I need to write something. I need to scratch an itch that keeps on at me. It won’t go away. It is a niggling feeling. An uneasy feeling that, for all the progress made in our world, there is one huge area we have seen little progress – regard and equality for women and girls.
I know this is not news. People are noticing it more and more. We are in the midst of a new wave of feminism spearheaded by some wonderful women including Laura Bates, Sheryl Sandberg and Eve Ensler. It’s on the international radar. But even with all of this it doesn’t feel like the change is entering our collective consciousness where it should be – at grass roots level. In our homes, in our workplaces, in our social lives and in our private lives. I’m reading a book at the moment called The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. This is a book written in the early seventies about the lives of a group of American women against the backdrop of being housewives and mothers in a very gender-unequal society. I first regarded the cover, which told me it was a feminist classic, and I expected to delve into history. What I have found is that I’m delving into the present too. The more I read, the more I have this horrible feeling that we haven’t moved on. When I saw the film Suffragette, I had the same feeling. And more recently, with the release of data from a survey into gender divisions of childcare around the world, with the result being that UK fathers are at the bottom, that feeling became stronger.
Yes, it’s true that some things, lots of things in fact have changed, and there are wonderful opportunities for girls and women now. But I can’t shake the feeling that the concept of women and girls as the ‘second sex’ hasn’t gone away. Our roles haven’t shifted all that much. Women are still the primary carers for children and elderly relatives. Women still do the lion’s share of domestic chores, and if we are in relationships where male partners share childcare and housework, we are too often told about how fortunate we are. Some people even describe fathers who look after their own children as ‘babysitters’.
Women are still more likely to be the lower income earners in a household, and if we have had children, we are likely to be either working part time in low income jobs, therefore becoming much more financially dependent on our partners, or we have given up work altogether and in the process have become completely financially dependent on our partners.
We are told early in life that the world is our oyster; that we have endless opportunities and can live out our dreams, but the constraints that are in place solely because of our gender are always there. We are even told every time there is an election that we should vote purely because we are so lucky that we have the vote. I wonder how many times male voters are reminded of their good fortune in being able to vote simply because they are male.
Since becoming a parent, I have noticed the inequalities much more. Compared to others, I was fortunate that I was able to keep my job on a part time basis but even saying that, I feel it is wrong to describe it as good fortune. I shouldn’t have to feel grateful that I didn’t have to give up a part of myself simply because I had children. Yet I know so many women who became parents and then, over time, took the decision to leave their work. They weren’t just leaving jobs; they were leaving careers they had worked so hard for. Why? Why can our society not make it so they don’t have to sacrifice their work? I feel strongly that people have the right to make their own choices, and for many women, staying at home to raise children is what they want to do, but for others it is a situation they are steered into and I feel a great sadness that there has to be sacrifice.
I see already the effect that outside influences have on my four-year-old daughter’s perceptions of gender. For a time, she believed only Daddies worked. She believes still that there are things women can’t do, such as go to Space. The day she said that, I spent a long time talking to her about female astronauts and showing her pictures. It seems the Inner Critic is at work from early in our lives.
Recently, Helen Fraser, the Head of the Girls’ Day School Trust spoke about her concerns of women being held back by their inner critic. Brilliant, high-achieving and intelligent young women are going from being successful in education to not repeating that success in the world of work. I read this with interest, agreement and uncomfortable familiarity. I’ve listened to my inner critic all of my life and I’m afraid I still listen to her. I don’t know how to stop the inner critic getting at my daughter. I don’t know how to turn that critic into a positive influence, to enable her to reflect but not to hold her back.
So as I move through early parenthood, I am noticing a silent shift happening where women are morphing back into the roles that our mothers and grandmothers fought so hard to shake off. It is silent, subtle, and so hard to define that if you said it to somebody, it would be more socially acceptable for them to laugh it off as a silly worry instead of giving it the attention it deserves. I worry that people don’t see the inequality that is right in front of them, because they believe we have come past all of that and it couldn’t possibly be happening now. I worry for my daughter and my son that the future they grow up in will become less and less equal. I can’t say we have ever reached gender equality but it feels like we are getting worse. We make women feel they should be grateful for things that men take for granted. The vote being one.
I don’t know what the answer is to any of this but it scares me. It feels like as women; we are constantly pushing against the door that won’t open. Men have the key but if we want to get in, we have to work a lot harder. Is there strength in solidarity amongst women? Should we take comfort from knowing we have this in common with our entire gender? Should we stick together to share our stories and try to make the changes little by little? Or should we be standing up and shouting out that this is not simply a problem for women to solve but for everybody. The roles can’t become equal if we are not all on the same side.
There are women speaking out and making moves to lead us in the direction of change but I fear there are not enough. We need more role models, more manifestos, more strong voices. I thought long and hard before putting these thoughts down on paper, because my inner critic was trying to stop me. But what if none of us said how we felt? What if we only listened to the views of people who are high-profile, or learned, or academic? Or all of the above? What if we disregarded the opinions of the average person? Perhaps it’s time we listened to the average person and let them become our voice. Maybe then, it will start to trickle down into our collective consciousness. For now, I would say, ‘answers on a post card’ but I’m not sure there is a post card large enough for this.