Two Good Things to Know
There are two big questions that have sometimes niggled as I pursue my patriarchy-busting course through life (and the Mphil). I have always shot them down when other people mention them but that doesn’t mean they haven’t continued to niggle a little…until recently.
One involves the biological differences between men and women. I’ve always disliked the notion of “hardwiring”, felt it to be in the main a justification of the status quo, but there was a little insecurity there – women have ovaries, after all, and the unique challenges that come with them. Women do appear to have strong urges to have babies and to mother, and worse – far worse – when I look around, there does seem a confusing dearth of women in maths, science and leadership. I never consciously admitted to myself that this was because women were worse at these things than men, but if I’m being honest I bet some dark and embarrassed part of me wondered about it, a bit. Especially as I myself am so crap at all these things. Well, luckily that dark and embarrassed bit need lurk no longer – it’s been entirely flooded in the light of GOOD psychobiology books such as Melissa Hines’ Brain Gender; Rebecca Jordan Young’s Brainstorm and of course, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender. Also by a new habit of mind I have: to take note of every quantitative woman I meet, or every instance of female quantitative flair and add her/it to my mental list of “exceptions”. The list, whose other part is composed of poetry-reading, dramatic, maths-phobic men, is now very large. So: the good news is this! Women are not worse at abstract thinking or math or staying calm or leading or whatever because of anything inborn. It really is society wot done it. Now we just have to work out how to fix that.
The other niggle is the mother versus career question. I have always been quick to claim that motherhood is no excuse for giving up work, tumbling off the career ladder and staying at home busying yourself with the niceties of children’s parties and school runs. But then I thought- well, maybe motherhood does exert an influence on women I have yet to experience. Maybe they really are happier and better off choosing the home instead of the office. Maybe the challenges and rewards of housewifery and childrearing really are equal to those of the workplace. Maybe….
But once again I am happy to say that this niggle has been laid to rest. Betty Friedan – albeit criticised for the white middle-class leaning of her work – appears to be right. I have met three women in recent weeks who gave up work to play mother and wife. All three have high-earning husbands (often the pre-requisite). All three were slightly defensive about their choice to give up work. But in all three cases, it was only a matter of minutes before they started to say things that made my stomach turn. Things like: “Sometimes I miss using my brain” or “I go crazy without anything challenging, which is why I do some part-time work with my friend- just to keep me sane”. For this woman, work was a sanity tactic- which is better than nothing. But it had nothing to do with the work itself- it could be anything (she’d been through a long slew of disconnected posts, which- as soon as they started to be demanding or result in promotions -she left). She’d done a degree in medical history yet when we passed an exhibit in front of the History of Science museum in Cambridge she looked bored. One woman seemed to have resigned herself to the life of the home and to looking after kids aged 12 and 14 who probably would rather she was off kicking ass instead of waiting for them to need her. Another – a friend of my mother’s – treated me to lunch in London one day. She picked me up in her Jag and off we went. But immediately she seemed distracted. This distractedness, when queried, seemed related to a recalcitrant manicurist; still-unbooked flights to LA to visit her sons; a drinks party later that night for which she needed to rest and change and a general sense of “being so busy” that didn’t seem founded on anything but a long list of lifestyle boosts and pampering duties.
In the company of each of these three women I felt depressed. I felt I couldn’t really have a decent conversation with them about anything that wasn’t logistical or to do with small talk. Being in the middle of a brain-taxing course seemed a source of potential acrimony -nothing outright -but I felt that to discuss anything with an academic or work-related edge would be tactless. Mostly, I felt bad for these women. What had they to distract from the endless project of themselves and their families’ wellbeing? Only more consumption. I couldn’t help but feel that in keeping their time free to be good wives and mothers they were missing the thing that would have made them happy and more exciting as individuals, and through that, better wives and mothers. Namely, a career.