Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

This Woman’s Room


Today is International Women’s Day, and bloggers have been asked to blog against sexism. I have thought about it all day. I listened to Women’s Hour this morning and heard Fay Weldon and someone else talk about their responses to Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, I heard about the women’s movement in Uganda and a fascinating interview with the young female director of Peter Schaeffer’s Equus, currently showing in London and showing rather more of Daniel Radcliffe than we have grown to expect. Then I pottered around in my kitchen, cooking dinner for my husband and three of his work colleagues coming round for dinner tonight. Later I cooked again for my children, took one child to ballet, took the remaining two to the grocery store with me, collected the third and took the whole lot for two hours in the playground. We came home, I fed and watered my small team, and then my husband returned to read stories to them while I put the finishing touches on our dinner. I also changed out of my tatty playground gear, put on fresh clothes and some make-up before welcoming our guests.

Outwardly, it would seem that my life is no different from the tragic Seventies housewives represented in the Women’s Room, as I focus on food preparation and childcare. I think the key difference between me and the women whose lives Marilyn French was trying to change with her seminal book is choice. It’s also the key difference between me and the millions of women living below the poverty line in third world countries. And between me and women who are subjugated by religion.

I have the privilege of choice. My mother always said to me that I could become anything I wanted to be and I grew up believing her. I worked hard to get good school results so that I could attend the university of my dreams. While there, I flirted with falling off the rails, but my dream of having a career and being someone kept me focused and I got good first and postgraduate degrees. I had a career, took some time off to have children, and am now slinking into the working world through the back door by having my own writing and editing business. How incredibly lucky and privileged I have been.

My parents did not have to choose between educating me and educating their sons. I did not have to stay home and care for my brothers. I was never a girl-child looking after other children. As a child I did not have to cook or wash clothes or fetch water from a river. I did not have to fight to go to school. I did not have to fight to finish school. I did not have to defeat anyone’s will in order to go to university. I did not battle to find jobs. I did not have to support an extended family when I did earn money. I did not have to stop working when I got married. I did not have to carry on working when I had babies. One day, I will not have to stay at home when I would rather be in the workplace.

International Women’s Day asks us to think of sexism in the workplace, of the glass ceiling, of men who don’t yet do 50% of the house and child-caring, of the struggle that mothers have to work flexible hours, of the taint that women who work full time feel in not being their children’s primary caretakers. These are good things to be thinking and talking about.

I also ask you to think about ten-year-old girls caring for five little siblings after their parents and grandparents have been killed by AIDS, I ask you to think about women who can’t guarantee their children clean drinking water, about women who must obey their younger brothers, women who must appear hidden in public so that men will not feel lust for them, women who are belittled, abused or raped. They do not have the luxury of choice.

Today, I reminded myself to remember and be grateful for my privilege.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

13 thoughts on “This Woman’s Room

  1. I’ve been feeling stressed and frustrated recently over my work situation, the fact that I lost my job when I had Kiko, and that soon, out of necessity, I will have to start looking for paid work again… which will hardly be worth doing because I’ll earn around $50 a week after the cost of childcare is taken out. All I want to do is write and take care of Kiko but I’m being forced, instead, into a ridiculous work sham, created by the Australian government which undervalues my qualifications and skills, yet because of my husband’s salary, refuses to provide me with subsidised childcare. I sat round for half of Sunday crying because I was so angry about it. Then I switched on the news and they had a feature about South African children who have to struggle to get an education because of poverty. They showed one teenage girl who was doing so well at school but her family was so poor they didn’t have a proper place to live and she had to study while hunching on a narrow ledge. She had no other place to put her books. She’d won a scholarship so was actually one of the lucky ones. I felt like crying all over again when I saw that. Yes, I may be in a frustrating situation at the moment, but I never had to struggle to get an education, and because of that, I can at least find ways back into earning money even if that doesn’t mean going back into a conventional job. So many people don’t have that choice. When I saw the young girl on that programme, I wished I could help her out. I also thought about that line from Romeo and Juliet: “There art thou happy.” I have so many things to be thankful for.

  2. Good post, Charlotte. I’ll think about what you’ve written during what’s left of today.

  3. I’m like you Charlotte: I am lucky to be able to choose to be a hausfrau. Sacrifices were made, but still I had the choice. For me the big lie of feminism and western culture today is the view that being a homemaker is either a waste of the woman’s potential or a throwback to more repressive times. How can people view supporting one’s family and raising children as a waste? Surely I experience frustrations similar to Helen’s: I am losing many years of Social Security retirement money by not “working,” yet childcare costs preclude working part-time.

  4. This is an interesting post. I grew up scorning the idea of spending more than 20 seconds in the kitchen – it just seemed like a waste of time. I wanted to learn and know and think, and I thought they were completely separate from traditional ‘women’s work’. Obviously I’ve moved on now. I do agree that our generation is lucky, although divisions do continue (and feminism remains most crucial in the context of maternity, I think). But we do have to think about women elsewhere who don’t have the privilege of choice; even if that choice isn’t ideal, it’s still a choice and that in itself is something to be grateful for.

    Re Julie and Julia, by the way, I didn’t want to cook anything from the book either! I was turned off by the offal and the pounds of butter. I felt that cooking with Jamie was pretty sane in comparison – but then, Julie’s project literally overthrew her life. And I admired the honesty. Oh and the capacity to eat offal swimming in dairy at midnight:).

