Place of Speech: Business and Professional Women Caboolture
Date of Speech: Friday 1st November 2013
Thank-you for asking me to talk this morning about modern feminism. I’m delighted to be here. Recently I have felt as though I have been brought out of retirement – as for the last 20 years feminism has not been such a popular topic.
And I am going to start with a story about feminism 100 years ago.
In the 1970s I went to London to do my PhD – on women and men talking. It was the beginning of the massive wave of feminism – set in motion by Germaine Greer. It was a most exhilarating time, and I was delighted to be caught up in it.
Life was frenetic – physically, intellectually, politically. I was a member of so many different groups doing so many different things
- doing the research for my PhD – taping the talk of women and men
- reading and writing about feminism – more than 20 books in 20 years – mostly handwritten and without the aid of computers
- setting up the Women’s Research and Resources Centre – (all volunteers) so we could keep in touch with each other and share findings – no established places for women’s records and research
- Starting – women’s presses, Women’s Review of Books, SilverMoon the women’s bookshop,
- Developing women’s studies courses to compensate for the absence of women in established disciplines (Mothers of the Novel)
- Making a noise about equal education for girls – who were still being streamed into domestic science courses and directed away from universities and careers `
- It was when I discovered that some of the earlier English feminists – those who had written, campaigned, agitated at the beginning of the 20th century – were still around – and I decided I would go and interview them
There isn’t time to mention all of them but two of them you might have heard of Dora Russell and Rebecca West.
When I went to see Rebecca West – who I discovered was in her 80s and lived well within walking distance – I was bursting with information about all the things we were doing. And how successful we had been.
But every time I mentioned something – she blithely said – Oh I wrote about that in 1907. And when I looked it up – either she or one of her contemporaries had! It was very humbling – and thought provoking.
I talked about some of the fundamental principles of feminism.
ACCESS TO WORK AND EQUAL PAY
OPTIONS OTHER THAN MARRIAGE
AND BIRTH CONTROL
And most of these had been themes throughout her writing life.
She talked about opening up the universities to women – and quoted all the campaigns they had to get women into Cambridge -that hadn’t been achieved until 1928 – and only then because so many men had died in the war and they wanted students.
The women’s colleges that had been established in the face of such violent opposition from so many ‘gentleman students’, and prejudiced academics.
I talked about women’s writing and publishing and she mentioned the WSPU publishers where so much suffragette literature had been printed – I’m sure you get the picture.
What happened I asked her? How did it all disappear? And we talked about wars, and men who undermine and penalise and menace — and how women’s voices are not heard – how the public record has been kept by men and whether through priority or plain prejudice – women just get left out. And fade away……..
It wont happen to us I said. We are in the universities. Teaching our own courses. Redefining the knowledge base; Virago is not just a publisher it’s the most successful one in existence and it is publishing all the lost women of the past. This time it’s the real thing. You wont be able to dismiss it —-
And Rebecca West was philosophical about the comings and goings of feminism, and very witty.
Her definition of feminism – I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is – I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.
I went away – still convinced – that while the women of the early 20th century had opened the door – it wasn’t far enough to stay open – it had slowly closed again.
I did however do some more research and I found that for centuries, about every fifty years there had been a resurgence in the women’s movement – that had then diminished – and I wrote the book THERES ALWAYS BEEN A WOMENS MOVEMENT and traced these cycles.
It didn’t occur to me then that it would happen to those of us who were so active, had achieved so much by the 1980s. Where we had the Office of the Status of Women, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and what Anne Summers calls ‘the equality project’ on the political agenda.
I have had plenty of time to think about this in the last 20 years. I wrote my last book in 1996 – which was about women and cyberspace and the many implications.
But feminism became something of a dirty word by the turn of the century – and I have my own theory about this process – partly through personal experience.
It seems to me that young women get all fired up about inequality – about the absence of safety in their lives at work and at home – about too much work, lack of options, being by-passed, silenced, a sense of injustice – and having powerful female figures treated with contempt.
(And I would put certain politicians in that category. It was PM Mr Asquith in Rebecca’s day.)
And then there are the daughters – who enjoy some of the gains their mothers have made – think that it’s all OK; problem solved.
I have had so many young women in the past who have told me they have never been discriminated against – and – what’s more who have found their mothers feminism embarrassing.
But that hasn’t happened recently.
It’s the granddaughters who are now protesting – who begin to realise what has been lost and what remains left to gain: and the slut marches start, and the defiance begins. It’s about a 50 year cycle………. And it’s starting again.
BUT WITH A HUGE DIFFERENCE; it hasn’t been fuelled by feminism
I must say it provides food for thought. There have been some excellent books published in the last 12 months – and I am going to talk about a few of them and the flame they have ignited.
