Girls just wanna have fun

Having None of It

Suzanne Franks <I>Granta, 196pp, £12.99</I

To read a feminist book was once to hear the stamp of insurrectionist boots. How the sound of sisters on the march has changed. Natasha Walters' prose resounds with the sound of designer sling-backs as she celebrates the bonding of femininity and power in The New Feminism; and it's the clatter of those "fuck-me shoes" that you hear in Suzanne Moore's wised-up polemics. By contrast, Suzanne Franks' brand of feminism is more of a soft-shoe shuffle. I don't know what she looks like, but I picture her in loafers, sitting near the front of a social studies seminar.

Having None of It is a well-researched book, tackling one of the most provocative issues of our time: why work isn't working for women. It presents a depressing picture of the trap in which many ambitious women now find themselves - "We did the guy thing, and the guy thing sucked!" as New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen pithily wrote. Suzanne Franks' premise is that the demands of market capitalism, and those of the family, for which women still take primary responsibility, are in terminal conflict. At the top end of the job market, women combine careers and families in a work culture increasingly based on long hours. At the bottom end, women, particularly single mothers, are trapped by low wages, inaccessible childcare and a government convinced that work will bring them social salvation.

Franks convincingly argues that equal opportunities policies have made it, paradoxically, more difficult for women to speak out against discrimination. She talks to an anonymous civil servant who confirms what many women already suspect: that "the battle is lost if we are identifying the pressure point for changing . . . workplace policies as a women's matter". And she puts the case for keeping single mothers at home with their children, rather than packing them off to work.

Yet reading the book is a bit like wandering down an unsign-posted cul-de-sac: you stumble around, expecting to see a way out at the next curve, but you never do. Franks raises problems, but offers no solutions. "If the most pressing question of our age is how a deregulated market economy can be reconciled with social cohesion," she asks, "where do women fit in this conundrum?" We are never offered an answer.

The walk down the cul-de-sac does have a purpose, however. Franks' anatomy of the problem is fascinating in itself. Did you know, for example, that professional women under the age of 24 work the longest hours of any category and any age group - seven hours more per week than young male professionals? Or that one million British women in their thirties, nearly one third of the total, are single? Or that Frank Field, the former minister for social security, complained that in the contemporary labour market women are finding jobs at the expense of men?

There are statistics in abundance; Franks is nifty with a calculator, deftly totalling the deductions and net amounts of a woman's lifespan. Every contentious statement is supported by a blizzard of statistics. Yet the book impresses most when it concentrates on individuals. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the Foreign Office high-flier denied a plum ambassadorial role, tells Franks that the issue is about "being at the top and wanting to be treated equally, not being treated as somebody who has been granted a privilege . . . It has to do with deeply subtle human things."

You want to hear more about such things; about, for example, the partner in a top-five City law firm who speaks anonymously of the rise of "the young male fascists" - men whose wives do not work and who won't make any concessions to women who do. Who are these men? How did they get that way? More, please, more.

The Oxford professor Susan Greenfield says: "We are going to have to think about how women deal minute-by-minute, day-by-day, with snide remarks and put-downs." Quite right. But it would have been helpful, perhaps, to have been offered examples of ripostes to these "snide remarks and put-downs", even though this might have taken us into the realm of the self-help manual, a place where, it seems, no serious book can go. One can't help regretting this division of genres. Yet, in a way, it's a more honest book than The New Feminism, which described the women's movement as a "uniquely happy story".

There is engaging passion in Franks. You can feel her slow-burning anger when she writes of the Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker who argued in 1985 that, "because of all their domestic duties women are more exhausted, which makes them less productive and therefore deserving of less pay". But her passion is not channelled towards positive action. There are many times when the book all but sinks beneath the ballast of academic gobbledegook. And occasionally she is po-faced, as when she berates the Guardian for printing a story on the resignation of a female executive under the headline, "Superwoman's coming home to the family". Doesn't she realise that when a superwoman falls to earth, it is women, as much as men, who put out the bunting? That a rather unattractive part of our psyche demands that these impossibly capable women should achieve a little less?

So what of Franks' conclusion? Well, she delivers this verdict on the final page. "With the formal barriers dismantled, the problem now is to deal with the unintended consequences of a deregulated market economy which according to the capitalist imperative urges ever more consumption." Phew. Anyone willing to have a go?

Grace Bradberry writes for the "Times"

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again