Women today in the UK enjoy freedoms and opportunities our grandmothers would never have dreamed of.
International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate this, and also to remember that there are still many places world-wide where women do not enjoy these opportunities.
But if the spotlight falls only on the women who have achieved success in the work place, we are failing to celebrate what is of central importance to so many women – the bonds of family love.
When Dr Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics conducted a Europe-wide study of women’s work-life preferences, she found that only twenty per cent of women made career their life-long priority. The great majority wanted to place family first for at least a significant part of their life.
What matters more than anything else to many women is relational stability. What causes more grief than anything else is broken bonds.
Yet, at the same time that we have worked so hard to make the work-place a woman-friendly environment, as a society we have witnessed the devastation of the ‘social ecology’ of stable family relationships.
Until around 1960 there was a shared cultural and societal expectation that children would be brought up by their own natural parents. The institution that made that possible was assumed to be marriage. The rules and norms surrounding it provided a framework, or ‘social ecology’.
Those norms were regarded as oppressive by those demanding sexual liberation, radical feminism, and each individual’s right to self-fulfilment. Anthony Giddens, advisor on family policy to Tony Blair, celebrated the fact that we have moved beyond oppressive obligation. When a relationship no longer suits us, we’re free to leave. He described this as a ‘pure relationship’.
But the flip-side of unlimited freedom is endemic insecurity.
Psychologist Oliver James has suggested that although we have not lived through any major wars since 1950, we have been losing each other so frequently that it is as though we had lived through a psychological Third World War:
The increased emotional and physical separation of child from parent, of lover from lover and of elderly parent from relative is a wail of anguish which crescendos to the furthest reaches of our society . . .the epidemic of broken bonds is so damaging because we form more, more intense, intimate relationships than hitherto, only to break them.
Half a century ago we started to loosen the norms associated with marriage. We all have greater freedom. But does that mean greater happiness?
Four million children will go to bed tonight in a home without one of their natural parents. Yes, there are cases where divorce is necessary, and many lone parents do a wonderful job.
Yet surely, as a society, we should question the seemingly inexorable advance of individualism. And, on International Women’s Day, we should reflect that women have not necessarily been well-served by the eroding of the social ecology which served to protect what is of such priceless value – the bonds of family love.