There’s a blog post sitting in my drafts titled, I wish my Mama hadn’t raised me as a feminist.
It’s about how my Mama taught me I was equal to men, to believe in myself and my dreams and that anything was possible. She taught me I didn’t need a man to be happy or successful in this life, that I was independent and self-sufficient. She installed in me strong morals of right and wrong and fairness. She raised me as a feminist. Not the stereotypical bra-burning-man-hating kind. Just the bog-standard-all-people-are-equal kind.
As a teenager, I started to question whether what she described was possible. Could I could have it all? Did I want it all? And what did that even mean? The post asks would I be happier now with lower expectations of the world, of myself and of my life as a mum?
I recall a conversation with the OH at age 19, before we were even dating, about how I had no intention of getting married and wouldn’t really mind if I didn’t have kids – “What will be will be” I mused. (What will be will be indeed!)
But I don’t think I’ll be posting it any time soon. Instead, I’m posting this…
No reason to be a feminist
In my teenage years, I described myself as a feminist. But then I went travelling and off to Uni and to be honest, the fire in me calmed. In hindsight, it’s not surprising. I had no reason to be a feminist. I had never nor knew anyone who had experienced discrimination for being female (or so I thought).
If my male friends, made a slightly derogatory joke, my female friends and I gave as good as we got and put them in their place. But to be honest, that’s just it – it was a joke. No one I knew genuinely thought women were inferior.
As far as I was concerned, I lived in an enlightened society. There was no need for feminism. It was the older generations who had issues, and they didn’t effect me.
The quiet rumblings of unrest…
When I entered the workforce at 22, I had my first experience of problems for being female. I won’t go into detail but let’s just say it was an uncomfortable situation.
At 23, I had a female line manager who was all about women’s equality and empowerment. She read Lean In, was supportive of my career and spoke regularly of injustice in the workplace against women. I’m ashamed to say I remember thinking she just had a chip on her shoulder; she claimed she wasn’t paid equally to her male counterparts. I was convinced it was all in her head. Our Chief of Marketing, our Brand Director and the head of our team were all female. I just didn’t believe that in 2012 such inequality still existed.
When I discovered I was paid 3k per year less than a fellow male Grad in my team, I shrugged; “I was obviously a bit naive when I was negotiating.” It was he who said, “There’s no reason for you to be paid less than me. We’re the same experience level, in the same team, just with different responsibilities.” When my contract came up for renewal, my request for a pay rise was denied.
At 25, even when they made me redundant the week I went on Maternity Leave, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Sure, it was a shitty thing to do, but I told myself they weren’t terminating my contract because I was pregnant... right?
Rediscovering the F word
Over the past six months or so, it seems the planets have aligned and I have found myself facing my once feminist self head on.
It all began when I wrote the post The Unemployed Mum. I was outraged by how many women got in touch with similar stories, actually shocked at how common this issue was. Until I wrote that post, a part of me kept thinking, ‘It’s just me.’
It was clear I couldn’t stick my head in the sand any longer. I knew straight away I wanted to run a blog series featuring these women, sharing their stories, hi-lighting the issues and raising awareness. But I was acutely aware that positioning myself as an activist for women’s and parents’ rights in the workplace may hinder my chances of employment even further (somewhat ironic…) and I had a family to help support and bills to pay.
So I waited. And when I got my job in January, I launched the #ParentsAtWork series shortly after.
Around the same time, the OH recommended an episode of Women’s Hour about pregnancy discrimination. I’ve listened almost daily ever since, soaking up thoughts, opinions, arguments and issues related to women’s lives from insomnia to the EU Referendum.
Recently the programme featured Anne-Marie Slaughter. During Obama’s first term, she worked on International Foreign Policy, her absolute dream job. Two years in, she gave it all up because her teenage son needed her at home. As she puts it, ‘the pull of motherhood was too great’. Shortly after, Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic titled, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All‘ and after four years, much research, feedback and countless public speaking events, she’s written Unfinished Business, in which she revamps that statement to ‘parents can’t have it all’.
The thoughts and opinions Anne-Marie conveyed in the interview so struck a chord with me I opened Amazon and pre-ordered the book on the spot. As I write this blog post, I’m about half way through it, but so far, I’d say Slaughter has pretty much nailed it.
