Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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7 Things That Make me Happy on International Women’s Day

It is easy to feel depressed on International Women’s Day – the scale of women’s oppression never seems to lessen, brutal rapes and murders continue to happen daily, girls are refused education or forced into inappropriate marriages or have their genitals mutilated and the places of power across the globe are still inhabited by a skewed proportion of men.

However, I have decided to focus on the things that make me happy on IWD. Here’s my list:

  1. The feminist blogosphere is full of vibrant, intelligent women blogging up a storm. My feedreader is continually updated with excellent posts and articles that continue to make me think.
  2. My feminist publisher, Argument mit Ariadne, is doing a brilliant job with the German translation of Balthasar’s Gift. Their sensitivity to the book’s themes, their commitment to feminist crime fiction and their commitment to excellence right down to word level, makes me feel like a very lucky and very fulfilled writer.
  3. One Billion Rising even took place in Heidelberg – check out this great video, which still makes me cry: 
  4. Opinions may differ on Sheryl Sandberg, but I am all about women of all generations, in all jobs leaning the fuck in. Anyone want to join a Heidelberg Circle?
  5. Teenage feminists and male feminists. (If anyone could point me to a teenage male feminist, my joy would be complete.)
  6. The fact that the No More Page 3 campaign is rapidly approaching 100,000 signatures and is still getting loads of press coverage.
  7. Mamphela Ramphele’s new political party platform in South Africa. She is one of a host of amazing African women who are getting on with making things better.

What makes you happy on International Women’s Day?

ETA: Here’s what I did for last year’s IWD – a Pinterest board.


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Who Needs Feminism?

We’re all equal, right?

Here are some of the front page articles in today’s Observer:

Despite having one two top-notch female candidates, the BBC chooses yet another man as DG.

Jesus was happy with female apostles, but the Church of England still can’t decide on female bishops.

Family planning summit in London threatened by religious groups.

UK recession hits middle-aged women worst.

ETA: Andy Murray, who as of this morning, has not yet won the Wimbledon Men’s Final, is all over the front page, whereas it takes four clicks to even find out who took the Women’s Final. (It was Serena Williams, if you care.)

Slap yourselves, folks. Apparently we are living in 2012 – although today’s headlines would indicate otherwise. Right now, men at better at leading broadcasting companies and being bishops, 200 million women around the world don’t have access to contraceptives, recession is worse for women than for bankers and no-one gives a rat’s arse about women’s tennis.

Are these the messages you want your children to receive?


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Are quotas really so bad?

Stats from earlier this year show that Germany is doing really badly at getting women into senior management – not to mention paying women significantly less than their male counterparts. Angela Merkel has mooted quotas, a concept I support whole-heartedly. What surprises me, however, is how little support for quotas I am seeing in the workplace.

People say things like, “I would never want to be promoted just because I am a woman. I want to be promoted on merit.” or “Quotas are insulting. We don’t need them.”

I notice that the women who dismiss quotas are usually in some kind of a management position already or who have strong technical qualifications and experience – people who have already fought a hard journey to secure their positions. They have made sacrifices to get there: had no children or only one, paid a premium for childcare, worked long hours, perhaps worked harder than anyone else, sacrificed their personal lives. It is these people who, understandably, aren’t happy to see others swing in on the liana branch of quotas and grab jobs similar to those they have nearly killed themselves for.

For those who have taken on the patriarchy at great personal cost, and won, it doesn’t seem fair to then hand out jobs like so many bananas to others. I get that.

I have two counter-arguments:

1. Men have had a quota system in place for 2,000 years. They have been handed bananas, many have been promoted above their skill sets – because there was no-one else there. The other half of the potential work population was elsewhere, fulfilling their “biological destiny”. There was no competition.

It’s time for some reciprocity.

2. The only way to fight the patriarchy is to break it. The system will never change unless there is radical action and the only radical action I can see that will enforce and inscribe change is the introduction of quotas.

I am South African, and for the last 18 years, South Africa has had a radical system of affirmative action to counteract the injustices of apartheid that privileged white people over black people. People weren’t going to hand over jobs out of the goodness of their hearts. It had to be systematic.