  5. In my book club we read Alice Walker’s ‘Anything we love can be saved’. I remember commenting that I enjoyed it because it orientated me to feminist thinking. One of the younger women in the group challenged me. Do you mean you started to think along feminist lines because of the book, or that it re-orientated you. I said, it reorientated me. (At the time I had three small children, and the day to day stuff gave me little time for deep reflection, not to mention the sleep deprivation we all know about. This was one of the reasons I started going to book club in the first place). Any way her response was angry and directed at me: I don’t think feminism has had any effect in my life, she asserted. I hardly knew what to say to her. I remember being in my early twenties and not having a clue, so I did not put her down for what she said. I just gently suggested that even though women feel that things are more equal now, I had found that on having children, roles were set and opportunities and power for women seemed to diminish. Over the ten years that i took off to raise my children, my husband went up the ladder in his area, and my leaving salary as a teacher could not support our family in the same way as his. My idealistic notion that I would stay home because I was the one who could breast feed and then the roles would be reversed became just that – a high pie in the sky dream. I lost confidence in my ability to work and I sometimes felt a bit like the invisible woman at social functions or out in the community. My youngest child is now seven and I have begun to diversify and rebuild a part-time career. I am contributing to my passion (education) in a small way and those days are now over.

    What can I say? Thanks for a thought provoking post, and I wish those of you who are in limbo at the moment the strength you need to hang in there!

  6. PS, the young woman at book club came back to me the next time we met and told me she had been discussing the issues I raised with her friends who had had children and her mother and that she was beginning to understand that perhaps there still were some changes to be made and that feminism wasn’t obsolete!

  7. Thanks for that thoughtful post, Charlotte. It’s so true that the difference between us and those for whom being a housewife is drudgery, rests completely on the priviledge of choice. I come from a similar educational background to you (except for the post-grad) and was always raised in the belief that I was the equal of my brother in rights to education, helping in the house etc. So now that I choose to stay at home with the kids and cook, it feels like a priviledge, not a chore.

    I think passing on that belief in our own self-worth, that comes from our upbringing and allows us the confidence to choose this role, on to our own children, their school friends and any more children we come into contact with, is one of the things we can do to further equality of men and women in the next generation. As always education is the key.

  8. Great post, as always, Charlotte. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a mother who can’t keep her children safe from war, or hunger, and it’s good to be reminded.

  9. Loved this post Charlotte, you said everything I think and feel. On the whole women in the developed world do have the great privilege of choice in their lives, and I have certainly benefited from it. My daughter’s generation will have choices too but different choices from ours in some ways.
    Helen’s present situation is obviously horribly frustrating for her, but she can take comfort from the fact that it won’t be for ever, children grow up (all too quickly it seems to me now!) and then she will be able to make new choices. Girls and women in repressively religious communities, or in deprived communities and underdeveloped countries do not have our good fortune. I wish I could do something positive to enable them to lead the lives they would wish to lead.

  10. You very eloquently reminded me that although there are days when I feel ‘trapped’ in my job and I don’t have any choice, in fact I am incredibly lucky that I DO have choices. Lots and lots of them. Just because I can’t be doing EXACTLY what I want right now, does not mean I cannot choose to do something about it. I can because I am educated, I have no dependents, I live in a democratic country where I can vote. In short, I am lucky.

  11. Helen, I am sorry that you have been feeling so torn. I really hope that you can find a way to work that suits you and your family. My experience is having a child often provokes some kind of career change. Would you be able to work part-time or from home at all? I know that earning some money, and having some goals outside feeding and loving my people help to keep me sane. I know you have your writing, which I am convinced WILL pay, but I understand that for now you need to be bringing in some money.

    Thanks (Un)Relaxeddad. It felt important to me to say that as relatively comfortable Westerners we are extremely privileged.

    Henitserk, I know about those sacrifices. It’s quite a leap going from two salaries to one. But for me it’s been worth it. I am convinced too that once my kids are older, I am going to go back into the working world and have a great career. I don’t see why it can be possible.

    Hi Kathryn! There certainly are many advances to made for women in the first world, but generally we are very lucky. As for J&J, the butter put me off too, but it was a delightful read.

    Bindi, glad to hear she was able to reassess and have the grace to talk to you about it. It’s amazing to think what the feminist movement achieved on our behalf.

    Kit, you’re so right. That strong sense of self-worth is the best thing a child can learn.

    Ms Penguin, sitting in our comfortable homes, it’s hard to imagine how terrible it must be to watch our children threatened. I’m very grateful to Germany for giving mine so much safety.

    Ms Herschelian, I wish the same thing.

    Hi Kate – we do have so much to be grateful for. Choice is a wonderful thing. Also, I get very uncomfortable with victim talk. I do believe I’m the architect of my life. I just wish all women could be.

  12. After reading that sobering and enlightening post I feel utterly stupid for my little whinge this morning – yes you are right – we have so many priviledges we just take for granted.

    I love it when bloggers do this..put things into perspective.

    Thank you for that thought-provoking article.

  13. Pingback: Pictures for Women’s Day, 8 March 2012 « Charlotte's Web

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