Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Super women, and mini men

I've never been one of those women who's not sure if she's a feminist. To paraphrase Caitlin Moran  in her brilliant "How to be a Woman", what woman in her right mind wouldn't be in favour of equality for women?

I always felt quite passionately about women's rights. I remember reading a book as a child (sadly  I can't recall its name) about a girl who wanted to be a suffragette, and being outraged to discover that women hadn't been able to vote until quite recently. I also clearly remember reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged about 11, hearing all about Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir (if you remember, Adrian's mother was going through a militantly feminist phase), and being intrigued by the idea of feminism. Later on, I would write a University dissertation on the novels of Margaret Atwood, looking particularly at feminist symbolism, and my first published article, while still a student, was about the graduates and the "glass ceiling."

In relationships, I always advocated equality: at my wedding, I was absolutely insistent that I should make a speech, not because I love public speaking (I don't) but because I had this gut feeling that weddings were terribly patriarchal and it would be a travesty not to.

I haven't experienced much overt sexism in my career -- unlike, say, the City, the media is full of women -- but, like all working mothers, I've faced issues since having kids; the cost of childcare, the hours, the "is it worth working at all?" moments, the guilt. I've seen mediocre men rise to senior positions just by virtue of being there all the time.

So I jumped at the invitation to attend an industry conference, last week, aimed at inspiring senior women in the advertising industry to fulfil their potential. I was there to report on the day and also to speak (on a panel about dealing with the media) but what I loved about it was the chance to hear some really inspirational women speaking about their careers and lives. The speakers included Jo Swinson, the junior minister for Women (she was also at BritMums and is one of the few politicians I genuinely admire), Emma Freud and the Paralympian Karen Darke, as well as senior women from the ad industry who shared their stories.

One of the sessions was on working after kids, and I noticed that many of the younger women who were thinking about starting a family seemed anxious -- that they wouldn't be able to manage, that they didn't see many working mothers who were managing well, that there weren't any good role models. And I do think we have a long way to go in this country. We need more shared responsibilities between men and women, more shared maternity/paternity leave, more flexible working arrangements from employers. Working women still do the majority of looking after the children -- and that can be true even if you have a helpful, supportive partner. We are far, far, far from real equality.

As a mother of boys, I don't have daughters to worry about but I think I can help to shape the next generation. My boys are going to learn to cook, clear up, do the laundry, and all of that (at some point) but even more important, they are going to have it drummed into them that women are absolutely equal to men.

We've read a lot of 19th century books recently (like The Secret Garden, and the Little House on the Prairie series) and I've explained to the boys that while the little girls in these stories had to behave in a certain way, this is not how we think of girls and women now. 1950s books like The Secret Seven, and the Famous Five are just as bad -- the girls have to be good and nice, while the boys get all the adventures. I've told them very clearly that this is wrong and unfair, and only how things used to be.

But I think we still have to be careful. Even in books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, the girls are still the sidekicks to the main event. I don't want them getting ideas ingrained about women somehow being inferior or the weaker sex. I want strong female role models for my boys -- and if I can't find that book about the suffragette girl, then gosh I might just write one.


Muddling Along said...

You definitely need to write that book - there aren't enough books out there with really good female characters

I totally agree too that there aren't enough working mothers to act as role models (it's one of the reasons I don't want to be another one that gives up) - my firm has a real problem that women hit 30 and leave, mostly because they see how hard it is to combine family and career here

Expat mum said...

I made a speech at my wedding too! It brought the house down!
But onto more serious matters - A large part of the corporate problem is still that men aren't "allowed" to co-parent. Yes, a lot of companies have paternity leave etc. but I remember when my older kids were born, and my husband was up for partner, there was NO WAY he was taking paternity leave. It would have sent a clear message about his commitment and would have impacted his promotion prospects.

Was Living Down Under said...

Such a good post! Especially now that there are so many women saying they don't need feminism. Weddings do tend to be patriarchal and I worked hard at "equalizing" all the rituals purely because I felt it necessary to even the playing field so to speak.

I'm reading Swallows and Amazons to my girls right now and all the children play their part in the adventures though I do find that Susan is very "motherly" and takes charge of the camp and her younger brother's bedtime. Partly that's her role as ship's mate but partly I think it's because she's a girl. Though I like that book because the Walker's friends, "the Amazons" are sisters taking part in their own adventures. I didn't read the series as a child though I have to say I'm really enjoying reading it to the children now.

Iota said...

You might find this useful for finding that book:


The point that hit me from all the ones in this excellent post was the one about mediocre men being promoted for just being there. Harrumph.

The other side of this coin is that we need somehow to see life balance as a good thing (and judging by Expat Mum's comment, I guess some sectors are a long way from here).

Iota said...

Nancy Drew, for a strong female lead? Also the series of books by Julia Golding about a girl called Cat. Just to inspire you to write your own.

Jack and Annie in the Magic Tree House books are a good equal lead, I think.

And my daughter, who, as you know, is a huge Hermione Granger fan, disagrees with your analysis. She says that in the first book at least, Harry and Ron hardly do anything, and it's Hermione who saves the day.

nappy valley girl said...

Iota - I do sort of agree about Hermoine. She is much cleverer than either Harry or Ron, and they couldn't do what they do without her. But how much better would it have been if JK Rowling had written Harriet Potter!

Iota said...

Now, that's an intriguing thought. I'm just cogitating how that would change the whole series. I will ask my daughter, and see what she thinks.

Iota said...

Katniss Everdeen, when the boys are a bit older, in The Hunger Games.

nappy valley girl said...

Katniss is a good one. But yes, I think they need to be a bit older.

family Affairs said...

Great post - I've just written one on paying women to stay at home from the divorce angle! I too did a speech at my wedding simply because I thought it odd to just sit there and not say anything....Lx

Mwa said...

I'm having A LOT of trouble with all this at the moment. I've been home for nearly ten years now, with a year's interruption, and I would like to earn some money/have a career, but I have a lot of guilt associated with it. My mother and my husband's mother were always at home, and I think that has a lot to do with it. You are providing a wonderful role model to your boys to show it can be done. I'm thinking of how I can improve my modeling for my own children... I'm not sure I have come to any conclusions yet. Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

How about Akata Witch? Or Zahrah the Windseeker - gosh, I love that author.

Or, if you want history, you might try Celeste's Harlem Renaissance or The Mighty Miss Malone or, my personal current favorite, One Crazy Summer.

Helen said...

Really interesting post, thank you (Iota sent me over here).
My boys are too young yet for me to be able to make useful recommendations, but I'm taking on board the idea that you have to write the books you want to see!
(Also, there's something floating around the internet about "if Harry Potter had Hermione as the central character" or some such, which is very funny)