In October 2013, I had the privilege of being selected as a participant in the BBC’s 100 women series, along with Laura Perrins, one of the founders of this site.
We sat and listened to Cherie Blair and Jacqui Smith outline their vision of a feminist utopia. As they rattled on about more women leading FTSE 100 companies, all women shortlists to get more women into politics, female mentoring, glass ceilings and so on and so forth, my eyes glazed over. It’s not that these things are not important, but they define female success and liberation purely in masculine terms of career success.
Professional goals are Western and limited in their outlook. Women in some parts of the globe are struggling just to keep the rug under their feet. There is an inherent paradox in fighting for a freedom that entails being beholden to give your labour to a third party for economic survival and it is patronising cultural imperialism to want to export Western patterns and notions of paid employment to other developing countries.
At some point every working woman is going to have to consider the question of whether or not to have children, and if so, how she plans to juggle their needs with those of her career and finances. A recent survey for the Department for Education reported that six out of ten full time working mothers would work part-time if they could afford it. Four out of ten of those surveyed would stop work completely.
Strikingly, while the numbers of working women have risen, the numbers of families in the top 20 percent income bracket using formal childcare has dropped by a tenth in the past year, whereas the numbers of families living in the poorest and most deprived areas have increased their use of formal childcare by 15 percent. Middle class women are rejecting the feminist dream espoused by Nicola Horlick and her ilk, while working class women do not have that luxury.
When George Osborne proudly talked in Wednesday’s budget about record numbers of women in work, he didn’t actually refer to the types of work being undertaken. There might be more women in work overall, but how many of them actually want to be there and are doing fulfilling work which they enjoy and how many are doing menial work for minimum wage, taking advantage of free childcare for the poorest families, in order to keep food on the table, when they’d really rather be at home?
Prestigious positions at the helm of a company are limited and of no interest to the woman struggling to fit in extra shifts at the supermarket or call-centre around the school-run. Children should not merely be seen as a lifestyle choice, only available to those who can afford them, but as vital lynchpins in a healthy and prosperous society, which has a stake in ensuring that the next generation grows up to be educated and well-adjusted. With an ageing population and declining replacement rate, we need people of all social classes to be having children.
Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been a single mother, working full-time long hours with a small child, even though she enjoyed a mixture of professional care and informal grandparent care, the situation was no picnic for either of us. Life was one long cycle of waking early, rushed breakfasts, driving between workplace and carers, early evening pick-ups, hurried dinners and bedtimes, before settling down to an evening of domestic chores.
The pair of us were exhausted by long, emotionally tiring days. Little toddlers don’t possess sufficient stamina to thrive in a roomful of strangers, for ten hours every day. Working mothers face a minefield of complexities and commitments, regardless of whether or not they have a partner to support them and despite the wealth of employment legislation designed to protect them.
Over the past few generations businesses have developed working patterns and models designed for those without childcare responsibilities which have yet to evolve. Which is why we see the flurry for free or subsidised state childcare in order that women can fit into this male structure, despite the overwhelming evidence which demonstrates that this is of little benefit for children, and can even in some cases prove harmful.
And yet this is precisely what every political party seems to want more of – the cliche hardworking families only applying to those families in which both parents undertake full time employment. With four young children we’d have a nervous breakdown with two adults trying to juggle the demands of family life and the type of demanding full-time employment needed to pay the childcare bill.
Which is why it was quite so sickening to see the likes of Cherie Blair preaching their version of female empowerment which is really quite the opposite. Especially when we see her hypocrisy in action, and learn that her high-minded principles of women in the workplace are a one-way street.