Podium: Feminists still fighting old battles

A short extract from a speech given by the novelist at the Edinburgh Book Festival
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The Independent Culture
FORGET PATRIARCHY, rule by the father; ergonarchy becomes woman's greater enemy, now that she's joined the work force. By ergonarchy, I mean rule by the work ethic.

Even our children are under ergonarchy's thumb; kibbutzised, taken away from their parents, thrust into an exam culture and returned only at nights, school hours creeping up to match office hours, not the other way round, so the parents are free to work. And for what? Outside the window is no desert to make bloom, no dire national emergency, just a whole lot of new cars and roads and new buildings and the Millennium Dome. And we may work the longest hours in Europe, but we have the lowest productivity. Of course. We're exhausted.

Ergonarchy insists women work, but goes on paying them less. This isn't because ergonarchy is male - ergonarchy is an automated accountant, neutered and blind and unable to tell one gender from another - but because women, if they have children, can't give their bosses the time and attention they require, and so end up contributing less, and getting paid less. Ergonarchy's best friend being market forces.

These days, I am easily made nervous. Even to remark that patriarchy is no longer the worst enemy feels a bit dangerous, upsetting as it is to those who live by the old rules, and for whom the rhetoric of the Seventies still makes sense. Treachery! Apostasy! An abuse of emotional correctness! Sexism, contrary to the evidence of ears and eyes, is held to flow only one way, from man to woman, just as racism is held to flow only from white to ethnic, and to say otherwise is to risk attack. That both are now two- way streets is something many still find difficult to admit. Nevertheless, I persist.

Evidence of continuing male prejudice against women derives from the fact that the female wage is persistently lower than the male wage: though in Britain, the gap is smaller than in the rest of Europe. But it is not so much the villainy and prejudice of men that leads to this undoubted inequity, it is the fact that the majority of women still end up with children. Even when partnered, many back off when the time comes for promotion, deciding that having time for a personal and emotional life is more valuable than promotion.

The part-time nurse does not take the job as full-time ward sister, the TV researcher turns down the job as producer, because when would they ever get to see the kids. The piece-worker in the home stitches shoes at 50p the pair because she has an ill child and is open to exploitation - not because she is a woman but because she is a human being with a baby, and has no options. The earning capacity of the lone father, a fast growing group, falls just as drastically as does that of the mother, when loneness strikes.

While every working woman who has a small child pays another woman less than her own market value to look after the child - and she must, or she can't afford the job - how can equality of wages be achieved? What meaning does "equal opportunities" have, other than for the childless woman? If the statistics which told us about our comparative earnings made a distinction not just between men and women, but between men and women with children and women without, we would begin to get somewhere - as it is all women come under one heading.

The fact that we do so well in the European League Table suggests to me, not that we're moving towards gender equality, but that we have too many tired and overworked women with children among us. When the problem of the working father is as much discussed as the problem of the working mother, we will be getting somewhere. As it is, women are encouraged to dismiss fathers from the case, saying "which way to the sperm bank", or "how dare you treat me like this", or "oh, I can manage alone", and anyway there's always the CSA, not to mention benefits. Remember that the State makes an increasingly harsh father.

I am not suggesting, you understand, that mothers should stay home and look after the children. I don't want them forced back into the kitchen, for this is just another kind of loneliness, albeit temporary. Nor is the solution so many young women find today, which is simply not to have children at all, for lack of time, money or a decent partner, conducive to future contentment.

I just want my Ministry for the Pursuit of Human Happiness (as reasonable a Ministry for Women) to ensure that children have parents that are out there doing half as many hours for twice as much money. And I do not believe that, in a decent society, this cannot be achieved.