It’s the same with gender. We can talk diversity until we are blue in the face, but until there is systematic change – a quota – the patriarchy will continue to feed itself the bananas.


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Working and Raising a Family

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by by Anne-Marie Slaughter might just be the best article on the topic of working and raising a family that I have ever read. Read it! (It’s long.)

Here’s one of many quotable quotes:

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

Hat tip to Rachel Happe, whose own post is not shabby.

ETA: Slater’s article seems to be going viral. I’m seeing links to it everywhere, which means it has touched a nerve. Here are a couple of posts from my blogroll:

Why women can’t have it all, why they’re not to blame and how we can make it better by lovely Aussie feminist blogger Bluemilk

Where in the world can women have it all? by Expat Writer Chantal

The ever-fabulous Twisty goes for the jugular.

My good friend Courtney is very thoughtful about That Article.

The lovely Belgian Waffle, now of Ireland.


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2011 in First Lines

It is traditional here at Charlotte’s Web to review the past year in blogging by posting the first lines from the first post of every month. Having scrolled through my 2011 posts, one thing is clear to me: life took over from blogging this year. After moving house in January, I spent many long hours revising Balthasar’s Gift, many hours pounding the pavements training for the Mannheim team marathon, many hours planning and giving two weekend-long creative writing workshops at Heidelberg University and then, in July, starting a six-month job posting at one of my customers replacing someone out on maternity leave. It was quite a year!

January: So I’ve reviewed my goals for 2010 and found them to be good.  Ten Things for 2011

February: One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by.  Cafe Society

March: Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday.  In Memory of Herbert James Downs

April: Life has taken over from blogging – nothing serious, but an accumulation of things over the past three months that have left me exhausted.   Hiatus

May: May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic.  May Madness

June: While reading to the creative writing students about voice this weekend, I found myself getting a little choked up.  More on Voice

July: I’ve just come back from a week in Mallorca, having found its quiet, laid-back corner (it still exists) and am feeling horizontal.  Feeling Horizontal

August:  So I’m back in full time work for the first time this century, and I am loving it.  Three Things I Love about Work

September: Still loving work, so that’s a good thing.  On Women and Work

October: My grandmother was not only an angel, but she was more than a little fey. Survival Skills

November:  My life has changed exponentially – and for the better – since I re-entered the working world. What Feminist Motherhood Means to Me (Now)

December: The theme of today’s World AIDS Day is ‘Getting to Zero’ (zero new infections; zero discrimination; zero AIDS-related deaths)’.    World AIDS Day 2011 – Are There Any Good News Stories?

What was your 2011 like?


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What Feminist Motherhood Means to Me (Now)

My life has changed exponentially – and for the better – since I re-entered the working world. I like working, I like earning, I like seeing that the skills and talents I have can make a difference in an organization (you should see this month’s newsletter – it’s a beauty and the press releases, they sparkle with awesomeness). However, I am neglecting my blog, so in the spirit of keeping it alive, I give you a post from December 2007 (see below).

On re-reading it, I find I am much more angry now than I was then. Having read in the Guardian this morning about the Nordics’ post-maternity re-entry programmes and the failure of countries like the UK and the US to get women into senior roles in corporate and government, I feel as if the equality I was sold was bollocks. We have a long way to go and anger is a hot, burning fuel that can help us get there.

Things that have stayed the same since I wrote this piece: I am still outraged at injustice and I still fiercely love my children.

Things that have changed: I am enraged by glass ceilings and the buffer of (mostly) white and (mostly) middle-aged men who actually believe that they got where they are today through merit. It’s called the patriarchy, boys, and it’s a system of privilege that put you first. Call it quotas, if you will.

So my feminist motherhood now includes: fighting a system that is inherently injust so that all my children enter the world of work with the same chances. I want a world where my daughters have the same probability of becoming CEOs, managers and leaders – and are paid the same for their work – as my son.

Now I’m leaping off the soapbox and going to work.

The Feminist Motherhood Meme

This is so much more than a meme. I found this list of questions about motherhood and feminism (which originated with bluemilk) over at Penguin unearthed, and have enjoyed chewing over them. Warning: slight rants ahead.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

My feminism comes from outrage at injustice: I am outraged that fundamentalist religions of all kinds oppress women in the name of their beliefs, I am outraged that women die, are trafficked, raped, abused, have their genitals mutilated, are blamed for the HIV virus that their men pass to them, do not have a voice in their own homes, do not receive an education and must serve men.

My feminism came very young: probably at 11 when my father divorced my mother and left his family for another woman. That was a defining moment for me – I grew up overnight, and took on board the message that I should rely on no-one but myself because other people let you down. As I grew older that began to mean getting into a good university and following the career of my choice: journalism and writing. As I head into my forties, my feminism becomes less about me and more about women in general.

Feminism definitely preceeded motherhood for me. I only began to seriously think about motherhood when I was 28 and started meeting ridiculously cute infants. I thought, “I want one!” but never for one minute thought about how that would change me or my goals. I was after an adorable accessory of my own.

What has surprised you most about motherhood? How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

The intensity of emotions, both positive and negative, surprised and continues to surprise me about motherhood. I cried for days when all my children were born, sad tears, happy tears, confused and anxious ones. I remember thinking, “A baby won’t change MY life! It will have to fit in with whatever I want to do”, but then on Day Six of Life, Lily developed colic and cried for three months, so there was no going to restaurants and whisking her places because she would scream and scream. I was more her accessory than she was mine. I learnt fast to shape my life to hers, and nothing has changed since. My children have taught me flexibility.

My feminism has become far more general and less specific. I no longer rail at any personal glass ceiling I may have encountered (nor the idiot – no gender mentioned – boss who broke the news to me at the last minute that I couldn’t telecommute from London to his team in Germany, thus leaving me without any maternity benefits when I became pregnant working out his company’s insane six-month notice period. No. I won’t mention him.) or any ridiculously paternalistic boyfriends I might have allowed to patronise me as a teenager. I believe I am living out my potential. However, I am enraged that there are so many millions of women who are prevented from doing so. THAT makes me angry.

Motherhood has softened me in that I see my husband’s (different but equal) style of parenting as beneficial and lovely for our children. At first, I wanted him to parent My Way. Now I see that His Way is equally wonderful and that the children love it. Motherhood has been a kind of sacrifice for me, a putting-on-hold of putting-me-first, but has also allowed me to forge intensely close and satisfying relationships with three individuals who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. The joy of watching them grow and become themselves far outweighs any superficial strokes I might be receiving now in a work environment. Plus I manage to raise them AND work as a writer, so I feel lucky and honoured to be doing both.

What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I’m not sure what makes my mothering feminist. My expectations of my children are identical, regardless of their gender. I encourage my children to be true to themselves, regardless of their gender. I encourage them all to show kindness to others, to listen and be polite. I kiss them all equally. I support their choices and always will, though I might disencourage them from becoming lap-dancers or suicide bombers. I like that they see their father perform household tasks, and I like that they see me at my computer working.

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Occasionally, I’ve wondered how I, with my feminist principles, have ended up as a work-from-home mother but I believe that’s a choice I’ve made out of love and good fortune. I feel compromised and grumbly if my family have left the house in a mess and since I’m the one at home, I’ve got to make the choice of ignoring it or clearing it up. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve failed as a feminist mother.

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

No, I think at times my feminism has been subdued by the all-consuming task of parenting. But I have no trouble saying I am both a feminist and a mother.

Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I try to accept the sacrifice gracefully. My time in the big, wide world – should I choose it – will come.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

He accepts it as part of me. He doesn’t see it as some weird addendum to my personality. He is also one of the most fair-minded, kind and non-judgmental people I know.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I have used aspects of attachment parenting (sleeping with my babies, fairly long-term breast-feeding, some baby-wearing) but am not an attachment parenting proselytizer. However, there were times when all three of my children were small that I felt “in service” to them. At very tired, over-wrought moments I might have resented that, but I am grateful to the attachment parenting now – and my husband loved all the wearing, carrying and cuddling too – because we have such intensely close bonds. Our children are at home with us, wherever we are in the world.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but I do think women fail each other. Women judge each other for ridiculous reasons, usually because someone has made a different choice. Feminism has given women freedom of choice, and we should embrace the fact that some of us can go out and be CEOs, others can be stay-at-home mothers, others can juggle work and kids, others may not want kids, others will breast-feed while some would never consider it. Women need to accept each other’s choices and support each other more. We are so damn lucky to HAVE choices – there are millions of women in the third world who don’t have that luxury. Whether we’re feminists or not, mothers or not, we should stop failing each other, and start loving each other a little more and judging each other a little less.


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On Women and Work

Still loving work, so that’s a good thing. My kids are on summer break and I have imported my lovely mother from South Africa to be au pair. She is doing a stirling job: they get up around 9am, lurk in their pyjamas until lunch, eat and then head out at a leisurely pace to – depending on the weather – the library, the pool or the water playground on the banks of the Neckar. It is entirely stress-free.

It’s also stress-free for me. I waltz out of the door in the morning, knowing that all is well. If someone falls and hurts themselves (or like yesterday, get a thousand tiny splinters in their elbow), their grandmother will kiss them better and offer comfort. If someone is hungry, an appropriate snack will be found. If clothes are dirty, clean ones will be provided. If a new entertainment is required, it will be found.

But more than just providing an efficient baby-sitting service, their grandmother loves them. And what privilege it is for me to go to work knowing they are in the care of someone who loves them as much as I do.

This is the privilege women have been providing men for generations, and nowhere more than here in west Germany where an idealised form of motherhood has dominated the culture. Women stay home with their small children, punkt.

Getting back into the workplace in a meaningful way in Germany is hard. In an article in The New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold says that only about 14% of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6% of those with two.

Many things stop mothers going back to work fulltime: the lack of proper fulltime affordable childcare, school that close their doors at lunchtime, a tax system that subsidizes income inequality. Most of the women I know work, but it’s almost always part-time.

So if we can’t get women back into full time work, how do we get them into management?  Despite a “decade of earnest vows from the corporate sector” (including Deutsche Telekom’s very laudable voluntary goal of 30% female managers by 2015), Deutschland AG remains male-dominated: women make up 2% of corporate boards, all 30 DAX companies are run by men and there was only one woman on a supervisory board, but she recently “resigned”.

There is furious national debate about quotas. Politicians moot it, Deutschland AG pays lip services to equality but resists and the few women in high-profile positions swear that the only way to get there is merit.

Bennhold quotes German anthropologist Julia Allmendinger, author of several studies on women in the former East and West, who says that state intervention appears to be most effective in battling stereotypes. Women in east Germany – where the former Communist system established full time daycare and encouraged women the work – are more mobile, more likely to have babies and reach management positions than women in the west.

Allmendinger calls for strong legislative signals.

I do too. After all, it worked for Norway.

And now, I really must go to work.


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Three Things I Love About Work

So I’m back in full time work for the first time this century, and I am loving it. Here are some of the things that are particularly good about it:

1. The salary. The way it lands miraculously in my bank account all by itself, with my having to decode mysterious invoicing procedures and eke it along through opaque processes known only to one person in Switzerland, is lovely.

2. The finite nature of tasks. I do something, submit it to the relevant person who makes changes or not and then it is complete, giving me a warm glow of achievement. Unlike the laundry or the dishwasher, which coil outwards in unforgiving spirals of repetitiveness, giving me the feeling that I need to go and lie down.

3. The craic. Here are two examples:

Charlotte: Sneeze.

Colleague: Bless you.

Charlotte: Sneeze.

Colleague: Bless you.

Charlotte: Sneeze!

Colleague: Bless you for the whole day.

Or this one:

Colleague A: My dream holiday would be a food tour of India, trying all the different regional specialities and tasting everything.

Colleague B: You mean a gastric tour.

***

In other news, it is Women’s Day in South Africa on Tuesday and the revolution is far from over. There is work to be done, sisters and brothers!