Childless women in politics are more successful, wrote Helen Lewis, the New Statesman’s deputy editor earlier this week. We were meant to be shocked by this ‘revelation’, though you could well say it stands to reason. But in Helen’s thinking, this disparity can only mean that women with children are still, despite years of equality legislation, discriminated against.
All predictable feminist stuff, you’d be forgiven for believing.
It is not that childbirth and babies distract women from that higher calling of remunerated work. No this is something more profound – ‘structural discrimination’ in the lexicon of advanced feminism. So too is the fact that maternity leave necessarily takes you out of work; that most mothers suffer from that tiresome habit of their children needing them in way they don’t automatically turn to dad; that this takes mum’s eye off the ball. In the feminist Bible, these realities of having children become ‘structural discrimination’.
It does not account for the fact, of course, there are no such barriers if like Margaret Thatcher or City high-flyer Helena Morrissey you chose to manage you children in such a way that they don’t get in the way of work
Feminists just cannot deal with the truth that women who wish to spend meaningful time with their own offspring are more likely to fall behind in their careers than those who don’t; or that is where the difference lies, not in the fact of childlessness. They want women to live a lie about reality. They want constant compensation – or indeed pretence – that the choices they make don’t matter, don’t make them less experienced or less promotable.
They don’t want the Thatcher/Morrissey truth pointed up – that this is not what most women would chose for themselves – that only a tiny minority would. So too Helen Lewis. How much more graphic and ’sexy’ it would be to point to the clutch of childless top female politicians to illustrate her doubtful argument on the New Statesman’s cover.
It so proved. In fact it ignited a feminist firestorm which found Ms Lewis’s erstwhile feminist friends turning on her and which I guess she did not predict.
She should not, it seems in the new feminist rule book, have had the insensitivity to associate these women’s childlessness with their success. Putting up pictures of Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Liz Kendall and (how did she dare) that virago Nicola Sturgeon constituted the height of feminist bad manners.
For us sceptics, of course, it was all a lot of fun seeing them turn on each other. It gave the delight of seeing a newly touchy Nicola Sturgeon hit back, revealing her Achilles heel to be as big as her leg. In a tweet she blasted the cover picture as crass and cringeworthy, reminiscent of 1960s’ magazines no less. I don’t think so – there was no such feminist political vanguard then! But this feminist individualist clearly hated being ‘classed’ with the others, and also clearly hated having her childlessness highlighted.
You’d laugh if the knots that feminists tie themselves into with their dishonesties were not also rather sad. In the Twitter storm that ensued, Nicola supporters accused Helen of sexism and ranted about women once again being reduced to their uteruses.
Learn how the subtext of their tweets read, childlessness is an unmentionable and unsayable. Children don’t matter, get it. They are not allowed to matter. If they are not a factor for men (not true, of course) they must not be for women.
Yet the truth is that in the case of all these women childlessness must have been a factor in their successful climb up the greasy pole of politics. For they did not have to stop and even think, as presumably Mrs Thatcher did, whether to chose career over child. the choice never confronted them.
What the whole sorry episode did expose are two uncomfortable realities that feminists would rather not face, let alone take on. One is that successful career women do get treated as if they are not somehow the whole package when they have no children – and as much by other women as men. It is cruel, which brings me to the second truth: they are understandably sensitive about it.
I know this. I have seen it in action and I have seen childless women grin and bear it and rise above it.
What’s wrong with you? is the intimation. Or you can’t possibly understand the pressure I am under – you don’t have children. All too often the long suffering boss has to cover for many of her employees enjoying ‘family friendly’ concessions, often working double the hours they do and through the weekend.
My experience is that these are the slings and arrows that deservedly successful childless women suffer in silence.
Not so Nicola Sturgeon and perhaps I have some sympathy, but from a human not a feminist point of view. It is just a great shame that she turned this into a feminist squabble, instead of taking the opportunity to ask for both more honesty and more understanding about childlessness – which perhaps not for her but for many successful women has not been a choice.
A little humanity would have won her a lot more respect.