I'm not saying there isn't further to go for women's equality, but a lot of the key feminist cause celebres are issues for everyoneBy Julia Hartley-Brewer: I had to break some terrible news to my young daughter this morning.
At the tender age of nine, I knew that what I was going to tell her would shake her world to the core and affect her life forever.
We live, I gently explained, in a patriarchal society that limits women's choices and that she will never be truly free to be all that she can be simply because she was born a girl.
My daughter shook her head in bemused disbelief and, with a disdainful roll of her eyes, went off to clean her teeth as she pondered whether to be a doctor, a stable girl or Prime Minister when she grows up. - I guess she must have missed the memo.So what had prompted this grand revelation from mother to daughter? Well, last night I attended a Guardian newspaper-sponsored event at the National Theatre to discuss whether feminism is “the new F-word”. Everyone else there had definitely got the memo. The whole place positively oozed with patriarchal oppression.
Here we were, a bunch of highly educated, well paid, successful women sitting in a theatre moaning about how women are being held back by sexism. Cue the irony klaxon.
I was, for my sins, one of six panellists who debated, along with host Jane Garvey of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, the role and aims of modern day feminism in front of an audience of a few hundred people whose idea of a good night out is paying £15 to go to the National Theatre on a wet Thursday in December to discuss feminism. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.
I normally turn down these sorts of invitations because, to be brutally frank, I would rather pull out my own fingernails. But for some reason I had said yes.
So I spent most of the evening being lectured on how to be a proper feminist by a 17 year old fellow panellist.
If only I could have met her before I became the third ever female political editor of a national newspaper in Britain! If only my mother had been able to seek her advice when, as a divorced mum of two, she decided to become a doctor in the 1970s! If only we had known then what that 17 year old knows now!
She was, to be fair, a very bright, articulate and sincere 17 year old but, nevertheless, a teenager. Luckily that didn't stop her knowing that women only become the main carers for their children because they are forced to be, by their limited life choices, dominated as they are by the patriarchy.
It definitely isn’t because women, by and large, really quite like being mothers and enjoy spending time with their kids. No, that would be silly – despite the fact that poll after poll has shown that most women would prefer to work part-time and take a pay cut precisely so they can see more of their children. But what do they know?
According to some of the angrier audience members, women are also being forced to do all the housework. Presumably, all of these women's husbands are standing over them, threatening them with violence if they don't do the laundry. My suggestion that they either choose to marry different men or simply stop doing the housework was met with utter incredulity.
Who, came one angry question, did I represent? I explained that I didn’t represent anyone but myself and that no one on the panel was speaking for any particular group of women because we, just like men, are all individuals and don’t necessarily all think the same way just because we share the same intimate body parts.
I was, of course, quite wrong about this. Indeed, there seemed to be some surprise and not a little crossness at the concept of anyone daring to dissent from the accepted truth. What sort of feminist was I, anyway?
The event, it turned out, was essentially a love-in for the Women's Equality Party whose leader, Sophie Walker, was also on the panel. It seemed that I was alone in thinking that the very existence of the party takes women's equality back 20 years by isolating so-called "women's issues" from the mainstream of British politics.
The WEP will not rest until we have complete equality between the sexes and that, dear friends, means quotas for women in Parliament and in the boardroom (cue wild applause). When I pointed out that having total equality of opportunity might not necessarily result in 50 per cent of engineers or MPs being women, just as it probably won't result in 50 per cent of nurses or primary school teachers being men, the audience looked at me as if I’d just endorsed Tyson Fury as the next Women’s Minister.
Women, I explained, make choices about their own lives and sometimes, for many different reasons, those choices will be different from the ones men make. But, once again, I was just being naïve: women only make those particular choices because they are indoctrinated from a young age by societal expectations of gender-specific roles. That was me told.
Asked to talk about my feminism, I pointed out that I rarely think about it. I just, like millions of other women, get on with my life and made the choices that suited me and my family.
Ah, yes, but I’m lucky to be white and middle class so of course more choices are open to me. Indeed that is true. Although I like to think that being good at what I do and working hard may have played a small part along the way. And is it really the case that working class black men have life so much easier than working class black women simply because they are men?
A few audience members questioned why there were no (as far as we were aware) lesbian or transgender women on the panel of six. Interestingly, though, no one suggested that it might have been useful to have a male perspective on the whole thing. Clearly sexism works in mysterious ways.
All in all, I learned a lot from the evening, mostly to remember to turn down invitations to future such events. But I also learned that the women who are leading the feminist cause in 21st century Britain are so out of touch with how most ordinary women live and think about their lives that they may as well be on another planet.
I'm not saying there isn't further to go for women's equality, but I just don’t see a lot of the key feminist cause celebres as “women’s issues”. Childcare, for instance, is a parents’ issue, and rape and domestic violence aren’t crimes against women, they’re simply crimes.
And, yes, of course there are vital concerns like FGM, forced marriage and access to education for many girls and women in developing countries. But are we really pretending that a woman's lot in life in 21st century Britain is so bad?
I'd have thought that when feminists are spending their time complaining about pictures of women on banknotes and having to pay 75p a year in VAT on their tampons, then life is probably pretty good.
Frankly, after an evening debating the role of feminism in today’s Britain, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry (but that's female hormones for you).
Either way, I have a funny feeling that my nine year old daughter will choose to live her life the way she wants to live it, whether the Patriarchy or the Sisterhood likes it or not.
Thanks to J4MB