The F Word

No, not that one. Although, to be honest, that one sometimes feels more socially acceptable. I mean feminism. Generally speaking I keep politics out of my blog. It is meant to be a light, hopefully amusing, reflection of my life more ordinary, a record that I will enjoy looking back on, and which raises a wry smile in readers as they recognise their own dilemmas, pleasures or foibles in my experiences. Sometimes, however, there is a so-called political issue which is so pertinent to my life that I end up blogging about it anyway – food banks, for example, or house prices. With various news stories in and out of the news over the past few weeks I have ended up feeling that feminism is one of these issues.

I am a feminist. Of course I am. The OED defines feminism as the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. So how could I not be? Do I think women and men are equal? Well, obviously. Do I think legal rights and social norms should reflect that equality? Well, again, yes, of course I do. As, surely, do the vast, vast majority of men and women.

But somehow feminism seems to have become a dirty word. People either won’t term themselves a feminist at all, or they feel they have to qualify it “I’m sort of a feminist, but I don’t hate men”, or “I do believe in equality, but feminism has gone too far”. Setting aside that it is hard to argue feminism has gone too far when, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Britain is ranked only 26th in the world when it comes to gender equality, I am not sure where the damaging idea that feminism should support women’s rights at the expense of men’s, or that it sees women as superior to men, came from.

I believe in racial equality, which to me means I don’t think anyone should be treated differently or less favourably because of their ethnicity. Generally speaking, people from BME communities have often received less favourable treatment in all sorts of areas of life, and so particular efforts have to be made to end this. That doesn’t mean I suddenly hate people from a white British background, or feel that BME groups are superior. Similarly I am passionately opposed to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, but that doesn’t fill me with a loathing of all individuals who identify as straight.

I mentioned that there were various news stories over the past few weeks which had made me think about feminism. The first of these was the WEF report on gender equality, which showed that the UK has dropped down to 26th in the world, slipping out of the top 20 countries for the first time in six years. I read about this report with mounting horror. Was it, in fact, making a liar out of me? I constantly tell my daughter that she can achieve anything she wants if she is prepared to work hard for it. So far her career aspirations have included teacher, doctor, architect, butcher and train driver. I am not sure which of these will win out – the strongest possibility is that none of them will and she will do something entirely different, after all, I was determined to become a nurse aged five, then unfortunately discovered that the sight of a needle made me pass out – but the point is, it hadn’t seriously occurred to me that for a baby girl born in 2009 gender might have an impact on her career choices. It seems I am being naive. Currently, if Anna wanted to reach a senior, board level position, or to work in manufacturing or engineering, her gender would make that significantly less likely. Her gender also still means that, if current trends continue, she will earn less over her working lifetime for doing the same work as a similarly qualified man.

One of the main reasons for pay inequality is that women still tend to take considerably more time out than men to fulfil caring responsibilities – most commonly children, but also elderly or disabled relatives. In Scandinavia which, needless to say, tops the gender equality study, there is extensive provision of state funded childcare, meaning that parents can return to work very easily. This is not the case in the UK. Childcare is phenomenally expensive and often very inflexible. Most nurseries, for example, only open between 8am and 6pm. Factoring in an hour’s commute each way, which is certainly the norm in London, this allows for a basic 9-5pm working day, which is simply unachievable in many jobs. However, I am not actually convinced that more state provision of childcare is the answer.

I believe that the problem with childcare, as it pertains to gender equality, is that it has come to be seen as a women’s issue rather than an issue for society as a whole. As someone famous whose name I can’t remember once said “No man ever asks for advice about how to combine a career and a family”. This is in large part because it is women who take maternity leave. Clearly there are certain inescapable physical minimums women need from maternity leave. Writing this at 38.5 weeks pregnant, I know I would struggle to commute and carry out a full-time job at the moment (although many women are able to work right up to their due date). I am about to have a c-section and, again, this will take time to recover from during which I would be unable to work in the vast majority of jobs.

