In 21st-century Britain, the belief that women are best kept in the home is so outdated it seems absurd. It is 70 years since the spotless image of a 1950s housewife was the apex of aspiration for the majority of young girls. By contrast, young women today prioritise education, pinning their hopes on a good job and the freedom that brings. We’re even beginning to see cracks in the glass ceiling, with the number of women in board rooms increasing (albeit before Covid, there were still fewer female CEOs in the FTSE 100 than men called Steve). But if the future has never looked brighter for women and their careers, why are so many now giving it all up?
To anyone without children, nursery fees may not feel like an immediate and overwhelming threat to 21st-century feminism. But a brief look at the numbers is sobering. The costs of childcare in the UK today are higher than the majority of other high-income economies. Staggeringly, one analysis reports that the nursery bill for families with a child under two has risen by 44 per cent since the Conservatives have been in power, while wages have stagnated. As a result, mothers are going back to work, only to find that the costs of paying for childcare during the workday leave them no better off than if they had stayed at home. These cost increases are further compounded by a reduction in the number of childcare facilities, as more and more nurseries close their doors due to lack of funding. Increasingly, women are reducing their working hours or leaving the workplace entirely to look after their children themselves.
This reversal in women’s career development is particularly dangerous because it can be disguised as free choice. Women tend to earn less than male partners and so many may decide that if one parent needs to leave work, it simply makes the most financial sense for it to be them. But this is not a case of individual decision making; rather, it is a political choice to de-prioritise policies that are the bulwarks of women’s freedom. While the Conservative Party may talk of equal opportunity and celebrate (some of) their female prime ministers, we should make no mistake: women are slowly but surely being put back into the home.
Even more frightening, the threat doesn’t stop with women’s careers. This return to the 1950s could risk triggering a snowball effect: the American feminist author Jill Filipovic suggested earlier this year that men with stay-at-home wives tend to be more sexist. If men return to seeing themselves as a family’s breadwinner, they in turn come to see women as dependents, lacking in full agency. If British women are forced en masse to sacrifice their careers, society as a whole may take a step backwards.
But, this is not inevitable – beyond the UK’s borders, there are many successful models for progressive childcare systems. In a comparable Western democracy such as Germany, a family with two parents spend 1 per cent of their average wages on childcare (compared with 29 per cent for the UK). And it’s probably a surprise to no one that Scandinavian countries are repeatedly voted the best places to have kids. Funding childcare is a political necessity, with huge knock-on effects for all women (and men who want to live in a progressive society). It is essential that we fight for better funding so that the children we raise can continue to aspire to reach the top of the career ladder (whether they’re called Steve or not).