Today's professional women are advancing through the labour market in unprecedented numbers, but many are discovering stress and unhappiness rather than the promised land. Rosalind Miles suggests that the old enemies of feminism can no longer be blamedby Rosalind Miles / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
“Professions for women!” If not quite the last cry on Emily Davison’s lips as she went down under the King’s horse in 1913, this was certainly one of the main objectives of early feminists. They argued that the vote alone would never set women free-only work, with its redefinition of female status through increased access to power, privilege and not least pecunia, would serve.
That day has dawned. In the last 25 years, women’s participation in the labour force has grown from less than a third to more than a half: 55 per cent of women now work full-time, and over 70 per cent of women are in paid employment of some kind. After the year 2000 a majority of British workers will be female. With women rising to senior posts in medicine and the law, where half of all students are now female, with women in business and in banking, in the Cabinet, in No. 10, there is nothing, it seems, that women can no longer do. Along with other quantifiable facts such as the fall in the male sperm count, this is conventionally taken to mean the triumph of feminism: we have seen the future and it wears a skirt.
Yet the working women of today do not feel like the inheritors of the earth, to others or to themselves. A marked malaise surrounds many women in employment-especially those in the professions, who should in theory be riding high, at last romping up to join the males at the top of the heap. Women who should be glorying in a grand-sounding job at Arthur Andersen or the Deutsche Bank, or stylishly shrugging off some notable coup in government, industry, or the media, tend to respond to questions and congratulations with a wary, sometimes wild air of harassment, as if to say, “God, isn’t it enough to do the bloody job? Have I got to talk about it as well?”
And they are not only harassed-sometimes, apparently, to the edge of endurance. Around many women working today there lurks a sense of unbelief, an air of “Is this all?” or “They never told me it would be like this.” The new complexity of the 1990s is proving depressingly resistant to the powerful old slogans that still resurface regularly in every women’s magazine and all-female discussion group in the land. Nineteen-seventies feminism with Superwoman and her “have-it-all”-a-go-go, followed by…