However, I don’t believe that there is anything inherent in women that makes them better at looking after a three-month old baby, or a one year old, or a pre-schooler. The legal right to maternity leave led to to the idea that if either partner took a career break to care for children then it would be the mother. This had a significant impact both on the number of women taking time out of the workplace, and on employers’ expectations. If you are recruiting, would you look suspiciously at a woman in her twenties or thirties, anticipating that she would soon be off on mat leave or a career break? Might you, therefore, choose a similarly qualified man instead? It would be illegal to do so, but near-impossible to prove.

However, from April 2015, men will have equal rights to parental leave. Couples will be able to decide between them how they split this leave (other than a two week minimum requirement for the mother). Suddenly the assumption that childcare is a mother’s responsibility, a female employee’s problem, is at an end. This is a fantastic step forward and, in my view, should be being shouted about from the rooftops. It should be front-page news, a hot topic of conversation, trumpeted as a triumph for gender equality and families alike, and yet I have hardly seen it reported. If social norms are to follow legal developments, then we need to talk about this. Boys need to grow up with an expectation that if they choose to have children they will play an equal role in caring for those children. Male employees need to have confidence that if they take parental leave or a career break to raise children, it will not harm their long-term career prospects.

Instead of shared parental leave, the childcare issue which has dominated the headlines over the last week or so has been breastfeeding in public. A lot has been said about it, but I can’t resist throwing in my two ha’porth, because it is an issue I care about very much. At first I was puzzled when a lot of commentators seemed to be accusing ‘strident feminists’ of whipping up a storm over the right of a woman to breastfeed in public. After all, although it may be women who have the breasts, babies come in both genders, and surely the political issue here was a baby’s right, and need, to be fed? But the reason this has become a feminist issue is that the problem many detractors of breastfeeding in public seem to have is that it subverts society’s expectation of breasts as objects for (male) sexual gratification. Many low-cut tops and dresses show far more breast tissue than a breastfeeding mother. Mainstream newspapers depict women posing topless. I suspect that the crossover between people campaigning for the abolition of Page 3 and those who think women should only breastfeed ‘discreetly’ is pretty small. Clearly the problem is not breasts per se, but the fact that the breasts in question are fulfilling their primary biological function rather than a secondary one.

Bemusingly, breastfeeding has been compared to urination, defacation, sexual intercourse, and masturbation – all perfectly natural human activities which we would be offended if we saw being carried out in public. But breastfeeding is quite clearly none of those. It is actually eatingor arguably I suppose, drinkingWhich is a natural human activity we all fully expect to see carried out in public – in fact millions of restaurants, cafes, bars, sandwich shops, coffee outlets etc depend on the fact that we see eating and drinking as not only a biological necessity but an opportunity for social bonding. It is manifestly ridiculous to suggest that breastfeeding babies and mothers should be excluded from this.

Many women are not able, or choose not, to breastfeed. That is absolutely their right. However, we do know that there are significant health benefits to breastfeeding, for mother and child. Breastfed babies are less likely to suffer infections in their first few months, and less likely to suffer diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity throughout their lives. Women who have breastfed are less likely to suffer from ovarian cancer, breast cancer or osteoporosis. Purely practically speaking, when the NHS is being driven to breaking point by the expensive treatment of long-term health conditions, we should be doing everything we can to encourage activities which reduce these – be that exercise, healthy eating or breastfeeding. Unfortunately, our breastfeeding rates in the UK are pretty woeful. 75% of women intend to breastfeed their baby, and yet by six months (the age recommended by healthcare professionals) only 1% are doing so exclusively. The reasons for this staggering disparity are complex, but  clearly few women are going to want or be able to stay entirely at home for six months, so a public attitude that public breastfeeding is something shameful which should only be carried out ‘in a corner’ or ‘discreetly’ is unhelpful to say the least. Commentators complain that they (or others) feel ‘uncomfortable’ when confronted by a breastfeeding mother, but that is their problem, not the woman’s. I breastfed Anna for eighteen months, often in public, and never encountered any napkin-wielding waiters or negative comments of any kind, so I hope that in general society is more relaxed, tolerant and common-sensical than recent public commentators would suggest, but the outpouring of unreason on this subject is disconcerting.

Despite huge progress we are still not achieving gender equality. And that is why anyone, man or woman, who believes in “the equality of the sexes” needs to reclaim the word feminist, and use it, repeatedly, until we get there.

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