That’s my advice to my daughters. I look forward to the day when they can tell me I was wrong. I hope they’ll be able to say that being a female parent doesn’t leave them at a disadvantage. But between now and then, I fear they’ll face a struggle.
I wish I could sound more optimistic. As a born feminist, I’ve always believed women could rule the world. In primary school, the principal dubbed me a ‘right wee women’s libber’. I took it as a compliment, years before I fully understood what it meant. But Mary Wollstonecraft, the grande dame of feminism, would’ve been proud of me. I used to turn the dullest classroom tasks into chances for vindication. My spelling-practice sentences forever started with ‘the woman…’ instead of the default ‘man’. And this Amazon drove bulldozers and scaled the highest peaks. For, although I knew things weren’t exactly equal, growing up in the ‘80s I didn’t see any obstacles. Girls were achieving academically, there were laws against discrimination. Yet, through the twenty-first century, I’ve gone sceptical…
What happened in those intervening years? Did feminism get hijacked by the capitalist myth of ‘meritocracy’ sometime during the reign of Maggie Thatcher? Or was it the cosmetics industry conjuring, with its mascara wand, a new paragon of femininity – one who’s ‘worth it’? In all likelihood, it was a combination of these highly compatible forces. We girls apparently fell for it. Sexism was dead. Women could be prominent. If they used their brains wisely, never questioning the tilted playing field of male-oriented workplaces. It also helped, of course, if they had perfect figures and flawless faces.
Feminism became a dirty word, reserved for bitchy losers. Apart from when it was sanitised and deconstructed in university courses. By the noughties, it’d already gained the prefix ‘post’. And, though women knew their trials were far from over, calling yourself a feminist seemed a bit passé in that era of bling and booty. Women’s concerns were more material, judging by the media space accorded to ‘It Bags’ and Botox. TV schedules bulged with celebrity chefs and programmes devoted to lavish home improvement. Not that I ever watched them. I was occupied with babies, studying and trying to hold onto whatever work I could get. Without the designer buggies and infant monitors suddenly deemed essential items in the business of modern motherhood. Somehow I never joined the cult of ‘yummy mummy’. Mental note to my less-than-dutiful daughters… don’t be duped by Gwyneth Paltrow’s gooped-up version of maternity!
Times, though, are a-changin’ and feminism is enjoying quite a comeback. During an economic melt-down. Well, perhaps that’s more than mere coincidence. Women are realising that there is such thing as society and that it’s rife with injustice and inequality. But is this latest wave of feminism as radical or as significant as its predecessors? Can it bring real reform, like the Suffragettes or the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Or is it just successful, still mostly ‘Western’, women striving to out-perform their male counterparts? To have as much stuff, dosh, sex, prestige… as the guys of the upper echelons. What has it got to offer the wider sisterhood? Those of us who may not be in a position to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recommends.
And dare I say the c-word? Yes, let’s talk about children. Do feminists skirt too lightly around the delivery suite? After three painful visits, I’ll admit it’s not the prettiest of places. But childbirth is an experience that, at some point in our lives, most women share. It has a massive impact on our identities. Shaping new roles we assume… and boxes into which we’re often shoved. Motherhood is a very complex construct. And it’s one with which feminism must constantly engage. The challenges faced, for instance, by the frazzled mum who’s juggling job and child-rearing or the pregnant teenager trying to cope on social welfare are familiar. But does that mean they’ve ever been addressed? Even the aspiring graduate is likely to find her options slashed if a ‘Clearblue’ pee-stick turns positive before she’s established her career path. Qualifications quickly devalue when the stork arrives in your biological prime. Instead, childcare serves as the litmus test of a mother’s employability. Whenever it’s too expensive or difficult to schedule around working hours, kids become a distinct liability. This Catch-22 scenario is typical of recessionary Ireland. Personally, I’m au fait with its bitter reality.
So where’s the feminist clamour for a pro-women work-life balance? Beyond occasional voices that tend to fade too fast. In Ireland’s recent abortion debate, a question rarely heard was ‘why do women not want children?’ It’s no longer about the risk of stigma within a quasi-theocracy. Frequently, it’s that another ‘hungry mouth’ could push a family into poverty or that, in the work-sphere, an unplanned baby-bump equates to professional suicide. Such reasons call for reflection on the social structures behind them. How much ‘choice’ do women really have in a chauvinistic world? How woman-friendly are even the most ‘developed’ of nations?
