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Tiffany Jenkins: It’s the best time ever for women

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: Getty

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: Getty

  • by TIFFANY JENKINS
 

WE are equalling – and beating – our male counterparts at almost every level, and there are solutions to most of the residual inequalities, says Tiffany Jenkins

Speaking to the Scottish Trades Union Congress in 1918, Charles Robinson, a delegate from Motherwell, opposed a campaign to end the occupational segregation of men and women. The involvement of women in industry, he warned, will have “a depressing effect on public morality”. Instead, a “woman’s natural sphere is in the home”.

His was a common point of view then, but there have been so many social and cultural changes since, it now sounds odd, even funny. And yet listening to feminist campaigners today, it’s as if these substantive advances have not taken place,

According to some, the present is a threatening and frightening world for women. We need help getting the top jobs in business and politics, and are under constant threat of harassment. Misogyny is mainstream, apparently. Watching the news recently, a prominent newsreader asked, rhetorically: “Why do so many men hate women?” No one had responded to say: do you really think men – our husbands, brothers, and sons – hate women? Because that’s not my experience, I doubt it’s yours.

Just think about the progress we have made. In the early 20th century, women spent their lives raising their children and taking care of the home. That’s without the white goods that we rely on. For many working class families, until the 1930s, it was without access to electricity. This was no simple matter of arguing over whose turn it was to load the washing machine. The laundry for a large family could take a day and a half per week of soaking, boiling, bleaching, scrubbing, twisting and hanging it all out to dry, before gathering it all up and ironing the lot.

The Census of 1911 reports that only one in 20 employed women were married. Once they said “I do”, the world of work closed, they had to leave, unless they were really poor and remained scrabbling for few extra pennies, but this was no blessing: it was not the done thing. The man of the family, unable to provide, was considered a failure.

At the beginning of the 20th century, women could vote in local council elections, but they couldn’t vote for Members of Parliament. They had few opportunities, their choices were restricted, their voices hardly ever heard. Their everyday life was subject to the will of their husbands.

Thankfully, women – and men – wanted things to be different and made it so.

The rate of death in childbirth is lower than it ever has been. The pill has liberated us from the tyranny of unwanted pregnancies, aiding family planning. Life expectancy continues to rise for both sexes. Women born in the last couple of years can expect to live 82.8 years.

Formal education was once reserved for boys, especially at the higher level. No longer is that the case. In fact, girls do better than their male counterparts at almost every stage. Just look at the bright and ambitious female students graduating today in their millions. The world is open to them. The life of young women today is far removed from institutionalised sexual discrimination, where if they got pregnant they were out of a job. Women’s work used to be bit of a joke, good for pin money, for a few extras like lipstick. Now they are often in charge.

Granted, problems remain. Women do better in education, but later in life do not progress as fast or as high in work, nor is pay equal. Even so, they are up there, at the helm at General Motors, heading up Lloyd’s of London. Angela Merkel is serving her third term as German chancellor. The leaders of the Scottish Labour Party and the Conservative Party in Scotland are women, as is the Deputy First Minister of Scotland. The Royal Society of Edinburgh has just appointed its first female president.

Today’s generation of women can and do participate in the world to a far greater extent than any previous generation. Impatient for more, there have been demands for positive discrimination, but this is the wrong approach. It suggests that we aren’t up to it, that we need special help, which does us no favours. And it avoids tackling the real issues. When it comes to politics – this week’s complaint is the lack of skirts on the government front bench – you have to ask two questions. One: do many people – male or female from different backgrounds – want to go into politics now? Aspirations may be different because the political sphere is so denuded of possibility.

The second question concerns childcare. Women still take most responsibility for childcare, thus spend less time moving up the career ladder, and politics is a demanding job. But even here there could be amazing (and long overdue) progress in Scotland. It may have been a cynical ploy to get the women’s vote for independence, but the SNP’s policy on universal childcare is progressive. It should be embraced and emulated in the rest of the country, although we will still have to tackle a culture that suggests parenting is a 24-hour profession that cannot be neglected, which has crippled parents of both sexes with anxiety.

In fact, most problems today are ones that affect both men and women. There is no sex war. And most of the solutions to residual inequality are in reach.

We have come a long way. But feminism has lost its way. Most of its energy is spent on demonising men, overstating our differences and neglecting what we have in common. And it has got into some fairly illiberal tangles of late, such as the witch-hunt against trolls on the internet; calls for banning lads’ mags; the Page 3 campaign; and calls for the banning of pop songs, policing everyday language as if it’s a major threat.

An alarmist mind-set is taking hold which suggests that women are too frail to deal with nasty words, and that our natural state is to need protection. It’s not quite Mary Wollstonecraft, more Mary Whitehouse. It is this that could impede further progress.

Ignore the dispiriting complaints that say we live in a society filled with hate against women, and look around you. We are strong, we are loved, and we are thriving. It is the best time in history to be a woman.

 

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