I wrote this for the Women for Independence website at the end of last year. Thought this a good day to pass it on.
We marched up and down some Glasgow streets, myself on one end of a Women in Media banner, lovingly hand crafted the week before. International Women’s Day, circa the early seventies, and the sisters were en route to changing the world. Later we would congregate for a rally where speakers, eyes gleaming with intent, promised that equal pay, equal opportunities, and affordable child care were just around the next corner. Tantalisingly near and almost within our grasp.
Second wave feminism they call it now; the era of the occasional incineration of upper body underwear, protests against the objectification of women embodied by Miss World contests. The decade which brought us Greer’s The Female Eunoch, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room: potent primers for a generation looking for liberation but uncertain of the journey-sometimes even the precise destination.
Greer in particular argued that the goal was not equality with men with what she perceived as the implicit restrictions of that aim; rather that women found ways and means to fulfil their own potential, march to sound of their own drum, construct their own comfort zone in an unexplored section of the human universe.
These and other then radical publications took on and teased out the arguments marshalled in Betty Friedan’s earlier The Feminine Mystique – a transatlantic cri de coeur from women who’d sacrificed higher education and career opportunities for the kind of domestic life which stifled rather than nurtured female ambition. The Stepford Wives generation for whom their husbands’ professional fulfilment was deemed sufficient satisfaction.
Whatever you think of the success of American television’s Mad Men, which ran for seven series chronicling the lives and times of the male executives in the 1960’s who ran Madison Avenue’s top advertising agencies, few would dispute the accuracy of the gender roles depicted. The women in ancillary roles accepting that the reins of power would be held by their male bosses. Bosses whose idea of marital fidelity was keeping their mistresses’ numbers in a separate contacts book.
The prevailing ethos was perhaps best summed up by the wife sent for psychiatric help for failing to summon sufficient gratitude for the material benefits in her emotionally and intellectually sterile life, and whose psychiatric reports were automatically dispatched to her husband.
It’s worth reflecting on some of that feminist history, if only to remind the daughters and granddaughters of the era that feminism’s victory has been greatly exaggerated. A throwaway line which should long have been dispensed with is the baffling term ‘post feminism’. Perhaps I was off work the day that equal pay, equal opportunities and affordable child care all came to pass as we had carelessly predicted.
There have been positive developments; of course there have. In sectors like medicine women students now proliferate. Childcare, whilst still problematical and often unaffordable has moved up the political agenda significantly.
The UK has had a female Prime Minister – a decidedly mixed blessing – whilst the United States may be on course for its first female president. Here in Scotland the three main political parties now all have female leaders under the age of 50 – a massive and massively welcome achievement.
Yet half a century on from the legislation enacted in the UK to eradicate pay differentials for work of equal value and embed equality of opportunity these same fault lines which had my generation on the march remain stubbornly in place. The Scottish parliament does significantly better than Westminster in terms of female representation, but has slipped backwards from its initial world ranking. The Commons remains overwhelmingly still a boys’ club.
In the top ranks of the judiciary, academia, and the scientific community, women in the most senior roles are still enough of a novelty to be considered newsworthy. Nor can we dismiss this as a merely a continuing male conspiracy to hold on to power; although the propensity of male employers to regard pregnancy as a condition free from masculine intervention continues.( A secular twist on immaculate conceptions.) For historically women have a poor track record of applying for posts for which they refuse to believe they are more than well qualified.
A senior female banker once mused that if she advertised an executive position the most apposite female candidates would presume they were inadequate, whilst the least probable men would cheerfully apply.Meanwhile successive attempts to broaden the scope of paternity leave – even to allow the choice as to which parent takes time off to rear infants – have met with resistance from both companies and many men too fearful that prolonged absence will impair their chances of promotion and advancement. They’re not wrong either. Ask any working mother.
In even the most enlightened partnerships the assumption too often still remains that any domestic crisis from sick children to the latters’ dental appointments to the shopping for and assembling of the evening meal are the responsibility of the women. It is changing. It is changing with a generation of young men who understand that their relationship with their children is predicated on their being an active part of their nurturing.
A generation of young men who think that you don’t need the skills of a masterchef to cook a family meal, and who take genuine pride in the achievements of female partners every where those overshadow their own.
But to say such changes have occurred at snails’ paces is to do a disservice to the garden mollusca. The cultural revolution which we thought the seventies imminently heralded still has too few influential folk anywhere near the barricades.
So when people ask – and they did – why there was a need for a discrete Women for Independence movement during the 2014 campaign and beyond, the answer is not just that women do things differently. Or that they needed a safe listening space for their sometimes inchoate views on the merits of a free standing Scotland though they did. For me the arrival of Women for Independence was proof that 21st century women understood that they too had an important new chapter to write. And as it grew and developed I was proud to have been able to join its ranks.
That day in Perth, a fortnight after our hopes of an independent Scotland were put on hold, when hundreds of women journeyed hundreds of miles to keep the faith, was one of the most inspirational gatherings I’ve ever attended. Women of all ages, all backgrounds, different political perspectives determining that the energy generated would not be dissipated, but converted into community activism until such time as the core demand was again the subject of a national franchise.
There are various views as to when that second referendum might be deemed appropriate. My plea is only that it’s not delayed over long. Some of us have been marching for a very long time. The spirit is intact; the joints are complaining.