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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain