Women in the Noughties: Self-loathing and scared?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

“…for the first time in the whole of our history, our unhappiness didn’t come from men or oppression. It came from us. From other women. From within. The Noughties was the decade of self-hate.”

This was the depressing conclusion Camilla Long came to as she reviewed the decade in terms of women’s issues for this week’s Sunday Times.

Apparently we should have spent the Noughties celebrating the joys of being female. Freed from the bondage of inequality, by the dawn of the new millennium we'd "conquered men and marriage and boardrooms and babies". Surely this should have been our time to shine.

Alas not. Long believes we've ended up slaves to fashion, consumed by worries about our body hair, obsessed by Botox and boob jobs and neurotic about our weight. Inevitably all the standard Noughties clichés get a mention - footballers' wives, the 'size zero debate', reality television, Carrie Bradshaw. Yes, she says, we made up for the emptiness of our lives by maxing out our credit cards and attempting to find happiness through shoes and binge drinking.

As if that wasn't enough, the misery doesn't end here - oh no - we're completely unhappy and depressed with our lot in life. Here she references The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, the much-discussed study released by the national Bureau of Economic Research earlier in the year, which asked women to rate their happiness. The study showed that women’s' happiness has steadily declined since the 1970s and spawned a rash of anguished newspaper and magazine articles.

Of course there's plenty of truth in the article. Many women have spent the past ten years becoming more and more obsessed with achieving the 'perfection' of eternal youth, a bikini body to die for and career success. We will remember this decade as the one where the cosmetics industry and media-approved beauty myth became so unattainable that it could only truly be achieved by way of a combination of starvation and digital retouching.

On the other hand, the article certainly doesn't speak for all - or even most - women when it speaks of the equality we'd supposedly achieved by the beginning of the decade, the supposed lack of oppression from men, or indeed the factors that supposedly rule our lives. A few women did manage to 'conquer' men, reproduction and boardrooms – those lucky few who often had plenty of privilege to start with.

And although many women strive for the ideal of thinness and beauty, cosmetic surgery and ‘It bags’ aren’t even a consideration for most of them because they cost far too much.

As Long rightly points out, we’re pressured to succeed academically, in the workplace, as mothers, domestically and even when it comes down to finding the perfect partner – but the fact there has been no significant shift in men viewing women as equals or sharing the responsibilities of childcare and housekeeping often means yet more stress and worry as we try to juggle everything.

“The Noughties has left a generation…feeling puzzled and scared,” sums up Long – blaming a lack of positive role models, obsession with celebrity and too much pressure to achieve.

This may be, but it was her parting shot that left me feeling truly puzzled:

“That role model, of course, used to be feminism. Where, in this open dishwasher of female emotion, has feminism gone? Well, feminism just…went away,” she finishes, admitting that she finds this “kind of sad”.

I know it wouldn’t really be in keeping with the doom-filled tone of the piece to discuss any recent resurgence in feminist activity but the efforts of many thousands of women over the past decade can’t just be dismissed and ignored.

Revived Reclaim the Night marches. Fantastic events for International Women’s Day. Women’s organisations involved in a whole host of activity from campaigning against injustice to running arts festivals to helping the abused and setting up book groups. Young women flying the feminist flag at our universities and schools.

The 2006 launch of a new feminist magazine, Subtext. Numerous books being published and of course, the explosion in networking, discussion and organisation provided by the blogosphere. Efforts by women to change existing legislation or bring about new laws. Sites like this one, or Women’s eNews, or The F Word, providing news for those of a feminist persuasion.

Society may have spent the Noughties trying to give feminism and feminists a bad reputation. Some women may be reluctant to label themselves as feminists – but it doesn’t mean we don’t exist. For the past decade we’ve been portrayed as catty, miserable and hysterical, out only to bring each other down and promote self-loathing. As the next decade begins, we need to fight this as much as we can.

This post was originally written for BitchBuzz. Image via Virgin Media.

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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Last month I started writing a piece a week for women's lifestyle site BitchBuzz. I'm contributing to the News and Life sections and am really excited to be part of something which aims to provide women with a diverse selection of news and opinions - not just those, as the site says, that are 'fluffy and out of touch'.

