Joan Smith: I am over 40 and childless. Sorry, Doris

Women are always in the wrong when it comes to fertility, having children too young, too late or not at all
Click to follow

Before you conclude that I've taken leave of my senses, all I'm doing is subjecting the centre-left's leading figures to the kind of scrutiny their female challenger has been under during the last week, ever since Doris Schröder-Kopf chose to make the private life of Angela Merkel - who has been married twice and has no children - an issue. Not only female politicians, either, for ordinary women in the UK have just been warned by doctors about an "epidemic" of middle-aged pregnancy. Yes, that's "epidemic" as in "a widespread occurrence of a disease" or "a wide prevalence of something usually undesirable", according to the dictionary, which is hardly calculated to make middle-aged mothers feel terrific.

The authors of the research, two of whom are women, went out of their way to put the blame on "a distorted and uninformed view from society, employers and health planners", apparently without realising how loaded their own vocabulary was. They have a point about the health risks to both mother and child of delaying pregnancy until the late thirties, but was it really necessary to talk about women "defying nature and risking heartbreak"? I was reminded of the leading British biologist who was outraged to discover at a rather grand party that I didn't intend to have children. "You're evading your biological destiny," he shrieked, glancing wildly around the room as though I was about to escape through a fifth-floor window. Telling him how relaxed I felt about defying destiny and sexist assumptions didn't calm him down at all.

What I've come to realise is that women are always in the wrong when it comes to fertility, having children too young, too late or (as in mine and Angela Merkel's case) not at all. I can't say I like Merkel's politics but of all the things Doris Schröder-Kopf could have thrown at her, she chose to go for the nasty, low and personal, observing that the leader of the right-wing alliance "does not embody with her biography the experiences of most women". Then Schröder-Kopf started talking about childbirth, bringing up children and education in case anyone failed to grasp what she was implying about her husband's rival. (Personally, whenever anyone starts suggesting I know nothing about children, I point out that I was a child for quite a long time.)

Far from being embarrassed, Schröder joined in, insisting on his wife's right to express her opinions and making a point of mentioning the SPD's family-friendly policies. At this point, I felt like giving a heartfelt sigh and asking who ever imagined that the soixante-huit generation of Left politicians was any less sexist than its predecessors? That's how we came to have feminism in the first place, although it would be nice to think that Doris Schröder-Kopf grew up in slightly more enlightened times. If there's one way in which the leaders of Germany's centre-left parties resemble other men, it's in preferring younger women: Doris (19 years younger than Schröder) and Nicola Leske (21 years younger than her now ex-husband Fischer).

Sadly, women can on occasion be as harsh towards members of their own sex as any man. Doris Schröder-Kopf's attack on Angela Merkel may not sway the German election. But it doesn't say much for her husband's radical credentials if he thinks the only way he can win is by encouraging his wife to make misogynist remarks about another woman.