When I saw on the lovely Care’s site that March is Women’s History Month, I thought to myself, now that is something I can get behind. When I was first at college in the late 1980s, it was the feminist theories that were rejuvenating literary criticism and they arose out of twenty years of steady communal effort that women in the Western world had put into the gender debate. Reading Marilyn French’s novel, The Women’s Room, is a good way to become aware of the tremendous changes we’ve seen since the 1950s and how important and fruitful the changes have been. And the situation is still on the move; in 1999 when I joined my college as a fellow (the word we use for someone in a paid teaching position), I was one of only six women in a fellowship of one hundred and thirty. That ratio is gradually, gradually improving. But I despair when young female students declare that feminism is ‘finished’, that it has nothing to do with their lives or that it was something simply aggressive and undignified, a battle that never needed to be fought. I think this fails to understand how damaging, and how insidious, the old gender politics were. Back in the days when men expected authority, remained distant from their family, let work dominate their lives, and women were confined to the domestic realm and maternity, this was not a neat and sensible division of labour, but a kind of emotional apartheid, where both sexes were refused access to experiences that would have enlightened them.
Gender inequality arose through the belief that men and women are intrinsically different and thus suited to different social roles. In consequence, women were stuck with a fixed definition of themselves as nursemaid and helpmate, as slave and ornament, and if this identity straitjacket didn’t suit they were called hysterical or just plain crazy. When I was at college the big no-no was this kind of essentialist thinking, in which biology was destiny. Instead, we all subscribed to a constructivist point of view, whereby we understood that identity was culturally thrust upon each gender and that therefore mothers could bring children up to enjoy more fluid roles, that they could encourage girls to be energetic and proud of themselves, to climb mountains or run businesses. And so what do we have nowadays? We have a society that still reveres one set of values – strength, competitiveness, retaliation, more than another set of values – compassion, patience, gentleness, whilst still surreptitiously training women to hold those lesser values. We have a society in which women do run businesses, regularly, and do climb mountains, often, but in which they continue to feel more guilt and responsibility than men, continue to shoulder the bulk of the domestic burden, continue to beat themselves up for not being perfect and continue to hate their bodies because of extreme cultural pressures on personal appearance. Where society fails women most of all is in the area of childcare. The image of a mother remains a place of extreme idealization (and no economic recompense) and mothers who fail to meet standards are still derided rather than supported. The lack of affordable, available, quality childcare for mothers remains a terrible indictment of our so-called equal society. Particularly when coupled with a workplace that remains extremely masculine in its organization – competitive, emotionally empty, and inflexible. The culture of ‘being there’ at work still reigns supreme, despite tremendous advances in communication technology because it ensures that the majority of women with children will eventually be forced away from the top positions. And women still prefer to adapt quietly than to ask for equal rights; they will be marvelous and somehow manage to spend time with children, run a house, sympathise with their husband and most important of all, maintain a cheerful façade, because no one thinks a woman who whines is attractive, least of all the woman herself.
I think that a woman alone and independent can manage very well in modern society. But once she starts to accumulate dependents, a partner, and the real deal breaker, children, then inequality starts to slide in, because women still think, feel and respond differently to men, particularly where children or emotional issues are concerned, and these differences are still open to exploitation rather than celebration. One might think that such things weren’t really important; that what goes on in the life of the couple or the family is private, to be agreed upon by the people concerned who will figure it out in the end. Back in the nineteenth century, George Sand said that the equal marriage would provide a perfect model for the equal state, being based on mutual respect, trust, openness in communication and a solid validation of the different skills and perspectives each partner possessed. And I think she had it absolutely right. While we tolerate inequality between two people who love each other, then we can continue to find ways to tolerate a strata of impoverished society who shoulder the worst jobs, we can impose our will on children and demand they grow in our image rather than grow towards their own light, and otherness, difference, remains only ever a threat to protected ways of thought. Love remains the place where we permit the worst offences and yet where we might still find the courage for our most important development. If I had a wish for our society, it would be for a future in which cooperation and ethics were held in the highest esteem, a society of convergence, in which different opinions and perspectives were brought together and judiciously handled, and where this relentless acquisitive materialism calmed down. I don’t think we’ll ever have such a harmonious world, but we can continue to talk about the microcosm of the family, understanding that equality means everyone wins, because everyone has the chance to become their best self.