Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


9 Comments

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.

Advertisements


16 Comments

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.


16 Comments

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!


14 Comments

Why We Need Women’s Day

It’s the 100th International Women’s Day and here at Phlegm Central, I’d like to give you an intelligent post about why we still need a day to celebrate women and to mark the inequities between being a woman and being a man in 2011. However the phlegm has invaded my brain so I’m only able to give you bullet points:

  • glass ceilings
  • corrective rape
  • clitorodectomies
  • sex slavery
  • pay gaps
  • domestic violence
  • honour killings

And the facts that:

  • one in five women will become victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime
  • 19% of parliamentarians worldwide are women
  • women own 1% of the world’s property but do 66% of the world’s work
  • women make up 75% of the world’s illiterate population
  • two-thirds of children denied schooling worldwide are girls
  • women hold 12% of board-level positions in the UK

We need International Women’s Day because women around the world – even in your country – are systematically abused and discriminated against. In the absence of my own ability to cobble thoughts together, here’s what some other women have had to say:

Marielle Frostrup on feminism’s global challenge

Susie Mesure on countries where women on the march (including South Africa)

The Guardian’s 100 Inspiring Women

Dame Judi Dench and Daniel Craig’s video Are We Equals?

Lia’s post on Celebrating Women

Marie’s riposte to the question ‘Why Isn’t there an International Men’s Day?’

Lilian’s post on Yiddish and the Literature of Prayer

Helen G at The F-Word on the equality debate

Bluemilk who’s sick like me but still on the hunt for great feminist bloggers

Dad Who Writes on Patti Smith

Litlove’s essay A Woman’s World about how we can all stop chastising ourselves quite so fiercely and learn to worry less.

Annie Lennox talks to other women about feminism and the gap between developed and developing countries here. Top quote from Beverley Knight: ‘It’s interesting that in the countries where women have the least power, the least equality, International Women’s Day is much more treasured. Here in Britain, with our excess of everything, the very things that are so precious that the Emmeline Pankhursts gave their spirit and their lives to, we take for granted. We don’t think about the struggle that other women have across the world.’

If you’ve written a post about IWD or read an inspiring article, let me know and I’ll link to it here.


11 Comments

Holla back!

What’s wrong with this film review published in today’s Observer? Can you spot the anomaly?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this broad-hipped young woman with large, firm breasts picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

If it read like this instead, would you notice?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this young woman picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, with a bulging package, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

My question is this: how is the size and shape of the young woman’s breasts even vaguely relevant to the film, to the actress’s performance or to the review? They clearly enhanced the reviewer’s personal enjoyment of the movie but describing them is more than a Freudian slip, it’s a huge bloody pratfall, that in filmic terms would be signalled by bananas, Peter Sellers and mocking laughter.

In Anna Karenina, Tolsoy describes the work of the peasants in the fields and at one point lovingly describes the shape of a young worker’s breasts. Having never once described, or even alluded to the breasts of the upper-class and noble women in the novel, this brief sentence starkly signals the author’s prejudices: young peasant women represent sex and sex that is to be appropriated by the ruling class.

However, we are a long way from 1877. I don’t expect to find superfluous breast descriptions in my Sunday Observer. It spoils my morning and I lose respect for people whose intelligent reviews I have enjoyed for a long time.

Don’t do it, Phillip French.


19 Comments

What Are You Going to Give Up?

I love it when a Times Online columnist espouses one of my views loudly and publically on a long weekend so as to get the attention of all the reading masses on my behalf.  It means I get the feeling of being validated without having to get out of my pyjamas.

My opinion: Women can have it all, just not all at the same time.

Minette Marrin’s opinion:  Don’t even bother trying.

The esteemed Ms Marrin says the only way to ‘ do a demanding job, pay attention to family and friends, preserve a competitively toned body, maintain an elaborate beauty programme, including trips to dermatologists, depilators and assorted beauty bandits, keep up with tweets, emails, telephoning and aggressive networking, dress stylishly, shop for food, cook elaborately, entertain regularly, attend school functions, keep up with reading, listen to music and remember jokes’ is to be really rich and pay people to back you up. Nigella’s Team Cupcake, par example.

