What women want

June 19, 1998

What women want

Dear Polly,

Do I hear the pitter-pat of the lynch mob at my heels, or is it my imagination? Last time I heard the noise it was real enough. That was 30 years ago and the running feet were male. In those days men became violent in speech and manner to anyone expressing feminist views, frightened that if anyone rocked the boat-that old barge Status Quo-women would stop ironing, cooking and looking after the kids. (Which, of course, turned out to be the case.)

In those days women envied men, because men had a good time and they didn't. A man lived an exciting life outside the house and a woman's life was inside. Unless she was a paragon of domestic and maternal virtue, it was dull, dull, dull. Men earned money: they were rich, free, independent; they were educated, they drove cars, picked and chose among women, spent their evenings down the pub or the club or at the Marxist meeting; they weren't expected to do domestic chores or look after the kids. They got out of the house, got out of the country and in general ruled the roost. They were, in women's eyes, grave, responsible and splendid. Who wouldn't rather be a man? Lordie me, that was some boat to be rocked-and you didn't half get into trouble for rocking it.

That was in the days of full employment, when one wage was enough to keep a whole family in comfort, rents and food were cheap, working hours were shorter, when "a woman" was defined as "a person who has babies," and no one could spell paedophile. But now the Status Quo floats on very different seas: both men and women work-they have to-and the workplace demands from women, as it used to only from men, the time and loyalty once given to family. In the service economy all genders are equal. Muscle power counts for nothing. There are more men than women among the under-50s so women tend to do the sexual picking and choosing. Men's lives are less enviable, being more like those of women. Yet many women, on autopilot, seem to go on wanting to ape men. They claim not just equal opportunities and wages, not just freedom and dignity, but the right to be fat cats, to hand their children over to the care of others, to box, join the army, to jeer and cheer as they watch the opposite sex strip down in the club: all the dafter perks of former male existence. Pad those shoulders, bulge those pectorals! Who needs men? What's their role in the new world? Now even pregnant women don't need looking after.

And the men begin to feel about the women as the women used to feel about the men 30 years ago: If only I'd been born one of those! Because so long as women don't encumber themselves with babies, it is they who have the good time. Young women adjust more easily to the role of wage slave: their morale is higher, their self-esteem soars. They do better at exams. They find jobs more easily. The girls stride about the streets, bright and beautiful. The boys turn loutish or slouch and shuffle their shoes. Girl power, girl power!

The gender switch has been thrown. Even God has been rendered female. The old bearded patriarch in the sky has gone, and a threatening Mother Nature has been appointed in His place, bringing plague and petulance on those who flout Her laws. The feminisation of politics is just about complete. By this I don't mean "what a lot of women in Tony Blair's parliament"; rather, that the qualities traditionally attributed to the female-nurturing, caring, forgiveness, the tendency to apologise at the drop of a hat and to smile a lot-are now rated higher than the traditional male qualities of reason, gravitas, responsibility, rectitude and stiff-upper lippedness. Intellect is marginalised. Emotion is all. The Conservative party vanishes; it was all suits and male values. William Hague tries, but it's too late. All this femaleness doesn't make government any nicer, of course. Niceness or otherwise is a human quality; it has little to do with gender.

And now it's the women who make up the lynch mob if you murmur the times are a-changin', pity the poor men, be careful not to go too far. Now it's the threatening pitter-pat of female feet I hear, or think I hear, at my heels. Shut up. Don't rock the boat. The status quo's just fine. You're the Winnie Mandela of the feminist movement, that's what you are! What are women so frightened of losing? Their inalienable right to be victims? The fun of despising men? Their occupation of the moral high ground for ever and ever? What?


Fay Weldon

7th May 1998

Dear Fay

So women have won, we have it all, victory is ours! You say we have money, freedom and power. Yes Fay, you and I do and aren't we lucky? There are a few of us up here among the high-earning, nannied classes, combining children with satisfying jobs. The men in our lives are our equals, partners out of choice not necessity. We are not dependants, they are not sole providers and our relationships have changed out of recognition. It should be liberating for men and women, free of exaggerated gender-determinism.

But so far that's a chance just for you and I, we happy few. It is not like that for most women. For them life is as hard a struggle as ever. Twenty years after the equal pay act, women still earn 20 per cent less than men. Women are clustered at the bottom of every ladder, if there's a ladder out at all. Most mothers work, but their jobs are not liberating, as part-time carers and caterers, squeezing jobs into unsocial hours to fit in with their families, for whom they still overwhelmingly provide all the care and housework. The great majority of women, unlike you and I, cannot earn a breadwinner's wage to keep their families, so they still depend on men. If the man defects, or they can't bear him, nearly all single mothers fall upon the meagre benefits from the state, stuck there. Is this victory? Is this liberation?

Your wonderful novels have been a great inspiration for the women's movement over the years-sharp, canny, touching perceptions of ordinary women's experience. But too many successful women are bored with women's issues because for them the subject has moved on now they've gained so much. But what of the great multitude left behind?

You say that young women are equal now in education and opportunity-so they are. This is a great advance. Girls see no obstacles, until they become mothers. But most women have children and most mothers have gained very little. Did you know that only 16 per cent of women in senior management have children, while 90 per cent of top men are fathers? All but a few women still have to choose between a high-flying career and children, while it never crosses a man's mind that such an unbearable decision lies across his path.

You worry about the plight of men who are having trouble adjusting to the new equality. No doubt aristocrats have always found life hard after popular revolutions. Giving up hegemony hurts. We are living in the midst of the most profound social revolution there has ever been, and we are still in a chaotic era of change. Women everywhere have seized upon the ideas and ideals of equality, giving them higher aspirations, but find the reality is still against them. Men have been slower to change and very slow to see that in the end, life will be better for them too. They see only the threat, not the opportunity.

What is the endgame? You seem to suggest it is some man-destroying zero sum; you fear that this is where we are now, emasculating men with our woman power. Some have always represented feminism as a man-hating battalion of harpies and viragos, lesbians and Bobbitts. But you know as well as anyone that this is not what most feminism has been about. It has been about freeing humanity from socially enforced gender roles. It is not that men and women are the same, but gender has been allowed to dominate and destroy other more important individual character traits. There is nothing more limiting and sad to see than the ultra-feminine woman, and the ultra-masculine man, restricting themselves to the crudest and least creative aspects of their personalities out of social pressure.

You complain that so far too many women enjoying their new roles have simply adopted male values. Maybe in these tumultuous times, women are still feeling their way uncertainly. Maybe the qualities we thought male or female were nothing of the kind, but merely social constructs. Women were more caring, forgiving and nurturing because that's what they did, not what they were. Once some, like Margaret Thatcher, have power, they behave more like men. That may tell us something about power and the human personality, as well as something about how artificial gender stereotypes are once people are freed from them.

Women are not clinging to their victimhood, or the moral high-ground. Men and women, oppressors and victims alike, have so much to gain by breaking those chains.

Yours in sisterhood, still, until we are all humankind,

Polly Toynbee

8th May 1998

Dear Polly,

The thing is I totally agree with you, at least about mothers. Tucked away in my first letter is the phrase "unless women encumber themselves with babies." If they do, if they fail to resist the urge to procreate, they are indeed still in trouble. And just how deeply we can't know until the statistics which pour out of government divide us not into two, male and female, but into four: women with children, women without, men with children, men without. As it is there is no way of knowing what is due to male discrimination and what to women's own decisions: if women are "clustering at the bottom of every ladder," is it because they've been kicked off the rungs by men, or is it because these are the women who are having children? Mothers, as opposed to just women, are too tired to climb or have better things to do than join the race for promotion.

If females earn only 20 per cent less than men overall to my mind that's a pretty good reckoning-if you see "equal pay" as a sensible goal, which I don't necessarily. A majority of women turn into mothers sooner or later. Equal pay for equal work, sure. But how can mothers be doing equal work? They can't, and employers know it. The working mother's duty, thank God, is to her children not her employer, who's some guy trying to pay her as little as possible for as much work as he can get. The figure of 20 per cent suggests too many mothers struggling too hard to balance the demands of home and employer, and what in God's name is happening to the children? I wish the pay gap were higher. We are on automatic pilot here, in the quest for "equality."

Only 16 per cent of women in top management are mothers, you say, while 90 per cent of top men are fathers. Now that's the kind of statistic we can work with. At least it includes the children. But perhaps the kind of women who want to be senior managers don't want children. Is there suffering here?

For both genders ambition in the end must fail: as the younger and brighter overtake, redundancy looms. And yes, the men do end up with families. They've found partners along the way. And so many of the women haven't. It's a mystery. Perhaps men aren't so particular, don't give the matter of marriage so much thought, fall in love with a pretty face, not a noble personality? High-flying women are awfully picky. They focus on what is wrong with men-we feminists have taught them to-and not what's right about them. And it is in the nature of women, I suspect, to search for men who are their superiors in education, earning capacity and status. (All that species nest-building stuff and no nests to build. Hopeless.) Where are they to find such paragons? Especially in this dismissive "Oh, men!" age. This is my point.

Where I part company with you completely is that I don't think more government inspired childcare, baby cr?hes and nurseries are the answer, except in a few cases. If only it were so simple. All you do is hand the care of your child over to some other woman who doesn't love it and has a whole lot of other children to look after, so you can earn minimally more than she. Raising small children is a one-to-one business, would that it weren't. The much-cited evidence that children who go to playgroups "develop better" is remarkably thin. It says more about the abysmal level of childcare inside some homes than anything else.

If the government has its way in driving unwilling mothers off the dole and into jobs, we will regress to the days of Victorian baby-farms, and Soviet-style directed labour. It is simple cruelty, to mother and child. And so mean and manipulative. Mother takes some dreadful job that's offered her, perforce, she comes off the dole, pays for the cr?he, the job lasts two weeks (or she does). She has to re-apply for benefit, disturb her child once again, there's no money for the next two weeks, and she comes back on the dole at the lower rate. Thanks!

Sure, I can waft round annoying both men and women saying "pity the poor men," but at least it encourages a bit of discussion. I pity in this order: mothers, children, young men, old men, young women. Because some things are true doesn't mean other things aren't true, too. And what is good for mothers isn't necessarily good for children. Interests overlap but do not coincide.



9th May 1998

Dear Fay,

I'm at sea. All this pitying left-behind men has suddenly turned into pitying poor working mothers. What is this new revelation of yours that mothers should stay at home with their children? You always had a stimulating working life. I imagine that you, like me, would now be full of misery and regret at a wasted life if we had done nothing but care for our children. What about our daughters? Rear them, too, just to be housewives? Since the dawn of time women have thrown away their talent and their intelligence. Now you want to send them back to the sink. I can't understand it.

You present a grim image of a villainous government bent on wrenching babes from their mothers' breast, forcing them to work against their will. But every survey shows that most women want to work and the great majority of mothers do. The ones prevented are those on social security, who don't, but desperately want to. The single most clinically depressed group of people are young mothers at home with their children-and they know it. They want a bit of life on their own, if only the state would make it possible. The children of mothers who work do just as well as the children of married women who stay at home. But the children of single mothers at home do far worse. Good nursery education improves their chances, but having a mother who works is the best indicator of their own success later.

In any case, the government is not forcing any mothers to work. Quite the contrary, the system largely prevents those who are benefit-dependent from working. What's so good about Harriet Harman's voluntary New Deal for single parents is that it gives them a chance and a choice for the first time. It's only for those with school-age children and I see no possibility that any compulsion will enter into this scheme. It would be too politically contentious. But I am amazed that you join the ranks of conservative men who promote a rosy image of motherhood-baking cakes with babes at her feet. Research shows that many are depressed, frustrated and lonely, the world passing them by. Resentful mothers don't make good mothers.

