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Former BBC newsreader Michael Buerk recently claimed that life is now lived according to women's rules. Could he possibly have a point?

By Stella Tillyard   October 2005

Michael Buerk is partly right. While it is nonsense to declare, as he apparently did, that the “shift in the balance of power between the sexes” has gone too far, his observation that “life is now lived in accordance with women’s rules” has a lot to be said for it. We might want to substitute “values” for “rules,” but what he is saying seems less inflammatory valediction than historical truth. Very gradually, over the last 250 years, the values of those who have the luxury to live by choice rather than necessity have indeed become feminised, or have given more prominence to values associated with feminine virtue and domesticity.

The course of history is never smooth, and it is important to remember that things weren’t ever thus before we set in stone the opposition between feminine values and the masculine virtues of reserve, independence, self-reliance and stoicism that Buerk wants to celebrate. Two hundred and fifty years ago, before the French revolution and the wars that followed it brought Buerk’s masculine values to the fore, a drawing-room manliness that placed men both in the centres of their families and in networks of friendships was fashionable. Read the letters of London’s mid-18th century equivalent of Islington man and you will find solicitous enquiries, family reminiscence and boastful talk of children’s beauty, talent and achievement as any phone call between Muswell Hill mothers today. Social skills, particularly those of conversation and politeness, were part of manly attractiveness, and sartorial elegance was a cultivated virtue. It is true that there was always a lurking backlash to this urban and urbane manliness; the macaronis of the late 1760s were castigated for foppish foreignness. But the particular constellation of virtues we now associate with masculinity were not fully assembled until the beginning of the 19th century, when war and then empire put a premium on lonely responsibility, the performance of duty away from home, and the stoic suppression of emotion. Public schools taught it, and men, to varying degrees, enacted it.

Almost imperceptibly though, and regardless of male heroics in battle and for empire, women were winning rights and accruing virtues too. Motherhood and bringing up children were invested, after Rousseau’s Emile of 1762, with a moral virtue that carried—and still carries—a whiff of sanctity. Enlightenment demands for women’s rights were eventually recognised in the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 and, over the last century, in divorce settlements which increasingly emphasise the work of women in the home and even—in the landmark Parlour case (where the Arsenal footballer’s wife was awarded a third of his future earnings in 2004)—the economic value of pulling a man back from the brink. At the same time, male sexuality has been slowly domesticated. In the 18th century a wife could not divorce her husband for adultery, as he could her, but by the 1770s women who had money to go to law were challenging adultery suits by countersuing on the ground of their husbands’ prior adultery, and winning substantial maintenance as a result. If empire and sexual adventure went arm in arm, flagrant adultery like that of Lord Nelson was increasingly frowned upon as the 19th century progressed, and after a brief flowering in the 1960s and 1970s, rogue males, especially married ones, are again unfashionable. Michael Caine as Alfie was impish and sexy; his successor Jude Law was implausible on celluloid and is painted as sleazy in real life.

These changes, which place more and more emphasis on children as the emotive centre of life and the value of the work women (and many men) do with them in the home, are by and large accepted. Most of us now regard the loving and bringing up of our children as the most demanding and fulfilling occupation in our lives. So far, so good, by and large, for the happiness of women and society. Trouble starts, however, when these values begin to alter the other area in which women have made spectacular inroads in the last 25 years: the world of work, or, at least the world of the professions. Feminism, or the assertion of the equality of women, has driven women’s achievements in professional life. But now that the work of bringing up children has achieved a new prominence, motherhood itself has become an enabling category. It is this new situation that gives genuine cause for grievance to many, including, by definition, all men. In the professions, individual women and well-meaning feminists who support them now argue that mothers should be given promotion on easier terms because they have families. Motherhood of itself, to put it in terms calculated to enrage, should guarantee an advantage.

There are many ways to reward parenthood and make bringing up children less burdensome. But both men and women must recognise that becoming a parent is a choice—and not a choice everyone has or takes. To reward motherhood (or parenthood) in such a way in the workplace is wrong for a reason that all feminists should recognise: it is discriminatory, even if it seeks to right a historic wrong. It will alienate not only men, but women who are, by choice or with sadness, childless. That cannot be right, and it gives powerful ammunition to those who believe, with Michael Buerk, that equality has been reached and surpassed and it is time to call a halt.

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