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15 November 1999

The feminist revolution is failing

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

By 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.

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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.

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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.