BOOK REVIEW / Why can't a man be more like a woman?: The century gap - Harriet Harman: Vermilion pounds 7.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A BATTLE-SCARRED veteran superwoman once confided that women can certainly have children, a career and a husband, but not all at once. These insights come late in life. Harriet Harman, Labour MP for Peckham, wife and mother of three children under 10, remains sanguine, but she is calling for change. Men, be like women; fathers, be mothers is her message in brief. 'Democracy, equality, openness and power-sharing must be the new values in marriage if it is to endure as an institution into the 21st century.'

There are a fair number of 'musts' and 'shoulds' in this latest guide to Eve's new Jerusalem. Marriages are breaking down, the economy is in the mire and politicians are the country's least popular people. The cause? 'Men and women may live under the same roof, but they inhabit different worlds.' Women are failing to achieve their full career potentials because men do not share household and parental tasks, there is not enough provision for children and we need a 50/50 male/female representation in the House of Commons and the Cabinet. The solutions? Men doing their fair share of cleaning toilet bowls and taking junior to the doctor; nurseries, after-school and holiday care subsidised by the state, and positive discrimination in selecting political candidates.

These arguments will be familiar to anyone who has followed the shifts of feminist thinking from The Female Eunuch's declaration of sex war, through Ann Oakley's deadly distortion of domesticity in Housewife] to silver-tongued Patricia Hewitt's recent observation that it is now men, rather than women, who are losing out: remote from their children, discarded by employers and their wives, adrift both materially and emotionally. Harman is a more material girl. She chooses to concentrate on the economic aspects of marriage, children and employment - the pounds 122,000 'cash opportunity cost' to women of having a family, the pounds 27m a week the state spends on the welfare and legal costs of divorce and separation; the pounds 200m a year business losses through absenteeism and inefficiency resulting from marital breakdown.

But Harman's tone is too arrogant and hortative for her errant male targets to be much impressed by her argument that they are a century out of their time. Our high divorce rate may well be due in practical terms to 'woman's economic freedom to do without their husbands', but a few quotes from high-flyers who decide not to marry and wives who resent their husband's failure to do the washing does not alter the fact that most marriages falter not over housework but because of the profound threat to identity caused by sexual infidelity. I suspect that our economic difficulties have more connection with the level of wages in the Pacific Rim than with the intermittent interruption of women's careers by family commitments.

The Harman school of thought defines family ties as impediments, an obstacle race in which a mother's course seems to be more thickly peppered with challenges than a father's. But there is an alternative: a revaluation of the domestic sphere which puts the provision of good homes rather than the fulfilment of individual aspirations at the heart of the debate. A true home is where all members of the household get shelter and sustenance, both literally and emotionally, not somewhere from which everyone escapes as easily as possible.

There is an argument for nursery schools for small children, but it should start from their needs, not that of the country's economy for the skills of their mothers. There is an argument for men working shorter hours and sharing the responsibility for the family wage, but we need a more tempting account of the contribution they can make. There must be a better job description for fathers than that of holding the baby while the wife goes out to fulfil herself. As to more women in Westminster, roll them on by all means. But although it may seem an excellent idea to a mother of three under-10s with a constituency in Peckham, others may have to wait - and why not, after all? - until their chicks have flown the nest.

Comments