Yummy Mummy or High Flyer?
Feminism is about the right to make our own choices – and not care what anyone else thinks of them
It’s a good thing that Cherie Blair has such a wide mouth, given how often her foot lands right inside it. The latest such instance occurred at a recent event in London where Fortune magazine was celebrating the Most Powerful Women in the world.
Rueing the lack of feminist values in the new generation of women who just wanted to be “yummy mummies”, Cherie lamented that it worried her how so many women couldn’t be bothered with a career: “They think, ‘Why can’t I just marry a rich man and retire’.” Cherie warned that “every woman needs to be self-sufficient” and that “even good men could have an accident and die and you’re left holding the baby”.
From her point of view, this was unexceptional stuff. After all, this is a woman who saw her father walk out on her mother when she was eight. She saw her mother struggle to make ends meet, while her grandmother looked after her and her younger sister. So, it is no surprise that the first lesson that the young Cherie learnt was: Don’t trust men; always make your own way.
But of course, the British media and blogosphere – which hates her with a particular passion – went wild about how Cherie was dissing women who chose family over career and weren’t as high-achieving as she had been.
I have to admit, though, that on one level, I am in complete agreement with Cherie Blair. It is important for young women to learn the lesson that the only person you can depend on is yourself – and that financial independence lies at the heart of this. There is no quarrelling with that.
Where I do disagree is that I believe that when we tell women that the only success that is worth striving for is the kind they achieve in the workplace, we effectively devalue everything that women achieve as homemakers, mothers and carers.
Yes, it’s great to have a pay cheque coming in every month. It’s lovely to have a high-powered job that gives you satisfaction. It’s wonderful to feel that your achievements at work are being validated by a judgemental world. But while we are going about it, is it really necessary to debase and demean those women who have made a choice to get off the career treadmill and devote themselves to their families?
I don’t have children myself, but I would imagine that it must tear women apart to leave small babies at home, being cared for by paid strangers, while they go off to earn a living. It probably gets even more difficult – and guilt-inducing – when the kids grow up and begin to need you more, rather than less.
Anyone who wants to learn about the competing demands of career and children and what it does to women should read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story for The Atlantic. Slaughter, a high-flyer at the US State Department, recently resigned to go back to teaching at Princeton University. In her article, titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, she explains how even though she had a ‘supportive’ husband – the Holy Grail of all feminist tracts – who took over the care of her two sons, she still felt guilty of letting her family down. She still blamed her absence for her teenage son’s angst. And so, when it came time to renew her contract, she decided to quit to ‘spend more time with her family’, usually a euphemism – as she notes wryly – for being fired.
But Slaughter’s story tells us an essential truth: most women are hard-wired to want to take care of their young. And sometimes you just can’t beat biology, no matter how hard you try.
So, do we really need to tell a harried young mother with two kids under the age of six that she needs to get dressed and go out to work or else she will be letting down the sisterhood? Must we make the army wife or the diplomatic spouse feel worthless because she follows her husband on his job? And most importantly, do we really want to live in a world where the only person who has power in a relationship is the husband who brings in a regular pay check? Do we want to tell the young women coming of age today that feminism may be about choice – but there’s only one choice available to them: of going out and having it all.
And what does ‘having it all’ really mean? Does it mean being exhausted to your bones because you have worked a 12 hour day at the office and must now cook a meal for your family? Does it mean striving for professional success no matter what the cost to your personal life? Does it mean buying into the macho code of deciding everyone’s worth on the basis of their pay cheque?
After all, the question is no longer whether women can succeed in a man’s world – but why we allow men to define what success is.
And I suspect that’s the trap that Cherie Blair has fallen into: of defining success in man-centric terms: how many hours you work; how much money you make; how far you can clamber up on the corporate ladder. But why should we allow men (or Cherie Blair for that matter) to define what success is?
Because when it comes right down to it, feminism is about the freedom to make our own choices – and to not give a damn what anyone else thinks about them.