Being female is an expensive business. It’s not just that the lipstick and high heels don’t come for free. Financially you are hobbled from the day you are born.
There’s no way of putting an exact figure on how much being a woman costs. There are various ways in which people have tried, estimating gender pay gaps, comparing pensions and savings, even checking how much more parents spend on presents for sons than for daughters. But so much of this is unquantifiable. What’s the cost of your time, your emotional labour, all those things you do or don’t do because the world belongs to men and you are not one of them? How does the impact of your sex intersect with your class, your race and your location? It’s impossible to get a precise figure for how much each of us is really owed. Still, since no one’s offering us any actual compensation, I suppose we don’t have to anyway.
“Supermum, you’re wonderful, but very underpaid.
Supermum, you’re cook and cleaner, handyman and maid.
If you put in a bill, for all the work you do,
There’d be an awful lot of wages due.”
Ha! How better to indoctrinate little girls into the ways of the patriarchy than by piling on the insincere praise? It’s not as though “Supermum” ever would ask for payment for her labours; indeed, that she doesn’t is the whole point. While we might occasionally see articles which fancifully estimate what the yearly salary of a stay-at-home wife and mother should be (£159,137, apparently), these are meant to be all the reward a woman needs. You don’t need the actual money, just someone to tell you (ideally via the medium of song) that your labour could be considered economically valuable. It could be, but it isn’t. Soz about that.
This is the world we live in and those are the rules. I do not expect it to change in my lifetime, nor in that of my children. In order for women to gain equal access to material resources we would need to revolutionise the way we see men and women, work and care. Right now we just tinker around the edges and have done so for millennia. As a feminist, I believe in a fair redistribution of resources. I believe justice should be for everyone, or else it is no justice at all. However, these are ideals. When it comes to practicalities, I increasingly find myself thinking “sod this, why should women be reasonable? Let’s just that accept the patriarchy’s here to stay and find ways to milk it for every penny its got.”
Take, for instance, the current situation with divorce settlements in the UK. A recent Telegraph report claims that “rich wives are being told to get a job as judges clamp down on ‘meal ticket’ divorces”. I can see why one might want to make a feminist argument in favour of such a course of action. If, as feminists have argued, women are not objects but agents in their own right, why should wealthy ex-wives expect to remain kept women for the rest of their lives? If we are more than wives and mothers, but people in our own right, why should it be assumed we deserve compensation at all? Besides, given all the deprivations women face globally, is whether or not the ex-wife of a billionaire can afford one fur coat or twenty really a feminist priority?
I get this, I really do. Even so, there is some part of me that desperately wants these women to be permitted to bleed their ex-husbands dry. Oh, I know how unfair that sounds. But life’s not fair, is it? That’s what women are told, every minute of every day. Why shouldn’t the unfairness work in just one woman’s favour every once in a while?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be admitting to this. Feminism, we tell ourselves, is about justice. We don’t want dominance, just equality. Nothing wrong with that. But here’s the thing: we’re not getting equality, not at all. Progress is not linear. There is no “right side of history.” Constant vigilance is required to defend gains already made. All battles we have won – on abortion, education, maternity leave, equal pay – may yet be lost again. While it is comforting to imagine a world in which women are seen as every bit as human as men, it’s not something any of us can count on. “Come the revolution…”, we say, never having to finish the sentence because we can rest assured it will never come.
Given that this is the case, I feel more than a little irritation at reading that “the current expectation in divorces heard across the country appears to be that wives should only receive support for such a period of time which, it is felt, allows them to retrain, if necessary, and find work rather than remain dependent on their ex-husband into the future”. It suggests that there is, in theory, a level playing field to which both ex-husband and ex-wife may eventually return. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that women who give up years of their lives for partners and children never get them back. No amount of “retraining” will give a woman the world she would have had if she’d happened to have been born male. And of course, the law cannot compensate a woman for this particular injustice. But what it can do is recognise that women’s access to work and the financial rewards that come with it is not the same as men’s.
It has been suggested that ex-wives with children over the age of seven “should be expected to work for a living”. I’ve been back in paid employment before any of my children reached the age of one. To spend seven years at home with them would have been a luxury indeed. Even so, I suspect that only a man could believe that once one’s children reach the age of seven, the job prospects and earning potential of the primary carer could ever be the same as those of her – because it is likely to be her – ex-partner. The school day finishes at three and holidays are long. Childcare providers do not accept children who are sick, and can of course fall ill themselves. It’s not that mothers should be seen as “natural” carers, but that as long as the bulk of that responsibility falls on women, it’s unfair to ignore the consequences.
In an ideal world of course a woman should not remain financially dependent on a man with whom she once had a relationship. This world is not, however, ideal, and if our aim is to make it so, why should women always have to be the ones to give things up first? Why do the girls have to share the Wendy house while the boys still get to keep the whole playground to themselves? Why do we have to hand over the meagre spoils that come with being female with no binding promise of the wealth awarded to males in return? Why are women told that equality will be achieved by women simply acting as though we already have it? I’m sorry, but I think this is what’s technically known as a bit of a swizz.
The world will not be changed by one very wealthy man being forced to share his money with his ex-wife. As a redistribution programme, it’s pretty limited, to say the least. But there are times when to me, women getting “their share” seems less a battle over lofty ideals, more a street level scrap. Why should women be honourable when that there is no honour in men’s sexism? Why should we play nicely all the time? Men owe us long before they even set eyes on us. For that reason, I’ll always take a guilty feminist pleasure in cheering on Team Gold Digger.