Since I started contributing I've posted about a prominent headteacher's comments on women 'having it all', Reclaim the Night London, our fascination with celebrity 'meltdowns' and the proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda. In this week's piece I'm revisiting the awesome PinkStinks in light of their Christmas campaign and the backlash it has received from the public and some sections of the media ('PC gone mad', 'Feminazis', the usual).

For updates and news add Bitchbuzz on Twitter.

On Marriage (Part Two)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The expectations on us in the run-up to our marriage were frustrating but I wouldn't say they caused major problems. In the same way, I don't feel that we've found negotiating certain expectations of us within marriage particularly difficult either.

When we talk about equality in marriage I don't necessarily see it in terms of an exact division of labour or an exact division of finances. As I mentioned in Part One both of us were under no illusions about housework - we both live in the house, therefore we both help with its upkeep. The way this has played out over the past couple of years is as follows: if we're both in at a weekend, we do the housework together. We'll take a couple of rooms each. If one of us is away or out, the person who's in does the majority of what needs doing and we'll often try to get bits and pieces done during the week so there's less for that person to do. Our approach to cooking is basically the same. I think what's more important than the exact sharing out of tasks is that housework is not considered 'women's work', with no expectation that her partner should help her out.

Talking about how we negotiate housework may seem faintly ridiculous but it's interesting how people react when they find out that we both do it. Some former work colleagues of Luke's were outraged that he was clearly 'under the thumb' and told him in no uncertain terms that he 'shouldn't have to do all that'. The reaction from a lot of women is that I've 'got him well-trained!' and that some degree of 'nagging' must contribute towards him doing a bit of cleaning or tidying up because men are 'useless' around the house.

Many blogs written by conservative Christians place great emphasis on being an exceptional 'homemaker' and that this is a major justification for married women not working outside the home - the implication being that there's plenty to keep women busy. A lot of these blogs actually seem to place the most emphasis on being fanatical about tidiness and organisation, crossed with idolisation of some sort of very white, middle-class, Martha Stewart-influenced, picket-fence crafts-loving way of life which fails to acknowledge the fact that women may come from cultures where no-one feels that making seasonal table centrepieces in complementing colourways is essential to being a good wife or mother. They may be less affluent (like me) and not be able to afford the luxury of staying at home, or (again, like me) just don't feel like they're a let-down as a wife because they have a 'junk drawer'. Or in my case, several junk drawers, a junk wardrobe, three junk cupboards and boxes and boxes of, yep, junk.

As it happens, I don't really know anyone who embraces that vision of wifeliness but since I've been married I've found that some people tend to ask me 'And do you work?' rather than 'What do you do?'

A couple of weeks ago I was reading an essay on a Christian website about the roles men and women should play within marriage. I didn't know whether I was more amused or depressed to read that (to paraphrase) 'critics of Christianity are wrong when they say that the wife cannot make decisions. It is appropriate, for example, for the wife to have the final say on matters of shopping or home decorating'. The author went on to say that of course, decisions involving money, parenting, church, careers etc should always be down to the husband. Sadly I'm not making this up.

Surely making decisions on such important aspects of life should be a joint endeavour? I don't think it's responsible, for example, for one partner to have total control of finances while the other has no involvement or knowledge of where money is coming from, going to and how much of it there is. We firmly believe that decisions affecting both of us are for both of us to make and this will definitely include decisions regarding children, when (and if) they come along in future.

Speaking of children, that's another subject that people love weighing in on. Plenty of people ask if we plan to have children - that I don't mind so much. It's when people ask when we're going to have them, or ask how long we've been married, in a 'what - haven't you started trying yet?!' kind of way. Really, that's no-one's business but our own. I've realised it's pointless to use the reasoning that we can't afford to have children because someone will always say 'You can never afford children (ha ha ha)!'. Or if they don't say that they'll make a whole host of assumptions about us. That we're clearly just 'selfish' and just want to blow all our money on material possessions rather than babies, for example. Someone I know asked 'Couldn't you just get your mum to look after the baby when you go back to work?'