Sheryl Sandberg LEAN IN: she is the COO of Facebook
Liza Mundy THE RICHER SEX: WOMEN (Washington Post)
And my favourite – Hanna Rosin – THE END OF MEN AND THE RISE OF WOMEN!
There’s a slightly older one by Monica Dux and Zora Simic – THE GREAT FEMINIST DENIAL – where they make the point that it was the inclusion of women’s studies in the university curriculum that discouraged women from discussing feminist issues at the end of the last century – because they felt they weren’t qualified to talk about the subject.
(And some of those WS courses were pretty esoteric rather than everyday feminism!)
I had thought that WS was the guarantee of survival – but of course the entire body of western knowledge is now undergoing transformation in the information revolution.
When the Encyclopaedia Britannica abandons its single author sources – the most knowledgeable person in the world, the expert who writes the entry – and adopts the same model as Wikipedia – where no-one knows more than everybody – there is nothing that can be trusted any longer……..
Not that the EB authorities were ‘right’; it was just that we were taught that they were the authority and were led to believe that we could trust them more!
So here we are on the cusp of modern feminism – how did it happen and what does it mean.
FOR DESPITE THE PROTESTS AND THE INJUSTICES – MANY OF THE FEMINIST GOALS OF THE PAST CENTURIES HAVE BEEN ACHIEVED
One of the most surprising developments is that while females have had not much more than a century of formal education – they are now 60% of uni students and graduates – in most of the western world.
It’s a puzzle not adequately explained. They dominate all discipline areas – education, social work, health sciences, medical technology, pharmacy, vet science, law – auditing and accounting; everything except engineering and IT in fact.
ACCESS TO WORK AND WAGES
This helps to account for women becoming the richer sex: men may have been advantaged by the industrial revolution (the origin of the breadwinner at the factory, where physical strength was required – and the wife was confined to the home)
But it’s the information revolution that has provided women with the advantages; women have the people skills, the ability to cooperate – for them the change from vertical management to horizontal is no big deal.
Let me just give you a quick overview of the economic situation in the US – for those who didn’t see Foreign Correspondent last week (2nd October; compulsory viewing).
Over the past decades American manufacturing jobs went off-shore – with entire towns –and cities – like Detroit – closing down. But in 2008 the great US manufacturing giant lost its mojo – and this has led to a huge loss of male blue-collar jobs in construction and engineering as well.
There has been a hollowing out of the middle classes as the Americans call it – where the well paid MALE car workers with their pensions and health care and busy wives lived the life of the American dream. Suddenly they have nothing.
And there others besides the blue collar workers– who were among the top income bracket in the financial industries – and who are now reduced to working in a bar for little more than $2 an hour (with tips – and the acquisition of the appropriate demeanour).
Here are some of the basic statistics
- 40% of wives in America now earn more than their husbands
- In 1950 1 in 20 men of prime working age was not working – now it is 1 in 5
- Fewer than 18% of men are breadwinners
- Women occupy 51% management and professional jobs in the US – and are the majority in 9 out of 10 categories predicted to grow the most in the next decade
- Only 4 out of the 500 top companies have women CEOS but they out-earn their male colleagues by 45%
- The most successful companies are the ones with the greatest number of women in top management
- Women have become preferred employees in the financial industries as ‘Boys are too big a risk – studies show stock exchange – trading etc. over 6 year period – Men – especially single men traded vastly more frequently than women and they did so out of a false sense of confidence in themselves and their own judgement (Single men traded 67% more times than single women- – results according to economists – many more bad decisions and far less net returns); women now recommended as more responsible employees
- There has been a significant decline in marriage rates as women become financially independent – and often see men as the new ball and chain – or as one woman said of a husband who was unemployed, who did little at home and had given up trying to find a job – ‘he’s just one more mouth to feed!’
- Where women were recently financially less well off after divorce now the number of divorced women who have seen their income rise, has doubled
- Greatest shift in young women – better educated – more ambitious, home ownership
- Surveys of university dorms – men’s are full – playing video games and watching porn: – women’s are empty – in the library working
- ‘The men destined to be breadwinners have lost their way causing a sudden upending of the rules of sex, marriage, politics, religion, and the future aspirations of young people – younger men are especially unmoored and closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete at least by more traditional standards of social utility and women are picking up the pieces (Rosin p82)
This isn’t science fiction; this has happened. More women than men have secure jobs. And the one with the least education is generally the one who does the child-care.
There has been a mammoth role reversal with some interesting outcomes
- A huge increase in top of the range kitchen equipment as stay at home husband turn into chefs
- Bible teachers have had to change the advice they offer the girls at Sunday school – they cant keep telling them that the man is the head of the house when their mother is paying the bills.
- Many women report that husbands want to be seen as head of the house even when they aren’t; pressure there
- Virtually no woman had completely ceded the domestic responsibilities to a house husband
And of course the social ramifications are almost incomprehensible
And this is nothing to do with feminism; this is economic determinism; and we have every reason to be wary.