This isn't about high-fliers breaking through glass ceilings, pursuing ambition to their children's detriment. It's about moving to a better world where women and men can both fulfil every aspect of their character. We aren't nearly there. The government is only just beginning to provide proper childcare and after-school clubs (which help children fill the hours after 3:30pm with something other than television).

Nothing's perfect, life's hard and everyone's to be pitied-that's what I'd expect a novelist to conclude. But in the end, most women still draw the shortest straws. I don't and won't accept your proposal that it is in women's nature to seek men who are their superiors. Nature, fiddlesticks! I despise men who choose dumber partners to bolster their own sense of superiority. It's just that until we achieve equality, there are many more men of superior status and earning power than women.

Yours against Mother Nature,


10th May 1998

Dear Polly,

Please try to understand me. I do not want to send women "back to the sink" or even the dishwasher. I do not have a rosy vision of blissful motherhood. On the contrary. The unremitting care of a small child drives any lively woman mad. The unremitting attention of a trammelled mother can leave a child neurotically disabled for life. What I do have is a bleaker vision of the "job as answer" than you. I want another solution to the problem of "what do we do with the children?" in this proposed utopia of ours than simply more childcare organised by the state (and certainly not offered for free!), and how well Harriet Harman is doing. What mothers want is to get out of the house, some stimulation, a sense of achievement and an income. They do not necessarily want to work at a job for ten hours a day, forever anxious about what to do if the children are ill or unhappy at cr?he, nursery or school. The average working week in Britain is now the longest in Europe, which means children from the age of three (which is how I fear "school-age" will now be interpreted at the Job Centre) will be in schools and nurseries for ten hour days, now that "homework club" is tacked on to the end of school. (The clubs will of course be staffed by people who require less money than teachers.) I repeat, the interests of mothers, children and a government intent on bringing down the welfare bill overlap but do not coincide; at the margin lie a great deal of hardship, anxiety, and distress.

Of course there are solutions. Equal parenting is the obvious one. But that suggests children need resident fathers; many mothers these days don't want that.

To be concerned for the lot of young men in the face of "girl power," which I am, does not disentitle my concern for the fate of mothers and children in our society. There's more than one thing wrong with it. And if you can think of better reasons than the ones I offer as to why so many young women of around 30 find themselves without partners these days, and lament their state, please let me know!

Yours, in sisterhood,


11th May 1998

Dear Fay,

You're not one for letting facts get in the way of preposterous propositions. Very few mothers work in full-time jobs, almost all work part-time. Most would like their part-time jobs not to be dead-end, but to be a career. You seem to be swayed by those well-publicised cases of super-high-fliers (the president of Coca Cola and so on) who write books about giving up 60-hour weeks in the boardroom for the sake of the children. How many women get nearer the boardroom than vacuuming its carpet?

I can't let pass your insane idea that women bring up children alone because they want to. Every piece of research suggests that women want a permanent partner. The go-it-alone-and-sod-men mother is a figment of the Daily Mail's imagination. Almost everyone has an ideal of a partner for life. Most girls who get pregnant imagine it will bind-in the boy-utter folly, bitterly repented when he flees before the birth. How can you believe this stuff?

Women are less willing to tolerate intolerable men than they were. Social security has made it possible for them and their children to survive if they walk away from abusive or insufferable partners. This is called freedom-a freedom only the middle classes used to have. They would all like to find another man-and indeed, the main route out of social security is still through re-partnering. Would you return to the slavery of life before divorce?

To be sure, we can all agree that work has become grotesquely obsessive. But that's nothing to do with women. As for partnerless 30-somethings, if they have become more choosy it is because women have changed and most men have not. You want women to retreat. I want men to grow up and be equal.

Yours until that day,


11th May 1998

Dear Polly,

You have a point.