Woman's secret desire: to wash whiter

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The Independent Online
Long nights, cruel days and the beginning of a new year bring in their train sober reflections. Have we come a long way, baby, or are we still smoking Virginia Slims? Have all our struggles resulted in just that, an advertising slogan? Is woman's most important function basically, really, fundamentally, shopping?

An account manager from a public relations firm has sent me the synopsis of a "major new study on European women" commissioned by the Whirlpool Foundation. A "whirlpool foundation" suggests the old whirlpool stitched bras that gave a woman a pair of rhino horns in place of breasts. But no, white goods are not Manchester - as we used to call linen - but the consumer durables in which we wash our dirty linen, and the Whirlpool Foundation is "the philanthropic arm of the Whirlpool Corporation, manufacturer of white goods". What these noble people required of me is that I read their synopsis of their major study, request a copy of the full study, study it with awe, and then join them for their press conference to help them to promote their study, as part of their campaign "to improve the quality of life in countries throughout the world where Whirlpool products are distributed".

Women are still dumb enough to fall for this kind of thing. British women organised bring-and-buy sales to finance the carrying of the message that HRT was the elixir of life into every hamlet in the country, raising money the hardest of hard ways just so they could spread the gospel according to the richest organisations in the world, the pharmaceutical multinationals, earning them billions and saving them billions at the same time. Attagirls!

So you can't be surprised that Ketchum Public Relations thought that I was going eagerly to devour the Whirlpool synopsis, beg for their full report, devote a day or two to deciphering it, and pay my own way to London to help them to make a good impression at their press conference without so much as a lunch for my pains.

The bland impudence of their expectations is of a piece with the lameness of their understanding of the issues that affect women. "Are you surprised", they ask me wide-eyed, and as incomprehensible as they are uncomprehending, "at the findings that British regard for the family matches that in the more traditional countries of Europe such as Italy and Spain?"

I am not even surprised that the British regard countries "such as Italy and Spain" as "more traditional", ie backward. The women of these countries may disoblige Whirlpool by using fewer white goods, not having got to the stage of machine-washing their practically clean linen so often and with such powerful digesters that a sheet lasts months instead of years, but in other respects a more perceptive British regard might produce the conclusion that priest-ridden, class-ridden, gossipy, empty-headed, politically illiterate Britain is now the most "traditional" country in Europe.

Take for example the New Year's Honours lists. The most valuable people in this country are male civil servants and captains of industry, it would appear. The most distinguished get to join court enclaves, the Order of the Bath, forsooth! The damp royal towel has been draped over the arm of a woman, the first female to appear on the honours list after 39 men, Stella Rimington, Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath. Then 17 more men before we get to "Miss" Eugenie Christine Turton, Grade 2, Cabinet Office (OPS). Then come the royal servants, chefs, gardeners, ladies-in- waiting, and variously decorated dogsbodies. As in life, industry, academe and employment generally, women only begin to proliferate at the lower levels of the honours list, for services to the community, the sick, the disabled, the homeless, the mentally handicapped, yoof, the pony-club, the school crossing patrol, and often voluntary, ie unpaid, service at that. Only when it comes to self-sacrifice and caring for others do women approach parity with men.

For some time I have been studying obituaries, not just because so many of my friends are dying, but to see who gets remembered, by whom and for what. Most days it seems that only men are afflicted with mortality and no women have died at all. Simone Genevois, who died on 16 December, got a big obituary for making a film in 1927. The obituary followed her career until 1935 and found nothing whatever to say about what the illustrious dead had found to do with the intervening decades. Evangeline Bruce got an even bigger obituary by three hands for being "intelligent, beautiful, mysterious, ethereal", "charmingly seductive", "one of the best-dressed women in the world" who had "to reject scores of would-be lovers". "Dior created a special range of maternity clothes for her". Needless to say the picture that accompanied the text showed her young, slim, jewelled, coiffed and 40 years younger than she was when she died.

In the obituaries of women, marriages are discussed in detail, not noted as an afterthought, as is usually done with distinguished men, who are allowed to grow old and whiskery in the accompanying photographs. The subliminal message is strong: we still value women for youth and beauty; more than half of their lives might just as well not be lived.

The promoters of the Whirlpool study think we will be surprised to learn that "women are now the carers and providers in today's society". Who do they think we are? Do they think we don't know we are now doing all the work? A report that studies women as if they were an interesting evolving minority has still not grasped the fact that women are the majority, trapped in the old rhetoric that treats women as objects rather than subjects.

It is curious to read that "96 per cent of women ..." still say that "...family is the most important part of their lives" when the largest proportion of British households consists of just one person. It seems likely that the population sampled by MORI for Whirlpool was constructed like the women in the obituaries, "reproductive age, married, husband present", alias chief consumers of Whirlpool products. How many of the Knights Bachelor wash their own smalls, do you reckon?