It’s been one of the central tenets of my life – that I am a feminist. But now, I’m not so sure. Why do I say that? In the words of Max Bygraves, let me tell you a story…
It started, like all human interactions these days, on social media. A friend tagged me into a video of Laura Perrins, the co-editor of The Conservative Woman website, and asked for thoughts.
It’s a click-bait video featuring a well-to-do former barrister brewing herself a cafetiere of coffee and then sipping it in the dining room of her London home while bemoaning feminists for “infantilising” women; for creating a generation of “whiners and moaners” who “despite unparalleled opportunity and wealth” see themselves as victims.
No surprise, then, that it caused a few raised eyebrows from those of us who think it’s a bloody fantastic day if we find time to grab a coffee from Greggs.
What was surprising, though, was it took a mere five comments before the OP – a man – told us how women’s problems in the working world were all women’s fault. Not only do they not push themselves forward, but they take time off to have children and so should accept that affects their careers.
“Ah,” I said. “But I haven’t had children and yet my career has been hit by this too. I’ve seen men below me at work be paid more than me. ”
This is when the cracker came in.
“Well perhaps you’re just not very good at your job.”
Now as you can imagine, that had me raging. But leaving me out of it (*coughs* smashed a 183-year-old glass ceiling, been poached twice, headhunted once, promoted in every job I’ve had), what’s worse about this comment is the OP was generally on the side of women – but truly felt feminists needed to understand that women are different and that justifies them being treated differently in the workplace.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument. Read BTL on The Guardian on any feminist piece and you’ll see similar sentiments from its lovely liberal readers: women statistically fare badly in the workplace so obviously it’s women’s fault for not being good enough. And if they are good at their jobs, then they’re at fault for not being aggressive enough to ask for a rise – in other words, not behaving in the way men behave.
That’s right, women’s biggest failing is that they’re not men.
(Except when we do act like men, we’re criticised. Theresa May is a “bloody difficult woman” for standing her ground while Hillary Clinton is “such a nasty woman”. But it’s not just men attacking us – all those women who, like men, believed Donald Trump and voted for him? How could they let down the sisterhood like that? Traitors to their sex.)
But actually, this isn’t the real problem. Talking about a similar theme with a variety of women (on Facebook, obvs), I was saddened to hear that many young women agree with this argument. They’re not feminists, I was told, because they don’t see anything wrong with the present system: they’ve only ever experienced equality.
Listening to the fantastic Media Masters podcast (subscribe if you have any interest in the media, it’s great) with Cristina Nicolotti Squires, the outgoing editor of Channel 5 News, I was surprised when she said the same thing.
[I] gave a talk to a lot of 17 and 18-year-olds, and the idea of a glass ceiling just isn’t in their heads. This glass ceiling thing, I think we kind of… we sort of… as we get older, we become perhaps a little bit more, a bit less… not aspirational, but we kind of… our eagerness sort of goes a bit, and I think sometimes we kind of… sometimes we can use it as a bit of an excuse. “Well, I’m a woman so I couldn’t possibly do that.” And so I think sometimes a glass ceiling can be in people’s minds, because I honestly say, you know, we started off this interview of you talking about what an incredible range of stuff I’d done over the course of 22 years. My gender’s just not come into it at any point. And in that 22 years, I’ve married, I’ve had two kids, and it is, you know, it’s not the easiest thing in the world but it’s all totally possible. So I think I think the glass ceiling thing is it’s often in in people’s minds rather than in reality.
Now, this might be a bit radical, but perhaps the reason 17 and 18-year-olds don’t think about the glass ceiling is – THEY’RE 17 AND 18 YEARS OLD. The only ceilings they’ve experienced are the ones they’re dancing on having fun at the weekends.
Let me tell you another story: during World War II, while the men were away fighting, women on the home front did their jobs, going into the factories and the offices and keeping things going. But when the men returned, the women were expected to go back to their kitchens. They were good enough when the men weren’t there, you see, but once there was a man available to work in the factory, it was: “Woman, know your place.”
Fast-forward sixty-odd years and I saw the same thing happen at work. A woman temporarily given a traditionally male section of the newspaper to edit until they found “the right person” – a man – and she was moved to an equal position in an area usually run by women.
She was good enough to hold the fort during the war, but not good enough when peace was declared.
But wait, says Laura Perrins and her ilk, you’re moaning about nothing. I was a barrister, Christina was an editor – and what’s more, she adds, “women outearn young men after graduation until about the age of 30”.
This is the real problem and the reason I despair – that other women who have done well feel there’s no problem, despite the fact that of those called to the bar, two-thirds are men and have been for several years , that more than 70% of top managerial roles in news media are filled by men and that women as a whole work six weeks free every year relative to men.
As for “outearn young men” – what happens after 30? And what about non-graduates.
But yet, writing about this, I’ve come to the conclusion Laura Perrins is right – a bit. We do live in a time of unparalleled opportunities for women, but only for some. Recent feminist arguments have been about who appears on a banknote, or why there aren’t more women in the boardroom, or why there aren’t crèches or breastfeeding rooms in office. To the women I grew up with in Byker, you may as well be arguing about why there aren’t more women going into space – who cares who’s on a banknote when you don’t have enough of them in the first place? The office block might have a crèche – but is it going to be manned when they’re cleaning the toilets? (And who cares that we say “manned” and not “womanned”?) Hillary Clinton being in the White House wouldn’t make any difference to all those women at the bottom of the ladder.
It pains me to say it, but I’ve been fighting the wrong fight. I haven’t been fighting for women; I’ve been fighting for me and women like me and thinking that will make life better for all.
Yes, we need more women in senior positions, but the best way to achieve that is to improve life at the bottom. I grew up with incredibly strong women around me. My former barmaid mam, however, has never once said she was a feminist, even though she is. She could have achieved anything if she’d had the chance. Today, I see young women just like her – incredible women who could do so much but are trapped by circumstances of birth.
But next to every one of them is a man, also trapped.
I wrote the above two weeks ago and then went away to ponder and think of a conclusion; a nice, neat tagline to tie everything up. I’ve failed. Feminism has achieved so much over my lifetime but we’ve only scraped away the upper layers of what needs to change.
I want my beautiful baby grand-nieces to have the same opportunities as their equally beautiful big brother. But, I want everyone to have those opportunities, no matter where they’re born, the colour of their skin, their religion, their disabilities, their sexuality.
I know. It’s utopia. It’s John Lennon’s Imagine.
But hey, I’ve spent 50 years fighting for it. Now it’s just a different fight for the next 50.
Come and join me.