The feminist revolution is failing

Girls are riding high, getting better exam results and better jobs than the boys. But Jackie Ashley

Does Cherie Blair ever have one of those mornings? One of those mornings when it all just gets too much and she breaks down and weeps - because she's trying to prepare for her day in court; one of the children still needs help with the maths homework; and her husband - well, he's up and out the door because he has a full-time career. I don't know if mornings get to her, but I'd be prepared to bet on it.

Even the most efficient jugglers admit that having it all only seems to be possible if you can get by on four hours' sleep a night. The majority of woman who try to hold down a job and bring up a family admit to feeling permanently tired, guilty and stressed. What kind of example are we setting our daughters?

Girls, according to the common myth today, have no problems. The ones to worry about are the boys. Girls are doing better at school, are less likely to kill themselves as adolescents, are scaling career ladders with a sturdy self-confidence, are more naturally adapted to an economy of services and brain-work.

So, our well-educated, well-adjusted daughters are heading for the top. Until they have children, that is. Will our daughters' generation find a better solution to the questions besetting all working mothers today - or will tomorrow's women increasingly decide not to have children at all?

The evidence suggests more and more women have made that choice: the birth rate is falling fast across Europe, particularly among the professional classes. This is partly masked in Britain by the higher birth rates of some newer communities, mainly Asian. Even so, by the year 2010, government forecasts suggest a third of all women here will be childless. Some will have been unable to start a family, others will consider themselves not in the right relationship. But a huge number of women will be saying no to having children.

They'll find themselves on a rising career path, suddenly exercising a bit of power; and they'll realise that if they stop, to give birth and nurture, they will not be forgiven.

For those of our daughters who do decide to have children, will they have to return to the hearth? Barely a week goes by without huge press coverage of another high- profile mother chucking it all to be at home. Recently my four year old announced that she was not going to be a ballerina after all. She was, she said with a knowing look, going to have children and stay at home to look after them. That will be music to the ears of the growing anti-feminist backlash - from social commentators like Melanie Phillips and campaigning organisations such as Full-Time Mothers.

According to Ruth Lilley, a spokeswoman for Full-Time Mothers, women can have it all, "as long as it's over time, not all at once. Once the kids have left home, it's much easier to work, but of course ageism in the workplace needs to be fought."

Yes, well . . . there's little prospect for the foreseeable future of women being able to kick-start their careers along with the menopause. If men at 50 are over the hill, there's even less chance for female wrinklies.

We are the experimental generation: for the first time the majority of mothers with children under five are now going out to work - 70 per cent, compared with 28 per cent ten years ago, according to government figures. Yet for many of us, disillusionment has set in. Take Katie Lander, a television executive for the BBC in Glasgow and mother of two children under ten. She calls us the "lost generation", caught between the traditional roles our mothers expected and fulfilled, and the next generation, who, Lander believes, won't have such high expectations.

"We were sold a pup," she says. "We grew up thinking you could be on the fast track and have 'normal' children. Well, you can't."

Is it inevitable that the next generation will see a return to more traditional roles for women? I desperately hope not, yet I fear the feminist revolution has failed. The male patterns of working have proved too resilient. There are New Men, but very few. Male culture, male hierarchies, have made the feminist dream impossible. In most households in the land, it's mum who has primary responsibility for the children, and until that changes, women will face this constant dilemma.

Harriet Harman, the former minister for women and a declared feminist, sees little prospect of fundamental change: "You can't legislate to change men's attitudes," she says. "There's no government policy that will change 21st-Century Man into New Man. But there are government policies that will help 21st-Century Woman cope with the responsibilities of home and work." Harman suggests practical policies such as better parental leave and more rights for part-time workers. Yet even campaigners for parental leave expect no more than 2 per cent of dads to take it up.

Margaret Jay, the part-time minister for women, (not because of childcare responsibilities, but because she has a much bigger job as leader of the Lords), does not sound as if she is on a crusade: "The choices people make about how they want to live their lives are highly personal, and not something the government would seek to interfere with.

"But I want to ensure there are policies in place that give women real choice in their lives."

Real choice? Today we educate women better and better. We raise their expectations. Then we squander that education, and dash those expectations. We force terrible choices on women - no children or no real career. I wouldn't want my girls to assume that they are going to marry a chap and "settle down". I want them to experience the fun and interest of the wider, wealth-creating world.

Returning to a fake-1950s Britain of quiet, biddable, home-making women, all beehive hairdos and sensible cardigans, would not just be intolerable; it would be crazy in a modern world economy of services and brainpower, and after four decades of good education for the majority of girls. Yet, apart perhaps from the beehive hairdos, that is where the lack of policy and political direction seems to be heading us.

Thinking about women's place in the next century is a challenge for any government that spouts on about newness and modernity. So far, the women's agenda is like women themselves - confused, frazzled, caught between family traditionalists and careerists. Bundling up some childcare initiatives and organising a photo-call of "Blair's babes" is not a vision. If anything in government calls for impassioned and serious leadership, this is it.

I don't say there are easy answers. Women need a further revolution in social attitudes, in work patterns, in male assumptions. What do I want for my daughters? I want them to grow up as stroppy, determined women who want children of their own but aren't prepared to accept the limited choices offered in millennial Britain. More anger, less guilt.

Next time he's in confessional mood, perhaps the Prime Minister could admit that bringing up children properly when both parents work is tough, very tough. And then direct some thought to making work more family-friendly.

He could start by replacing some of those bright young kids just out of university in his Policy Unit with some mothers - and let them work part time. Perhaps then we'd have some ideas that will really help the millions of mothers who are trying to do their best for their children while continuing to work. We need them - for all our daughters' sakes.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood