Sometimes It's Hard To Be A Woman

22nd June 2012

Tammy Wynette may not be everyone’s favourite feminist (or singer…) and her signature track, Stand By Your Man, has made many a woman’s hackles rise over the years, but its opening line got one thing right – Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. Clare Finney explores an age old – and peculiarly modern – problem

Of all the complicated, emotive words in the English language, there is none so loaded as the F-word: first used two centuries ago and misused ever since. For some it is a swear word, for others a rallying cry. Even today it is still something of a taboo. Nevertheless, when Caitlin Moran, The Times newspaper’s best-loved columnist, released her novel How to Be a Woman, it sold in its millions. Feminism, it seemed, was back.

Not, of course, that it ever really left. Women like Miriam O'Reilly, Germaine Greer and Jane Martinson have been waving the banner high for years. Yet although its founding principle as ‘the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men’ never really wavered, what did change with the new millennium were our attitudes towards it.

“Feminism? It’s about women being independent – financially and politically,” replied one girlfriend to my recent pub poll.

“But when you’re a mother, isn’t it about having the right to choose what you do?” countered another.

While some of my peers argued that feminism was becoming increasingly redundant in our society, the vast majority said it was more relevant than ever – yet when I asked why, no one could really say. Career ladders, fashion advertisements and the ethics of hair removal seemed to be the main concerns, but even here few were clear where they stood. The more we thought, the more we realised that Moran’s deceptively simple title wasn’t a statement. It was a question. How, in the so-called liberated age of the 21st century, does one go about being a woman?

“What do you think feminism is, ladies?” rages Moran, in her chapter I am a Feminist. “What part of 'liberation for women' is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay?”

Put like that (and perhaps the most joyful thing about Moran’s book is that everything is put like that) it’s difficult to see why anyone ever would have an issue with the word.

Yet when I look back at my years at school and university, I have to confess that I did. Feminism seemed stale, anachronistic even, next to all our grassy level playing fields. Where was the famed glass ceiling that we’d heard so much about? When we graduated from university it was as lawyers, engineers, doctors as well as nurses, and we had no more problem getting jobs than anyone.

Then adulthood commenced, and with it the sinking realisation that juggling careers and kids was not as easy as mum had made it seem. Working 9 ‘til 6 I can barely cope with my own needs, let alone those of others. Even so, when several of my friends discussed giving up and ‘settling down’ when they had children I was bemused.

“But economic independence is at the heart of equality! That’s the joy of being a women in this century!” I wailed. After all, this was what highflying women like my mum had told me. For Cynthia Bower, until recently the chief executive of the CQC, it was the chance to “have the lives we wanted, to take an equal role in society” that she was fighting for as a feminist activist in the 1970s. “How can you be in control when you’re economically dependent on someone else?” she says. When she had her son, people said that her returning to work would scar him psychologically – but he’s in his thirties now and continues both sane and successful. Today, meanwhile, options for childcare are manifold. “I’m not saying it won’t always be a tough decision for woman,” she finishes, “but at least you have the choice.”

So far, so equal then – at least, for those who can afford childcare, and that’s another story. But it still didn’t explain the lack of professional aspiration among my friends. I’d been brought up to believe having a career was what granted a woman equality; these successful, educated girls refused to have one – and moreover, did not consider this to be compromising their rights.

Was this anti-feminist? It certainly wasn’t feminism as I knew it. Yet when I spoke to Natalie Cox, one of the founders of the feminist blog Vagenda, she felt quite differently. “Women should be able to do whatever they want career-wise without feeling guilty, or feeling like they have failed due to not being at the top of their game.” Occupying a traditional gender role is fine, she explains, as long as you have the freedom return to work if and when you want to. The most important thing is “not to lose your sense of identity and self”.

This is less simple than it sounds of course. As Chief Ombudsman Natalie Ceeney explains, getting back on the career rung you jumped off is no easy task. It is an inconvenient truth that the best age for making babies is also that in which careers are forged, but it’s one that business consistentlys fail to recognise: “Many senior jobs are only offered full time, and far too much reliance in the workplace is given on the ability to drop everything and work late.” In practice, she observes, the woman who does the school run then logs back on to email can be just as effective as the one in the office. In reality, it’s no cigar. “The most obvious barrier to women's success remains the fact that women have, and in the most part, do caring for, children.”

