The perils in a nation of feminists

We are blind to assaults on women's rights that are going on under our noses, says Decca Aitkenhead
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The Independent Online
At Some stage during every BBC training course, a day is presumably set aside to teach young broadcasters a special tone of voice. It is the cocked eyebrow, indulgent tone: here comes a cranky little story, folks, you'll like this one. On BBC2's People's Century two weeks ago, this was the 1960s newsreel voice of reporters covering the early feminist movement. Last week, some 30 years on, it was reserved for the new "men's movement". Did you know, a Radio 4 presenter chuckled, some men's groups are getting quite cross about women-only car parks. How very quaint! The "menism" story was placed in the late, jokey slot of the Today programme - because, really, isn't the argument over, boys? We are all feminists now - heavens, even post-feminists! - and the serious news slots are reserved for proper stories.

Such as, last week, the Panorama programme about childcare. Or, last month, the saga of a high-flyer sacked in the City. Last autumn, it was moral decline and family values which were exercising us. Earlier in the summer, frozen embryos and an aborted twin had been hot stuff. All were treated as important issues - and yet each was as much about women's equality as was last week's tale about "menism". While the cranks are grumping in the margins about all-women car parks, sophisticated assaults on women's rights are going on under our noses. And because they are dressed in different clothes,we do not even notice.

On last Monday's Panorama, we met a family where the mother earned more than the father. Yet it was her decision to return to work, after the birth of their baby, which came under scrutiny. Nobody asked the father whether he had considered giving up his job to look after the baby; in fact, we never met him. We did meet a family where the father had stayed home to look after the kids. When they reached their teens, he went back to work. But now one of the boys isn't doing well with his GCSEs. Was this his father's fault? Who knows? Panorama was too busy grilling his mother to ask.

"She doesn't accept that her absence is affecting Rob's schoolwork," lamented the presenter. Given that Rob's mother had always been at work, this view did not seem illogical, but it was clearly quite unreasonable to Panorama. If children suffer when both parents work full-time it is, apparently by definition, the mother's fault.

A study which claimed that, all things being equal, children do better when raised by stay-at-home fathers rather than mothers was published two days after Panorama. It received almost no media attention. One could argue that, as all things are very rarely equal - most women earn on average 20 per cent less than men, and are therefore the logical ones to give up work - we were right to ignore it. Alternatively, 20 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, this is perhaps the injustice Panorama should be worrying about.

But is seems that we don't much like women when they do earn more than men. When Nicola Horlick and her pounds 1.5m salary became big news, free market stalwarts like the Daily Telegraph were suddenly alarmed by the senseless "greed" of the City. Presumably, they were not unaware that City high- flyers earned such sums; it was merely when the salary was drawn by a woman that they began to wonder whether it was quite right.

There is nothing fascinating, normally, about a row over City recruitment - but something irresistible about the opportunity to take a gleeful swing at a "superwoman" who had presumed to Have It All. She couldn't take it when it all went wrong, could she? When Chris Evans mouthed off in public teeth after his sacking, he was a cheeky showman. When Nicola Horlick fought back, she was a hysterical disgrace to her gender. When she played the children PR card, she sank to some grotesque sort of she-devil.

"A woman so ready to quash the protective instinct towards her offspring is a sign that nothing of intimacy is deemed off-limits in the perpetual battle for Mammon," sneered one commentator. Men in trouble routinely pull such stunts - John Gummer fed hamburgers to his little girl, and David Mellor, at the height of his sex scandal, assembled his kids for a photo call - without their innate integrity being damned.

What was so special, anyway, many scorned, about being a working mother of five when she could afford all those nannies and cleaners? The "real superwomen", right-wing papers were suddenly declaring, were poor, unemployed, single mothers struggling to get by. Which is odd, because only yesterday those women were feckless scroungers jumping the housing queue - and doubtless they will be again tomorrow. Women are wicked if they are work, and wicked if they don't.

The proper role of women was at the core of the great debate over the future of the family. In a year of Dunblane and Frances Lawrence, there was much hand-wringing about our dysfunctional society and deep moral decay. This was swiftly and enthusiastically ascribed - though quite why was never fully explained - to the breakdown of the nuclear family, and the inadequacies of single mothers. It's not that we are attacking them, you understand, said Tony Blair. He just doesn't think they are much good at raising children.

As the Divorce Bill made its troubled way through Parliament, commentators and Conservatives demanded new ways to make divorce harder. Can't we at least construct some tax system to try to keep the wretches married? others asked. Married men do very well out of marriage - their mental health and material wealth is statistically better than their single counterparts'. The opposite is true of wives. As it is women who instigate three out of four divorce proceedings, it is they who will feel the full force of this moral fury about the family.

Of course, if we are all feminists now, we have nothing to worry about. But if we were all feminists now, this would not be happening. The great danger is that we will study the fine print of each issue - were Panorama's statistics sound? Should a married tax allowance be this, or that? - and fail to see the logical role for women which emerges. It is one which says women should get married, stay at home, look after the kids - and have little choice over how many they will have.

We would be ill-advised to wait until BBC presenters stop using their funny voices to report "menism", before remembering the feminist case. By then it may be too late. We would, though, at least be able to stop worrying about the prospects of half the children of working parents. For, by then, what possible need would our daughters have for any GSCEs at all?