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

Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General


£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Luton: SECONDARY PRU / SEN / LSA experie...

Website Editor

£15 - £17 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently r...

Teaching Assistants Needed in Bolton

£12000 - £14400 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you an...

Nursery Assistant Plymouth

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Qualified Nursery nurs...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Ed Miliband is so scared of becoming Tony Blair he has forgotten how to communicate

Lance Price
Young Syrian refugees gather around a small fire at the Minieh camp in Lebanon  

Cameron and Obama may want to ‘destroy’ Isis, but what will they do about the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria?

Kate Allen
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments