Thursday, 11 July 2013

Pink wellies and cigarettes

"I didn't know ladies could smoke!" my young son once exclaimed sotto voce after watching a (female) friend light up in the garden. Until that moment, he had only ever seen his grandfather smoking a pipe. His reaction made an impression on me: I realised that children form some pretty fixed ideas about gender from an early age. This was about the same time that he started objecting to wearing his sister's hand-me-down wellies.

Such startling observations are not infrequent in our household. After my sister-in-law finished her maternity leave and went back to her job in social work, my daughter remarked, "Gosh I didn't know mummies worked!" It was a galling moment. How had I managed to bring up my daughter in such ignorance? There followed a long lecture on a woman's right to work. 

A pair of pink wellington boots
Why can't boys wear them?! 
© Brookebecker | Dreamstime.com
A few weeks ago I attended a session on 'new feminism' at the Britmums Live conference. It was comforting to hear The Sunday Times journalist Eleanor Mills confessing that her own daughter had asked if a woman could lead a political party. "I feel we are stuck and in some ways we are going backwards," says Ms Mills, whose aunt, Barbara Mills, held the post of Director of Public Prosecutions in the 1990s. Ms Mills worries that her generation has become complacent about feminism and the hard-fought battles for sexual equality.

While I was researching my current novel, I came across a 1970s group of women who named themselves the Pussy Cat Club. This was a group of housewives who didn't agree with sexual equality and believed a woman's role was to serve and pamper her husband. One member told a BBC reporter: "[Women] want to be equal with the men, well it's not meant to be. They are completely different, their emotions and the way they're built." 

It was a striking (and nauseating) reminder of how far we have come since the birth of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. But, although attitudes have changed and women have learned to value themselves on par with men, there are still problems to overcome. As Kat Banyard of the UK Feminista movement puts it: "Scratch society and you expose vast inequalities."

In a recent blog, my friend Cathy Newman, presenter of Channel 4 News, reveals how she once challenged a senior executive at the Financial Times (where she worked previously) over pay. Cathy had discovered that a more junior, male reporter was being paid £10,000 more than her. The executive told her, "You don't have a mortgage or a family, what do you need the money for?" 

The nub of the problem, I believe, is women like me who choose to put their careers on hold to bring up their children. I feel passionately that choice should be enshrined in any feminist tract, but I also acknowledge that women dropping out of the workforce reduces our visibility and the pool of high achievers who reach the top.

There are no easy answers, but I do resent the government's campaigns to get new mothers back into work. Such policies devalue the choices made by stay-at-home mums and their commitment to looking after children full-time. Instead, more effort should be put into welcoming these women back into professional life once their children are older and less dependent. I know an army of mothers who would love to work flexibly during school term times, and yet this potential labour force remains overlooked and unaccommodated.

Ms Mills believes now is the "real time to rehabilitate feminism". I couldn't agree more - the fight goes on and each of us is responsible for shaping our society and weeding out prejudice. How we apply these principles to the thorny realities of life is challenging, but we can start by opening our children's minds to equality and choice. Pink wellies and cigarettes might not be the solution, but I hope my daughter and son will learn that gender should never be a barrier to anything.