A really big part of me wishes that parental leave rights were more equal, easily allowing either partner to be a stay-at-home parent, or for the total leave period to be split between them. People tend to assume automatically that the mother will stay at home with young children, despite the fact that fathers want more time with their children and better paternity leave. I'm currently the higher earner of the two of us (just) and that for much of the last year I've actually been the 'breadwinner' as Luke has struggled with redundancy and a series of temporary jobs, a victim of the recession. Our culture and parental leave as it stands doesn't take any of this into account, instead pressuring men to 'provide' everything and women to give up their careers (guilt-tripping tabloid pieces about the evils of 'working mothers' are particularly good at this).

My sudden 'breadwinner' status proved to be a great source of amusement for some acquaintances and even relatives. The days where a husband was considered less of a man if his wife 'had to go out to work' are behind us but that attitude is still around to a certain extent in that many people expect a man to earn much more than his female partner and be able to support the household singlehandedly. At first this really impacted Luke's self-confidence but going through problems with employment and money ended up really changing the way he saw issues like 'being the provider' and childcare, bringing us round to a much more equal perspective. He's always wanted to be a very hands-on, involved father which is great but I know now that he feels much more relieved of the pressures regarding earning and expectations of masculinity.

When discussing the issues surrounding marriage with my Christian friends recently I've tended to find that they agree with me regarding a more equal approach which is definitely refreshing (although this does depend on whether you're talking to complementarian or egalitarian Christians). In the past I've come up against a certain way of thinking that a job, for a woman, is just a stopgap until she gets married and has children, or that it's not right for her to sort out the family's finances, or that she should always submit to her husband's authority - and these attitudes don't really help or encourage anyone at all.

An open letter to my Christian sisters

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Being a Christian feminist can be difficult. It's something I've really wrestled with and I went through a long and confusing journey to reconcile these beliefs. I know well that feminism has a bad reputation among a lot of Christians and that many people I know particularly disapprove of it as a concept. If you're a Christian who wants to find out more about feminism and decides to do some research on the internet, looking at popular Christian sites and blogs, then you're going to find an exhaustive amount of information on why feminism is so contrary to God. According to a few I've looked at recently:
'These [feminist] leaders minimize women’s roles in the home as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. They don’t seem to see women as bearers and nurturers of life, as caregivers, as those privileged to shape the character of the next generation.'

'A daughter can no longer expect to be protected by her father; a woman finds it hard to trust her husband's leadership and feel secure in her marriage, with the divorce rates so ridiculously high; a lady cannot expect chivalry anymore.'

'...hate femininity (which they see as weakness) and loath women who choose traditional roles (try voicing support of housewives in any college women's studies course and see what happens). Stay-at-home moms are seen as traitors to the Cause.'

'From the time the first feminist (Eve) came on the scene, until now, we have been in a cosmic battle against the flesh and Satan because he hates the image of Christ and His Church...Feminism was, and will finally be, defeated when the Seed crushes the Serpent (Gen. 3:15).'

'The feminist leaders - humorless, militant, pugnacious, and angry with their particular lot in life, launched programs that were anti-God, anti-capitalism, anti-family, anti-birth, anti-heterosexual and fostered a virulent hatred of anything having to do with males. They no longer wanted to equalize the status of women, but instead wanted to irreversibly alienate women from men and vice versa.'

'They belittle a woman’s calling in the home, marginalize motherhood, sneer at modesty, and abhor wifely submission.'
When you look at a lot of sites bearing information like this, we're painted as monsters. Monsters who hate men and children. Monsters who hate stay-at-home mothers and domesticity. Monsters who want to see the world cleansed of men so that women can rule over the earth in some sort of all-female dictatorship. If we're not being portrayed as monsters, we're being quietly mocked or disapproved of for being 'career girls' (who naturally, put our career aspirations over everything else in life) or being 'shrill' or using the title 'Ms' or hyphenating surnames.