What feminists have to think about is what this means for women and for society in general. So many people have commented on the economic conditions but I am equally concerned at the social consequences.
When the first bill was presented to the House of Commons in the mid 19th century that proposed that women should own property, be allowed to keep their own wages, enter the universities, join the professions and become financially independent – AND HAVE THE VOTE AS WELL – there was uproar in the all male house.
Pass those laws and no woman will want to get married, the men protested! There won’t be any reason for them to do so. And it seems they were right.
Now that much of the stigma has been removed from having an illegitimate child, single mothers who are well paid, often think they have the best deal; they insist that they have half the workload of their married sisters with children.
More than half the births of American women under 30 are outside marriage
There is still a major issue in the United States about women’s access to contraception and terminations.
Likewise, there is no great drama any more – as there was in my day – if you go and live in sin! So many women are postponing marriage – and children – until they are financially independent.
The price that women have paid for marriage and financial dependence has meant that what we know about the nature of women has been shaped by the requirements of men.
There is a good reason that Jane Austen’s novels (as so many others of her time) were concerned with making a good marriage – and a woman’s choice was vitally important: even more important however were her looks and her reputation that she had to trade. Society demanded that she be pure and innocent.
Well there has been a dramatic change in the 21st century
Quote from Hanna Rosin
Women traded sex for security, money, maybe even social and political influence. Because they had no other easy access to these things, it was imperative that they keep the price of sex high so they had something to bargain with. Now women no longer need men for financial security and social influence. They can achieve these things by themselves so they no longer have to keep the price of sex high. The result is that sex, by the terms of sexual economics is cheap, bargain basement cheap, and a lot more people can have it …and men do because they can! One woman college student said ‘I felt like I was dating his dick’
Now most of this data comes form the United States where role reversal is well under way. Sheryl Sandberg’s book, LEAN IN – which I think makes a lot of sense – is still about women getting to the top of the men’s ladder – with the help of an excellent husband and staff.
I have no doubt that women are on their way to corporate success and that an increasing number of women will have secure jobs, good wages, and will not look at the single-life as spinsterhood but as freedom and independence…
Already 25% wives in Queensland earn more than their husbands. Many more young women go to university than young men – and just this week in the CM there was an article WOMEN JUST WANT TO HAVE FUNDS. The basic pattern was for them to put off marriage until their careers were established.
They were also more likely to own property at a young age while their male equivalents were more likely to own a car – or a lot of video games.
There is also increasing evidence that young women are now more ambitious than young men.
TRADITIONAL FEMALE SKILLS
I have done a lot of work on women and language. I have praised women’s linguistic skills. But I have also said that most of women’s language skills have been learned in the process of managing men.
AS Virginia Woolf said – women have served all these centuries as looking glasses – reflecting men at twice their natural size – without them having a clue about it.
Traditionally feminine attributes like empathy, patience and communal problem solving began to replace the top down autocratic model of leadership and success. For the first time in history the global economy is becoming a place where women are finding more success than men.
I wont go into all the details now but women know how to make people feel good, how to sooth and nurture etc – and its not always a positive if it is a necessary survival skill –
But it is a necessity for family relationship, working together: having a sense of audience rather than talking at someone as many men do – never entertaining the possibility that it might not be safe to say what you think.
I’m not arguing against women being in charge of the world. I am arguing against doing it the same way as men have done.
Lois Frankel has written a great book NICE GIRLS DON’T GET THE CORNER OFFICE. And she rightly urges girls to abandon the stereotype and to start negotiating a better deal for themselves. WITHOUT CROSSING THE THIN PINK LINE. How to get a raise, get the corner office – almost with an advanced course on Virginia Woolf’s theme.
And I find I am in a bit of a bind. My feminist principles are for sexual equality – not for managing men better – or reversing the roles.
I think it is perfectly feasible that men can acquire most of the skills that women have taken pride in – if men are the ones at home doing the child care.
(Swedish men on paternity leave for the year acquire the same skills as women who have customarily done such work – including tone of voice. and ability to push the pram with one foot while sitting on a park bench talking to a mate)
But if it was an isolated and generally devalued life for women – it could be equally so for men.
Already there is a major change in marriage partners. Women have had to abandon the dream of marrying up – there aren’t enough ups any more to go around. And there are case studies in the US of men looking for a wife who has a secure job and health benefits. (And it is women who wont commit.)
We are engaged in a social revolution – even though most of us haven’t noticed it because it is not being ushered in with protests and campaigns – its being caused by the change from manufacturing to information.
And I think we need to put our heads together and work out some reasonable public policies that are of greater benefit to society rather than to wake up one morning to find that the world has changed – and certainly not for the better for any of us.
That’s how it looked to me in the US on the Foreign Correspondent program.