Books: Mother of all battles: Have-it-all feminism sounds a breeze, until baby comes along. Isabel Fonseca wants equality that doesn't stop with the cot
Saturday 24 January 1998
by Natasha Walter
Little, Brown, pounds 17.50
Madonna and Child: towards a new politics of motherhood
by Melissa Benn
Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99
Usually, when the jacket-flap tells us the birth year, it suggests that youth is the author's prize possession. But as you take in Natasha Walter's chirpily upbeat tone in , and count the fifth or so respectful reference to the Spice Girls, you get the idea that the year 1967 is in fact included to emphasise her great age, her gravitas. She was born in that ancient time whose second life as a retro-fashion (those 90s flares) will itself seem an aeon ago to this book's intended readership.
For many young women, apparently, news of feminism comes as a bad odour. Walter has made it her mission to supply reassurance about what today's feminism is not. So: the "new" feminism is not about (as one interviewed schoolgirl put it) "fat bald hairy angry lesbians". The new feminism is not politically correct, man-hating or puritanical; personal appearance and pornography are not within its purview.
Nor is the new feminism interested in language or body image. Uninvited violence apart, it doesn't care about your private life, and it isn't even remotely into sex. It's not about professional feminists but about feminist professionals, along with ordinary, confident women, even the ones who don't recognise themselves as politicised.
Still, the new feminism is not about "changing women's attitudes"; it's about concrete opportunities. It's not about woman versus man; it's about progressives versus conservatives. Above all (even though it is pretty much all about jobs), it isn't miserable.
Indeed, the new feminism is a happy, celebratory affair, and everyone is invited: black, white, rich, poor, housewife, prostitute, Conservative. Walter is passionate, and right about most everything - who can be against equality or tolerance? - but she also displays some of the unendearing tendencies of other recent feminist writers: an undue faith in (prose- killing) polls and surveys and "recent studies"; an insistence on truisms (rape is unacceptable/fathers are important); an over-emphasis on feminism's wilder fringe. Walter goes one further in her bizarre reading of two highly personal memoirs - and so Philip Roth, of all people, is made to stand in for American men in general.
Her style is boosterish. And she is more often prescriptive than descriptive. Perhaps none of this will bother newcomers. But I was left with a certain unease.
Walter ends with an image of herself in a bar, "savouring a cold drink after a long day's work" before meeting her partner, taking pleasure in her "simple and minimal trouser suit", in her ability to pay for her drink with the money she has earned. And "tomorrow I will get up and my easy life, full of the ordinary freedoms that make women's lives so much happier than they used to be, will carry on."
There is a strange mixture here of personal candour and selective delusion about how things really are in the world. Or maybe the New Feminism isn't that inclusive after all. For this "ordinary pleasure" is of course beyond the reach of so many women - like the astonishing women of the grim Glasgow estate Walter describes. These mothers pool their resources, look out for all of their children, work with spontaneous co-operation, while leading lives of constant struggle.
There is another difficulty, which does not have everything to do with income. Like so many feminist writers, from the childless pioneers (Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer) to the most recent batch of starlets (Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe), Natasha Walter doesn't engage with motherhood as, perhaps, the central issue for feminism. Maybe and - as a childless woman, understandably - she doesn't really get it. For example, when the writer Candia McWilliam says that for each birth you lose two novels she isn't necessarily talking of the need for better, cheaper childcare. Babies temporarily stupefy their mothers; and that's the truth.
And so it came as a relief, a revelation even, to read Melissa Benn's excellent account of modern motherhood, Madonna and Child. New mothers especially will find this tender and thoughtful book useful and reassuring. It tells you the things you can't know, and won't be told, BC (Before Children), but which will alter your sense of self completely. Benn gives life to the dim, complex world of motherhood: of children and work and the difficulty, when trying to do both, of ever being fully present in either.
The ordinary miracle - childbearing - seems routinely to be met by the ordinary identity crisis, which is guiltily dissimulated as it is daily coupled with formerly unimaginable ecstasies, the cartoon-like pangs of mother love and mother-happiness. This drama, under-treated in the social sciences but a favourite subject for satirical fiction (Fay Weldon, Lorrie Moore, Helen Simpson), leads Benn into her own assessment of where feminism is today, and where it ought to go.
Benn (like Walter) points to the influence of what Julie Burchill labelled Bourgeois Feminist Triumphalism. This phrase grandly describes women's relationship to the general mood of the 1980s (BFT's icons are Thatcher and Madonna) in which energetic ambition, or greed, was ennobled to an unprecedented degree.
For Benn, the new feminism, or what she calls post-feminism, is mainly a more selfish, even a narcissistic trend. To it, the idea of public service has lost credibility and talk of "social justice" sounds hopelessly earnest, unfashionably PC.
Children don't really figure in the new individualism. To have a family is, after all, to be locked into a collective, even if it is a collective of two. Remember that the phrase "having it all" coined by Cosmopolitan's first editor Helen Gurley Brown, originally described the swinging single.
Melissa Benn points out that in order for professional women to be powerful, or to be taken seriously, they still have to be closet mothers (she offers chilling accounts of the "quality time" arrangements of several "top women"). But there can be no meaningful discussion of equality without looking at how we accommodate children. As both writers point out, mothers lose nearly 60 per cent of projected life earnings as they break for each child and (maybe) re-enter the professional world at the same or a lower level.
The fight for equality is no longer about the equal ability of women to do a job; it is about the inequality of time in which to do all their other jobs, too (and women, whether they advertise it or not, still overwhelmingly "do" the children and the home). As Benn argues, this unpaid work has to be assigned a value. And then there has to be a revolution of consciousness.
The pressure for change lies in the fact that more women are in paid work than ever before. Some 70 per cent of 30-year-old mothers work (as opposed to 30 per cent in 1910). There are more nannies than auto workers in employment in Britain today - but most women still do their job and then go out and do their other job. Neither Walter nor Benn goes into great detail about how the family of the future will work but both see more fairness and flexibility, with men and women doing fewer hours of their paid job and more in their unpaid one.
Benn offers the delicious proposition that overtime - the staggering hours of most ambitious professionals - no longer be rewarded but stigmatised as inefficient. She urges a "moral ecology", which means, as in the intelligent response to the dwindling supply of fossil fuels, that people will have to share that other precious resource: time.
It is a pity the frame of reference of "post-feminism" is mainly Anglo- American feminist thought. It doesn't much concern itself with other countries, nor look much at other disciplines - such as cultural anthropology, with its accounts of different attempts at fairer arrangements. Still, there seems to me an inevitability about this revolution, partly because it entails also a liberation for men. So it is doubly too bad that these books aren't written for men, and won't be read by them.
Walter and Benn, though, have noticed that very often (as in the introduction of child benefit) "women are the engine of radical change". As Geri, Ginger Spice, is quoted as saying, "I didn't really know that much history, but I knew about the Suffragettes ... They died to get the vote ... You remember that and you think, fucking hell."
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