Sometimes we're begrudgingly accorded some praise, usually with a statement saying something along the lines of 'the initial aims of feminism - such as the right to vote and access education - were necessary and have helped women, but now things have gone too far'. In other words: 'Good grief, you can go to school and vote now; what more could you possibly need?' It's important to point out here that the missives I've posted above are always written from a white, middle-class perspective. In other words, by people who have been able to reap the benefits of what feminism has achieved as far as economic and educational freedom goes and also the benefits of living in a wealthy country. People who talk about the early gains made by the women's movement as if every woman now enjoys these privileges and could not possibly need anything more. Women who have never had to work because their husbands earn enough to support the whole family. Women who don't have to fight for survival. It's easy to live in a privileged bubble, but we must not assume that life is the same for everyone else.

Aside from addressing privilege, there's the basic fact that these sort of claims are wrong. As feminists we're extremely aware of the potential we have as mothers to shape future generations. To many of us the fact we can bear new life is extremely important to us. Feminists the world over are mothers and homemakers and women who aren't particularly bothered about being 'high-flying career girls'. It's bizarre and downright ridiculous to paint us as a group of people who hate children and 'the home'. Some women don't plan to become mothers, this much is true. But this isn't a phenomenon peculiar to women who identify as feminists. Mocking stay-at-home mothers and housewives? That's not my feminism - and every other feminist I know would say the same.

As for the old man-hating/abolishing males forever stereotype, that gets trotted out at every opportunity by the media and anti-feminists the world over. Does that make it true? Of course not. Gaining equality for women is not about taking away the rights of men and this is an important distinction to make. Men may have subjugated women for centuries but the aim of feminism is not to reverse this oppression. What would be the point of fighting for equality in the first place if all we want is a world where men are obsolete?

It's also important to recognise that misogyny, men treating their wives badly, domestic violence, family breakdown and objectification are not a result of the late 20th century women's movement. This is an assertion I've seen pretty frequently in anti-feminist Christian writings. As I mentioned above, the subjugation of women and lack of respect for them as people was happening long before the 1960s. And it was most definitely happening within Christianity. The line of thinking which portrayed women as the root of all evil is pretty common knowledge, as are the methods used to deal with women who did not fit the church's expectations of womanhood. Divorce is often used as example of the negative impact of feminism, but when it was less 'acceptable' countless people were forced to remain in unhappy and abusive marriages. It's naive to assume that a married couple is a happy couple and there's little point in idolising a time when women had little choice but to marry because they had few other options, rights or life choices.

Aside from mangling the facts, attacks on feminism by Christians have a very narrow focus which totally ignores the majority of things feminists are fighting for - things that everyone with a heart for change can get behind. Access to equal opportunities in education, the workplace and childcare for all women. Wishing for an end to poverty and deprivation. Stopping discrimination by age, class and race. Protesting rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence. Educating the next generation of boys to treat women with respect. Fighting attitudes of domination and control in relationships. Giving women easier access to healthcare, contraception and sanitary products. Working to lower maternal mortality due to lack of resources. Helping the broken and abused. Fighting the sexualisation of young girls and the objectification of women. Trying to stop the exploitation and dehumanisation of pornography and trafficking. Hoping for a world where a woman's worth is not measured by little more than the way she looks. I refuse to accept that any of these examples is 'contrary to God's plan' seeing as God is opposed to and angered by injustice and the fact that people have been stripped of equality and dignity by all that is mentioned above.

I find it's a common feature of anti-feminist Christians that they claim to love and respect women, yet express disgust and derision at those who don't fit the narrow mold of complementarian Christian womanhood. And yes, that includes mocking 'career girls' and women who use the title 'Ms' and women who don't have children. This is not love and respect. Jesus went beyond societal convention in his treatment of women and reacted against negative attitudes towards them. Women must be free to pursue their gifts and callings whatever they may be. If that is outside 'the home', so be it. So when denouncing us as monsters, please remember that we fight for a better world rather than a broken one, just like you. Yes, you may not be able to get behind some things feminists believe and do, but do we agree with all things done in the name of Christianity?

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