The Sunday Times

March 14th, 2010

What women want is an end to hectoring by feminists

Women beware wimmin. International Women’s Day rolled around once again for the 99th time last week and many of the usual alpha females came out to celebrate.

Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama had an awkward little womanly moment together in the White House, although most Americans ignore the day. Harriet Harman took the opportunity to remind us how few women there are in British boardrooms. Her intrusive Equality Bill, which encourages discrimination against men in the workplace, was going through its final stages in the Commons last week.

It is true, of course, that there has been a lot for women to celebrate in the past century and we have the courage and persistence of earlier generations of feminist women to thank for that. But somewhere along the way feminism in this country has turned into something many women cannot identify with. I can’t. Harman, along with other prominent alpha females, expresses a kind of feminism that is so far divorced from what most women think and want that she might as well belong to another sex. Alpha females seem closer to the alpha male than to the ordinary woman in gender.

Harman’s thinking, like the feminist orthodoxy in the government, is based on the following assumptions, which have always seemed quite wrong to me.

First, that all women want to work (for money, outside the home). Second, that all women, including mothers, ought to work. Third, that all women want to do and are equally suited to doing the same work as men. Fourth, that if the number of women working in an organisation is less than 50% of the total, that is in itself evidence that women are being unjustly discriminated against. Fifth, that motherhood is a problem that makes it difficult for women to work. Sixth, that the problem of motherhood can easily be fixed by paid childcare, subsidised if necessary by the state. Seventh, that what all mothers want above all is “affordable childcare” to enable them to work: children don’t need much of their attention. And finally, that it is for the state to sort out all such family matters.

This is the 1970s mindset of Harman and of many alpha females in high places; this is how women like them feel and talk.

That’s how alpha females behave. They push out babies along with policy papers and tour the interview circuit proudly bearing breast pumps. One prominent headmistress went back to work only a few hours after giving birth to her third child last month, commenting that this would show her schoolgirls what woman is capable of.

It struck me as irresponsible; pregnancy and childbirth usually involve extreme hormonal upheavals and physical demands, even when all is well. It’s not for nothing that for the first few weeks after childbirth women have not been held responsible for their actions in law because they are often not themselves, so to speak.

That’s to say nothing of the psychological needs of mother, baby and other children or of the developmental and emotional needs of children after the first few months. Are these needs really best left to childminders and crèches? Most women don’t think so.

The latest alpha female planning to combine full-time work—very long hours and a constituency—with producing a baby is Joanne Cash, the prospective Tory parliamentary candidate for Westminster. If she gets into parliament, her first baby will be born only weeks after she takes her seat this summer.

I suspect that most mothers, remembering the arrival of their own babies, will regard this as daft. Even if things go smoothly, the demands of motherhood are such that Cash will be forced either to neglect the baby or to neglect the job. Cash is taking the approved Tory line—it’s not restricted to the left.

There is nothing new about alpha females giving their babies over to other people to look after; that has always been the price of great success, and successful women have taken it for granted. With the best of expensive childcare, it seems to work well.

However, I have come to feel strongly that it isn’t what most women want. I did hand my own first baby over to a full-time nanny so I could go back to a job in television with foreign travel. But before long I realised, like countless women, that what I most wanted was to be with my baby and work part-time from home, which I’ve done ever since.

We all tend to generalise from our own experiences: if Harman has, so have I (but then, I’m not in a position to impose mine by statute). At last there is some good evidence about what women really do feel about all this. Professor Geoff Dench of the Young Foundation has just finished a series of presentations for the Centre for Policy Studies and the Hera Trust based on evidence from the British Social Attitudes surveys since 1983, to be published tomorrow as What Women Want. In his survey of women’s attitudes, one of his conclusions is that the sisterhood is failing mothers.

Apart from married middle-class women in full-time work, most women would prefer to look after their children and work only part-time if possible. Most women value home and family life above a career—hardly surprisingly, since few women are offered careers and most must content themselves with jobs—and, he argues, women with these domestic priorities feel increasingly that the femocracy of career women in power doesn’t speak for them.

This is a bold inference. It’s drawn from the withdrawal of women from political parties, as expressed in the BSA surveys. Men have been increasingly losing interest in political parties over the past 20 years, but the process has been much faster among women and above all among mothers.

It is the Labour party that appears to have lost most support from mothers; support for Labour among working-age, working-class housewives went down from 52% in 1986 to 27% in 2008.

That doesn’t mean they’ve deserted to the Conservatives; the trend is towards “no party” disaffection. It is surely time, now, that women in politics started thinking about what women want, which is what is best for their babies and children.

I suspect it would actually be cheaper and better for government to enable women to look after their own children and families, if they want to, rather than nudging and driving them back into work. But it’s difficult for alpha females to understand such an unliberated desire. Women beware wimmin.