But is this sexism? Or just an inevitable legacy of a business structure that was patriarchal for the first 4,000 years of its life? With the exception of one incident 30 years ago, all the women to whom I spoke could not recall experiencing sexism at all in their careers. Ceeney is in finance, Bower in health and MP Anne Marie Morris is in law and politics; if chauvinism were still an issue, they’d know about it. Yet their impression was overwhelmingly one of women breaking through.

“Slowly, but surely, the idea that your MP must be a man up for the fight and hurly burly of the house is receding,” says MP Morris. “The same can be said of the legal profession which is seeing more and more women come through.” If, as Carolyn Jackson, Professor of Gender at Lancaster University, told me, the key challenges of feminism are the pay gap and the fact that women are still underrepresented in positions of powers, the experiences of these women suggest otherwise: “I have no doubt whatsoever that women are more than capable of getting to the top on merit” concludes Morris.

Yes, a 10.2% hourly pay gap (a statistic that accounts for women occupying more part time jobs than men) is shocking. No, the fact that we have only four women in cabinet is not acceptable. But it is not these statistics which concern young feminists today. Growing up in a world of open doors and strict equality laws, they know it’s only a matter of time before these figures start leveling. As Moran writes, ‘the patriarchy must be knackered by now. It’s been 100,000 years without even so much as a tea break.” Of far greater concern for her, as also for Cox and her peers, are those areas which are either not improving, or becoming more regressive by the day.

‘Can you vajazzle and be a feminist?’; ‘Inside Men’s Minds: What they really think of love, sex... and YOU!’; ‘The Busy Girl’s guide to… Remembrance Day’… just a choice few of the misogynistic headlines the Vagenda team are sinking their teeth into – and the pace at which the blog has garnered popularity says it all. Within hours of launching the site had 10,000 hits. Sixteen days later it had had 150,000, as people of both sexes found themselves irresistibly drawn to its humour and its cause.

Cosmetic surgery adverts, celebrity cellulite photos, articles detailing the top ten ways to please men in bed – nothing is safe from the Vagenda team’s drive to expose the prejudices and gender bias of women’s magazines and the newspaper they have scathingly dubbed ‘Daily Fail’. “The media's influence on how we view people is huge,” says Cox, “and until they stop discussing women predominantly because of their love life, or because they are in a bikini, it is too easy for people to assume that sex objects are all women are capable or interested in being.”

Instead of dwelling on aspects of our femininity, she argues, we should be treated as people first, women second: “We need to be talked about for the same reason that men are, and in the same way.” It won’t be easy; as Angela Phillips, seasoned journalist and senior lecturer in journalism, points out, “so long as it’s a women’s magazine the assumption is they’ll make their money from cosmetics and fashion advertising, and the articles will be about cosmetics and fashion”. Yet in women’s long walk to liberation it is the final frontier. We’ve got birth control and childcare. We’ve been granted – even if we don’t always get them – equal pay rights. We have equal opportunities legislation and anti-discrimination laws. We’ve come so far – only to find one of the main barriers between us and full blown equality are media created for women by women themselves.

“Magazines like Cosmo tell us about gossip and fashion,” says Angela simply. “Women like gossip and fashion. You do, I do, and that is absolutely fine. One would hope, however, that it would be possible to have a magazine that fulfils all you are, that supports a more radical idea of femininity” – a concept which, if my local WH Smith’s is any measure, is some way of hitting the shelves.

For me this conflict, as epitomised by the magazines, cuts to the heart of what is to be a women in this age. As one of my female friends recently lamented, “there are double standards at nearly every turn. Be a good mother, be a good manager; be feminine and pretty, don’t be so emotional; be sexy, don’t dress like a slut.” If there was an answer at all, we concluded, it fell between two impossibly high stools. And yet, while speaking to women who have managed to straddle both didn’t exactly bridge the gap, it did give me a perspective I hadn’t previously seen.

The turning point was hearing Natalie Ceeney describe how one of the most definitive moments in her managerial career was when a junior member of her team asked her to “talk about handbags and shoes occasionally, like the rest of us?” – and how doing so gave her “the confidence to just be ‘me’”. Suddenly I realised: this was the female equivalent of my dad swotting up on football scores so he could talk about them in the office. This wasn’t compromising; it was being a whole person, with interests and tastes. If the new feminist movement is deemed successful, it will be because it exposes the obvious yet oft-overlooked notion that being a woman is much like being a human being.

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