Glenys Kinnock introduces this collection of essays with a good socialist rant blaming the inequalities faced by women on the shortcomings of market values. Women, she says, are underpaid, they suffer more poverty as lone mothers and are often invisible in society. Well, you’d expect that. But I was agreeably surprised by the degree of empathy I felt with these Labour women; only our solutions differ. Theirs, naturally, are rooted in collectivist dogma whilst I am sure that markets are the only thing not prejudiced against women. As the socialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said in The Second Sex, capitalism has done more to emancipate women than any amount of socialist rhetoric.
Hardly a mention is made of the anti-male attitudes manifest at Greenham Common. Instead, the strong influence in their lives of their fathers is often mentioned. It would be interesting to know how many successful women come from families where they, like Margaret Thatcher, did not have to compete for attention with male siblings.
Women are brought up to be good girls: polite, respectful, listening when we are spoken to and not answering back. This, says writer Margaret Forster, hardly helps if you want to achieve things in a world where the rules are written by and for men and aggression pays off.
Cate Haste, a TV producer, gets it right when she says that control of our fertility is the key to our emancipation although she neglects to give credit to the pharmaceutical industry for producing the pill. And Hilary Armstrong MP points out that in the past education was the key which unlocked the world of men for women – so long as they had no children. But today’s women want both. Helena Kennedy the barrister has three children. Trying to make arrangements for them whilst keeping a grip on the Bar was, she says, bloody hard work. We are a long way from men taking an equal share of the responsibility for family life. Which brings us to a major problem faced by all working women. What they really need is a wife. Instead, they have to pay out of their tax earnings for a bit of help in the home. That’s difficult if not impossible for many women. Changing the tax laws would go a long way to solving this problem. But we won’t achieve this until there are enough women MPs to muster a Treasury team which includes more than a token woman minister. Every male Chancellor so far has set his face implacably against helping women who work. When you think that women are half the work force, and we spend a fortune educating and training them for professional careers, this attitude can only be put down to male stupidity.
The essays show time and again that women have the skills, the stamina and the intelligence to be equally effective in whatever is asked of them but they lack the confidence to insist that they be allowed to play a part in men’s sphere of influence. They’re not pushy enough. Brenda Dean, the first woman General Secretary of a major trades union, in a fascinating contribution, says she owed her success to the fact that ‘the men never saw me as a threat. I was their little girl. In a sense I became their mascot’. This enabled her to climb the promotion ladder in much the same way as Margaret Thatcher, by male patronage.
Both she and Betty Boothroyd identify the need for a ‘critical mass’ of women in any profession to create an atmosphere in which women can function comfortably. Until we achieve this, ambitious women must be careful not to antagonise their male colleagues.
Politics is one of the last redoubts of male privilege and one of the most difficult to breach. The selection process does not rely on merit but on custom and prejudice. And yet it is in politics that the most important changes must be brought about. The tiny handful of women who have made it to Parliament – 163 in 75 years as against 4,000 men – have achieved wonders. Women are no longer legally chattels of men, and the Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Pay legislation piloted by Edith Summerskill and Barbara Castle have changed attitudes at work.
Women have one muscle, says Yvonne Roberts, that they have so far failed to exercise and that is their collective muscle. If only a fraction of the twenty-five million women in Britain would just stand together and get tough we could impose the changes we need. But the brave suffragettes with their huge marches and rallies failed to budge male prejudice. It took the First World War to shame men into giving us the vote.
Stepping outside the home to take part in the public arena is still difficult. A recent Times survey shows that women are turned off by politics, not because of the responsibilities of family life, but because it is boring, irrelevant, concerned with men on ego trips, always talking rather than doing something. And that is the essence of the difference between us. Women work from the particular to the general whilst men approach things the other way round. Not surprising that women don’t fit into a male-dominated environment.
And yet, unless more women take up the challenge of public life things are unlikely to change much, whether socialists or Conservatives rule the roost. My view, for what it is worth, is that public life would be more civilised, less aggressive and more effective if women were there to balance the qualities of men. Yin and Yang should apply in all walks of life and not just in the bedroom. The book is both moving and provocative.