Until a couple of years ago, I would have said I was proud of the progress we had made towards equality between men and women. I thought we had come a long way. That feminism had really, truly, liberated women and made their lives better.
I think I was wrong.
It’s when you come face to face every day with young women, as I do, that you start to feel a bit shifty. That maybe for these young women, things aren’t as ticketyboo as all that.
There’s one girl in particular I have in mind. Let’s call her TicTacGirl, for TicTacs are her drug of choice in times of stress (i.e. all the time pretty much). She is 17. She is bright, she is witty, she is very sarcastic. She has everything going for her.
Is she having a lovely time, like bright, witty, sarcastic 17 year olds should be? Is she skipping around, singing happily about the wonder of it all, being a young woman in the 21st Century?
No. No she isn’t. Why is this? Well, for a start she lives in the kind of world where it’s possible to buy a little girl’s t-shirt or even a babygro like the one pictured at the top of this blog bearing the anorexic’s motto ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’.
But that’s just the start of it.
Let’s have a quick look at all the lovely things a young woman like TicTacGirl has to be grateful to feminism for. Well obviously she has the right to a career now. Well done feminism, right? Except, what if TicTacGirl wants to have a baby. Maybe even two. Or three, if she wants to feel like she’s running a zoo.
Well that’s all sorted isn’t it? She gets 12 months maternity leave, and then goes back to work. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yes, lucky old TicTacGirl.
But just a minute. If you want to know what it’s really like to have a baby in 2011, take a minute to check out Mumsnet. (Don’t worry, they may snarl a bit but they don’t bite on there, despite what you might have heard.) Have a look on the boards there, and have a look at how much fun those liberated new mums are having. Many of them are isolated, a long way from their families. Many are struggling to manage their mortgages and the cost of living on their reduced maternity pay, because the economy is set up so that we can only really afford to buy houses with two incomes.
Then when it’s time to go back to work, see how the fun ramps up then. The guilt and misery and enormous expense of sorting out childcare. The precarious and fraught business of relying on relatives and friends. (And it’s relatively easy when they’re babies. Wait till you’re trying to sort out wrapping round the school day, the school holidays, pulling in favours, making all sorts of mish-mashed arrangements. Or you have another one.) And then what about when the child is sick, what then?
Going part-time, well that’s a dandy idea. Until you try to cope with your reduced status at work, and the lower income. And not to mention everyone telling you that you are missing the best days of your child’s life when you’re at work. Read the stories of women on there crying their way through their first days back, having to leave their children screaming at nursery, and weep. (Have a look at the support they get on there too. The sisterhood lives on, on-line.)
Of course, if you are ‘lucky’ enough you can chuck in your job and stay at home with your baby. If you can stand everyone telling you what a huge mistake you’re making. How bored you’ll be. How you’re letting the side down. How staying at home isn’t a feminist thing to do.
But at least feminism has managed to free women from all that tedious domestic labour, right? That’s all equally divided, yeah? Soz TicTacGirl. On average, women spend over 2 hours and 30 minutes a day doing housework: 1 hour and 30 minutes more than men. Women spend more time caring for their children than men, and this is true even for full-time workers.
All this ‘fun’ is many years away for TicTacGirl. What about now? Well of course girls will no doubt outperform boys again in this year’s batch of GCSE and A level results. Which would seem like something to celebrate, until you remember the persistent pay gap between men and women. It’s hard to pin down exactly what that gap is – there are lots of ways to look at the data (see my link below, which has some pretty cool data to play with) – but the best estimate is that men continue to earn between 10-20% more than women. Turns out that exam results don’t really count for all that much in the end. (Some good news there TicTacGirl, eh?)
So, back to that t-shirt. This is the one I really think merits the biggest apology. That’s how far over a century of feminism has got us. Whoopy do. Bring on the Fourth Wave. We have fought and won the right to be thin! The right to be judged, still, for how much we weigh. On how pretty we are (or aren’t). And these days we have the Curse of the Facebook Tag to ensure that young women never have much of a chance to forget exactly how they are being judged on their looks. And as for sexual freedom, well we didn’t quite manage that either. Young women are still judged for the choices they make, in 2011. Freedom from guilt, freedom from expectations, are still not part of the lives of many young women. And now there is this additional pressure that we really did NOT have, twenty years ago, to be perfect. Flawless. With the help of surgery, if necessary. Young women are matching themselves up, and being matched up, to an unattainable ideal, all day long.
God I’ve barely even started on this subject. I think I’ll leave it there… for now. More of this another time.
Anyway. Soz, girls. Soz, TicTacGirl. Still only two days to results day!