And what about the larger part of the planet, countries in which women’s role in society is critically defined by reproduction? Where this can be a death sentence – every day, according to the WHO, 800 women die of preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of these fatalities in developing countries. Places where women labour under harsh conditions simply to feed their children… sometimes at the expense of their own lives. The majority of the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh were female. What does feminism have to say about women slaving in dangerous sweat-shops to make clothes for their Western sisters? About girls deprived of schooling, married off at an early age? The tragedy of the child-bride who died last week in Yemen, highlighted the horrors of a practice often associated with dowry customs and their consequences for poor families. Young Malala Yousafzai, who defied the bullets of misogynistic extremists and who continues her fight for girls’ right to education, sets us an extraordinary example. We feminists from affluent states have a lot to learn.
Surely these are issues more important than the ‘politics’ of body hair – a popular theme in current feminist argument. Or women’s need for porn, despite Germaine Greer’s description of it as a ‘huge wart’ that’s inherently anti-feminist. I’m not denying there are different pressures on girls growing up in Ireland to those felt by their peers in Pakistan. And on the subject of pornography, its internet ubiquity is something that scares me stiff – especially as my daughters reach adolescence. It’s a frightening thought that teenagers now have a cyber-skewed concept of what constitutes a relationship. Feminists rightly condemn this sinister influence which exposes girls to new forms of abuse. Yet they’re more ambivalent about ‘erotic’ novels, featuring female characters in archaic roles of submission, when these are written and gobbled up by middle-aged, middle-class women. Double standards?
I recently read a collection of essays called ‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’, its title subverting that of the bestselling ‘raunchy’ trilogy. The volume compiled the views of fifty women – many with a background in either the arts or journalism. Its purpose was to look at ‘what being a woman means to them and to those around them today’. I found some of its entries rather self-pleasuring. Orgasmic paeans to feminism, albeit slightly more nuanced than Caitlin Moran’s riff on how to be a person with a vagina.
Other contributions were, however, powerful. Sayantani DasGupta probed how Western narratives on gender oppression can often ‘reinforce racist/imperialist assumptions’ by portraying it as being ‘worse’ in non-Western countries. International coverage of gang-rape and murder in India can indeed mask attention from grim statistics much closer to home. In the UK and Ireland rape convictions are in the abysmal region of 6 to 7% and British figures indicate that 90% of cases go unreported. At the same time, rape as a weapon of war – now widespread in Syria – attracts little media interest. So who decides which woman’s story needs to be told… and why? As feminists, we have to ask ourselves if we’re guilty of issue selectivity. Do we just jump on certain bandwagons?
Even in relation to less serious matters, does feminism represent all the shades along its spectrum? Where, for example, is the Irish campaign for greater parental equality? When surveys on the topic repeatedly confirm that mothers in Ireland do the lion’s share of housework and raising children. From the outset of our marriage, my husband and I have divided domestic chores. Initially this came as shock to a guy from the Balkans, but he managed to get the hang of it. After our kids were born, though, I had to adjust my life to function as ‘always-on’ parent while he continued with his, relatively unaffected. This paradigm – reliant on the multi-tasking superwoman – is perpetuated by the state’s lip service to paternity. Ireland lacks an equitable system which grants adequate leave to both mothers and fathers, as is the norm in Scandinavian countries. And, socially, we’re still a long way from ‘fifty-fifty’ parenting.
So my message to my girls is… hold off on the children! Freeze your eggs and wait until there’s genuine liberation. Or you’re earning a salary sufficient to pay other women to look after your offspring – such are the (male-devised) principles of supply and demand. Don’t be deceived into thinking the world’s your oyster. It can shut on you clam-tight with the burgeoning pearl of an embryo. For feminists, this mother of all battles is yet to be won. Be careful then, my dears. Don’t fall in love too soon. And never, when you’re twenty-one, let your heart be charmed by a Bosnian!
My daughters just roll their eyes. They’ve heard this kind of spiel a trillion times. Headstrong like their father and as rebellious as their mother, it’s most unlikely they’ll listen. Though, at least, I’m sure of one thing – they’ll belong to the next generation of feminists.
Fifty Shades of Feminism – Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, Virago 2013