Sarah Churchwell: Don't tell me my place is in the home

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A report from Cambridge University has revealed "mounting concern" that women who work do so at the expense of family life. This is like saying that there is mounting concern about violence in the Middle East. The anxiety surrounding women's roles is bordering on panic. We have been demanding whether women can "have it all" (defined as "career and family", although some of us might have a more comprehensive definition of entirety, for the record) for a decade or more. The question is never asked of men, and the answer given to women is unvarying. No.

This report just confirms what many of us have recognised for some time, that we are witnessing a sharp reversal in attitudes toward professional women. We are a culture in retreat, clutching at the security blanket of archaic ideas about what women want.

According to the report, "both men and women in Britain are having second thoughts about whether women should try to pursue both a career and a family life". Take note of that prescriptive "should": it is everywhere.

Ten years ago, half of men and women felt that a career did not hinder family life. That number is falling precipitously. And no wonder: people have limited time and energy, and careers are taking increasing time from our personal lives. But this is not how we interpret these trends. This is about women who work, because we continue to stereotype women as sole custodians of family life, even though few of us actually organise our lives that way.

This rigid world of gender stereotypes is just as prescriptive for men, of course, who continue to be excluded tout court from our ideals of domestic life. That men's careers also affect their family life – perhaps even, gasp, adversely – is ignored.

Welcome to the wonderful world of post-feminism – otherwise known as the backlash – where double standards and double binds continue to reign supreme. We are free to choose in our brave new world: it's simply natural for women to choose domesticity. The bombarding messages telling us that any other choice would be unnatural, unattractive, unbecoming, self-betraying, rendering us shrill, strident, cold and sterile, are irrelevant.

No, your choices aren't restricted, dear – just don't get above yourself and try to run for president or anything. (Or, as the American commentator Tucker Carlson representatively asked, "If Hillary's so strong, why is she whining about sexism?")

Examples are everywhere: one magazine recently ran a feature titled "Women and Power: How Much Do You Really Want?" The answer was implied in the question: not all that much, really. This is the post-feminist manoeuvre par excellence, insisting to women that – although they are free to choose! – they don't really want to be powerful.

The article applauded "career women" who rated their families as their greatest success ("I think all women need that"), and whose greatest fear was becoming "the ballsy Apprentice ... businesswoman, living life by some blokeish code". The point is clear, and incessant: a happy woman is a wife and mother, and anatomy remains destiny.

And yet: more than 75 per cent of married women with children in the UK do paid work outside the home. In most families, women must work – we just mustn't want to. There's a recipe for contentment: either you're unfulfilled but abnormal because you enjoy your career but are neglecting your children, or you're unfulfilled and normal because you hate working but are neglecting your children. (Women without a family don't, of course, exist. Never have.) Congratulations: you've come a long way, baby.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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