The final piece to the puzzle came at WorkFest16 last weekend. Mumsnet asked me to write a guest post on my unemployed mum experience back in February to help launch the event and as a result I was invited to attend the conference.
It was a truly inspiring day celebrating women in work. Mumsnet had considered almost everything: free coaching sessions, freelancing and LinkedIn masterclasses; ‘how to start your own business,’ ‘how to write a business plan’ and self esteem workshops; panel discussions on balancing work and home life and flexible working.
This week, as I digested everything from the past few months, I realised – the spark is back.
I am a feminist.
Many people today say your twenties are for growing up and discovering who you are.
I used to think my twenties were disrupted by having a baby unexpectedly. But at 27, as I realise the bulk of my twenties are behind me and that I’m edging ever closer to 30, I know that having my daughter didn’t ‘throw me off course’. It simply set me on a different path.
We are but a product of our experiences. Perhaps I would have opened my eyes to today’s reality without having my daughter. Maybe I would have grown up and matured and realised that just because my male friends weren’t bigoted idiots, we don’t live in some post-feminism utopia of equality.
But having her and the experiences that ensued, re-lit the spark of feminism within me.
And so I come to the crux of this post. I am a feminist.
Or am I?
Are you a feminist?
There are layers to feminism. There’s one layer regarding male sexual dominance – however that may present itself in various situations. Another regarding issues around self-worth, body image and such like. Another regarding employment, equal pay and basic rights in the workforce to name but a few.
When I started writing this post, I wrote that many of my twenty-something friends had thankfully not experienced discrimination or harassment just because they were born with a certain configuration of chromosomes.
Then I did a quick poll on Whatsapp and found I was in fact very wrong.
Almost all of them had stories of cat-calling from white van men while walking home from school in their uniform back in the day; stories of men making aggressive sexual comments – one friend’s colleague asked ‘can I use your tits as a stress ball.’ Another, when bending down, had a customer say, ‘while you’re down there, love…’. And numerous stories of workplace harassment and discrimination: one recalled her line manager saying, “hasn’t this feminism business gone too far now?”, another, her boss pushed her to stay in a production roll (she works in TV) as “it’s better for women who want babies”. She was 21 at the time.
Those who have experienced harassment or discrimination in some way all identified themselves feminists. They have the fire.
The curse of motherhood
But something seems to happen to women, both in their perception of themselves and as others perceive them, when they become mothers. Suddenly, they are different – particularly when it comes to work.
They are on one hand viewed as absolute pillars of strength, stability and support and on the other viewed as gentle, soft and weak, to be handled with care. They are all too often no longer judged by their output, by their ability or their experience. They’re judged by how often they mention their children in conversation, how often they have to take a call from the nursery, how often they are twenty minutes late for work because traffic was bad after the nursery run.
‘Us and them’
But when all is said and done, I don’t know if I will raise my daughter as a feminist.
Will being a feminist won’t fix these issues? I increasingly don’t think so.
As I interview the men and women for #ParentsAtWork, as I speak to my friends about their experiences, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that feminism in its essence, to me, is divisive.
What we really need to do is move beyond a dialogue of ‘women’s rights’ to a discussion of ‘human rights’.
Until we stop thinking of everything as ‘women’s issues’ – flexible working, the clash between home life and work life, the many issues around caring for and raising children (or even elderly parents) – and start expecting the same from men and women in all things, I don’t believe anything will truly change.
That means treating the Stay At Home Dad as you would a Stay At Home Mum, not commending him for being the one to ‘take the foot off the gas’ in his career while his partner takes the lead. It means not heroing the dad who does the nursery run or doesn’t miss the school play. (Unless you would hero a mum for these same behaviours… Most wouldn’t, FYI.)
At the same time, if a mum wants to stay home, she shouldn’t be perceived as ‘letting the side down’ or ‘giving up.’ In the same vein, if a man chooses to adopt flexible working policies or even become the lead parent, he shouldn’t be considered any less of a man for it. We need to level the playing field so there is space for choice for both men and women how they want to balance their work and home lives.
But how do we do this?
We start by abolishing the ridiculous notion that being a carer is somehow a subordinate role within a family. And we also stop expecting less from men, stop expecting women to be the default carers and start genuinely thinking of men and women as equal.
For as long as we talk about ourselves as ‘us and them’, that is exactly what we will be.