protected from language. (Whelan, 2017, P. 33)
Whatever any secondary school teacher thinks about this quotation it seems to me to touch upon a pretty fundamental issue: what are the limits to free speech, if any? To follow this, what are the costs and benefits related to absolute free speech? These are important questions for the senior school student to think about, whether bound for university or the job market.
There is no doubt (Whelan documents it herself) that women suffer online trolling and abuse, in some cases (it would seem) because they are women. However, in the same way that the playground bully does not often desist upon finding out that their behaviour has affected others, the online troll is not likely to disappear easily: “the best thing for an annoying bully is to let them know that they don’t bother you” (p. 33). It might seem tempting to legislate against online trolling, but what is the price for freedom?
Implied in Whelan’s book title is the idea that freedom itself is desirable. The default position of most people is to agree that it is. Like democracy, capitalism and even formal education, freedom is not necessarily perfect. It comes with challenges and what I take out of Whelan’s book is that if young women (and men) wish to experience true fulfilment and meaning they will undoubtedly have to encounter challenges and risks. It is better to negotiate freedom than to compromise it. In that sense, What Women Want is as applicable to young men as young women (although congratulations to any teacher who can make a book about feminism appeal to a typical teenage boy).
What Women Want offers the chance of interesting classroom discussion about the status of women in a free society. If Whelan is wrong, that most women seek “an end to feminism”, her book will help to consolidate why she is wrong - it is nothing if not adversarial. I believe it has a place in every school library, perhaps with more appeal to female students. Having ‘thin-shamed’ the book from the outset I can at least take solace in the assumption that such criticisms would brush off any contemporary, anti-feminist. The last thing I want is to irritate anyone at Spiked.
Whelan, E. (2017) What Women Want: Fun, Freedom And An End To Feminism, Connor Court Publishing: Australia