If you were listening to right leaning UK politicians and political commentators recently you'd think so. Last week Peter Oborne was pointing to the decline of the nuclear family and the impact that has on care for the elderly. He argued that the welfare state was originally designed to supplement the care and support already given to the needy by the family, not to replace it. He portrayed a strong family, which felt responsible for the future of itself in a largely self-contained way, not seeing state support as the default option. In the article he refers to the crucial role that women play in this traditional family situation:
"And so it goes on - the daughter's labours are in a hundred little ways shared with the older woman whose days of child-bearing (but not of child-rearing) are over. When the time comes for the mother to need assistance, the daughter reciprocates by returning the care she has herself received."
This nod to the place of women chimes with the comments made recently by David Willetts, Conservative universities minister about the impact of feminism on the employment opportunities available to men. The Guardian reported:
"Willetts said feminism was probably the "single biggest factor" for the lack of social mobility in Britain, because women who would otherwise have been housewives had taken university places and well-paid jobs that could have gone to ambitious working-class men."
Of course women were deeply offended by these words, understandably so but, the fact of the matter is, Oborne and Willetts are right. Women's actions have changed the nature of family life and the nature of the job market for men and we all know it. Women stepping outside the home, away from the traditional roles which have been their only option for hundreds, if not thousands of years, has indeed changed everything. How could it not? Men and women's futures are intertwined. They are so connected that when one gender shifts its orientation to life, claims another role, this cannot but help impact the life, opportunities and role of the other.
Men left Platos cave years ago, to forge a new future in culture but women didn't go with them. Men have been free to create, to discover, to adventure, to go into politics and business largely because they didn't have to bear and raise children. Women were, until very recently indeed, totally and utterly defined by that role. Why bother educating women if you believe their real value in society is the production of children? It makes sense when seen from that perspective. In some parts of the world it's still seen from that perspective.
But the western cultural revolution of the 1960's and 1970's changed all that. Eve decided to eat from the tree of knowledge herself and now women are revelling in their education. New research shows that 43% of educated western Gen X women (aged between 33 and 46) have opted to be childfree. In a world that gives very little status and absolutely no financial reward to having children, this is a rational choice for a person to make. Rational when viewed from the level of the individual, the level we value in western culture, but utterly catastrophic for the species.
The political right understand this. They see that the writing is on the wall for humanity if women are not willing to assume their place as the mothers of us all. And this is problematic because women are not going to quietly go back to this life of unpaid, low status, grindingly hard work. Society cannot go back, we can only go forward. We evolve or die.
Rather than wishing for what has come before we need to ask hard questions of ourselves and create something new. What structures do we need to create that allow women to contribute to society with their brains as well as their wombs? If the majority of our graduates are now women and we want that talent in our businesses and political parties, are we willing to change how we work in order to allow them to contribute whilst ensuring that we still have enough children? These are not just questions for women, these are questions for all of us.
Faced with the complexity of these challenges it's understandably easier to say 'let the women stay at home and raise children.' Easier to wish for what worked so well for society before. And this is not about men dictating the terms, it's easier for women to say this too. It's been our role for so long that we are compelled to it. We often unthinkingly slide into this function and then lead lives of confused desperation because we haven't yet figured out how to do it differently.
Women are capable of more than childrearing, difficult and valuable as that is, and culture needs us to give more, it needs our intellectual contribution as truly equal partners to men. The challenges we face in the future such as peak oil, population aging, water shortages, require the best minds of our generation and those may be sitting in female bodies. Do we really want to ignore that potential contribution and encourage women to go back home? I think quite the opposite, we should be encouraging women to take their place in business and politics and solve the problem of making life more family friendly, so both men and women can share life in both the private and the public worlds.
Does this mean, as Willetts suggests, that we will take men's jobs? Yes and no. Being in the job market means we will take jobs but they are in no sense men's anymore. That ship has sailed. We are facing a reconstruction of our society on the scale of that required when we disallowed that other source of unpaid work, slaves. I'm sure there were those arguing for the slaves to go back to work, servitude being in some way seen as their natural place. But we evolved, both morally and structurally. We need to do the same again. Are we ready?
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