A Look At Life: Women's Lib

8th June 2012

The trouble with women is that you want it all…

Kathy Miller

The trouble with women is that you want it all…

That’s what a furious acquaintance (I'll call him Jimmy) spat at me recently and I'm sick of hearing it.

A senior manager with a good degree, Jimmy has reason to feel sore: his wife of 15 years has just left him, their child and their elegant North London home, for a younger bloke with a flat in a Midlands dormitory town. (I've changed a few details, to protect the guilty).

To add to Jimmy's woes, his male boss, whom he liked, has been replaced by a female dragon who makes his working life a misery. He feels professionally undermined and his wife's departure has left him lonely and exhausted, playing both mother and father to his daughter.

Jimmy might be interested to read a recent survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research, indicating that improved education and equal opportunities at work mean that women no longer 'marry up' (ie nurse/doctor) but are increasingly choosing husbands of equal social status. Some are even 'marrying down,' as Jimmy's wife, in a sense, has just done. The days when, say, a female legal secretary expected to marry a lawyer are apparently over – and partly, I admit, because women are now just as likely to become lawyers as men.

Jimmy accosted me outside a high street bank where a notice announced its imminent closure. “Where will those men find new jobs?”, he demanded. “They'll all be taken by women.”

Possibly yes, although I suspect that computer technology, not women, is to blame for the job losses. Male bank clerks are finding themselves redundant, but so are their female secretaries.

Social mobility, both up and down, also features here. If the son of a hospital porter can aspire to be a doctor, it figures that the son of a doctor can no longer be assured of a place at his father's old medical school. He may have to become an ambulance driver instead. Too bad if his parents are disappointed; their son will just have to 'marry up'.

Jimmy says that he feels emasculated by professional women and asks why women can't be satisfied by marriage and motherhood, just as his mum was. He even muttered something unprintable about 'women's lib', an expression I thought went out with bra burning.

Actually, huge numbers of women still go into the same professions that they always did: primary school teaching, administration, nursing, hairdressing, childcare. Great jobs all of them, but surely no more threatening to men now than they were in our grandmothers' day.

And what about those women who train as secretaries and hope to marry in their mid-twenties as their mothers did, only to be kept waiting while potential husbands collect notches on the bedstead? Heaven forbid – keep the girls waiting long enough and the conscientious ones might just end up with their boss's job. Perhaps Jimmy would prefer them to stay home, embroidering samplers.

Jimmy’s right about one thing, though. Most women do want it all: education, time flat-sharing, the odd back-packing holiday, a fulfilling job (especially if they are single because their boyfriend is dragging his feet) and eventually a semi in the suburbs and children.

Just what most men want, in fact.

Of course men and women hope to have it all, but women generally accept that they can't have it all at the same time. Just look how many women leave their careers when they have children, or take a less prestigious job that allows them to work from home or part-time.

Even women working in traditionally male preserves often choose to specialise in less competitive fields to fit round their children; women GPs and family solicitors still far outnumber female surgeons or tax lawyers, for example.

Poor Jimmy. He's in pretty bad shape emotionally and my heart genuinely goes out to him. He’s worked hard to provide for his family and his wife has kicked him in the ego. What's more, he's having a rough time at the office.

Did I mention that Jimmy's wife earns less than he does and that she has run off with a social inferior? Humiliating for him, yes, but hardly an act of feminist aggression. It's poor consolation for Jim, I know, but there will always be people who’ll break the seventh commandment, as his wife has done, as they presumably did in Moses's time too, long before feminism was even thought of.

The bewildered Jimmys of this world need to accept that social mobility, education for all, technology and materialism – d’you remember all those foreign holidays and that second bathroom that your wife's earnings paid for, Jimmy? – are here to stay. And, as with any social revolution, there will be casualties; there are sectors where women are actually losing their jobs faster than men in the present recession.

And Jimmy might remember one other thing, too: he and his wife lived together before they married, an option that would have been unthinkable for his mother in the 1950s.

So, women's lib isn't all bad, is it Jimmy?

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