On the one hand, Marrin says the pressure on working mothers is unavoidable (until, Otter says, their husbands and partners wake up to the revolution and start doing their 50%). On the other hand, she says women can decide to ignore the aggressive consumerism that underpins much of the last paragraph and – now here’s the revolutionary part – just let things slide. (After all, Otter says, most of their husbands and partners have been doing the same and getting away with it for generations.)

Marrin doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t stop working, stop having babies or doing things that they love. She means they should stop competing with other women, stop trying so hard, drop their standards, do less.

And – here’s the rub – she says ‘fortunately, doing a lot less is quite easy when you try — or, rather, stop trying.’

She says we should think of each thing we give up as an opportunity gain. Giving up two hours at the salon means two hours extra to keep up with friends. Giving up cooking elaborate meals means more time with the family. Giving up fashion magazines means less lusting after and trying to afford inaffordable items.

Living in a land that still expects good mothers to be home by 12.30pm ready to cook the family a hot lunch, I’ve had to give up a whole lot of things in order to make time for what matters to me: writing, working, exercising and spending time with the people I love. Here’s my list of things that have gone out of the window:

1. Keeping up with the laundry. Why do it? So that some housewife in the sky will give me a good report? I address the piles, with the dubious but enthusiastic help of certain members of my family, on a need-to-wear basis.

2. Ironing. We embrace the crumpled look.

3. Sorting socks. Puh-leeze. I put all socks in a large container and then bring them out when my South African friends and family visit for them to sort. It makes them feel useful and they can go home and tell stories about how hard it is living in Europe. 

4. Baking. I’ve taught my children how to do it. One kid made biscuits this weekend, another made carrot cake muffins. Team Cupcake’s got nothing on us.

5. Complex depilation. None in winter; bikini, leg and armpit on a need-to-display basis.

6. Beauty salons. Expensive time wasters.

7. Highlighting my hair. Ditto, plus I get to be cutting-edge grey.

8. Posh creams. Ditto. Nivea is the way forward.

9. Long make-up routines. Nivea’s tinted moisturiser rocks.

10. Soaking pulses. Tins and cans are just as good.

10. Buying fashion magazines. Blogs are better written and more interesting and they never make me lust after a Prada handbag.

I love Marrin’s mantra of Just Do Less. If it speaks to you, then what are things you’ve given or are giving up? I need more time for reading and writing and will gladly accept tips.


12 Comments

The Revolution Has Only Just Begun

I love this message from Germaine Greer in the Times today:

But in the real world, women have changed; bit by bit, they are growing stronger and braver, ready to begin the actual feminist revolution. The feminist revolution hasn’t failed, you see. It has only just begun. But in the real world, women have changed; bit by bit, they are growing stronger and braver, ready to begin the actual feminist revolution. The feminist revolution hasn’t failed, you see. It has only just begun.

Greer says we should stop bemoaning ladettes, the pinkification of girls and ongoing, constant and, let’s face it, boring sexual objectification of women as signs that feminism is on the wane. Instead, she says the fact that women walk out of their marriages, refuse to accept servility, is a sure sign that the revolution is ongoing.

As women’s economic independence increased, their tolerance of marital infidelity, and of emotional and physical abuse, diminished. If you ever doubted that family stability depended on the oppression of women, you now have the proof. The proportion of divorces rises so inexorably that my figures are probably already out of date. In the developed world 40 per cent or more of marriages end in divorce, typically after seven or eight years, with a year or two to establish separation and then the actual divorce. Most of these divorces are initiated by wives. This is proper change. There’s no going back from here.

Another factor for Greer is the banks’ realisation that women make good customers:  

Banks were slow to wake up to the fact that women’s credit performance is much better than men’s, but they got there in the end. Now we have a worldwide system of microcredit, based on giving small loans to women, who won’t spend the money on prostitutes, booze, gambling and cigarettes. 

 (Read the whole article here.)

I interviewed one of Germany’s top women scientists this week and it was a privilege to do so. I asked her what advice she’d give young women going into science now and she said: one, get into the best lab possible so that you are exposed to excellence, and two, make sure the person you have a family with is prepared to do 50% of the work.

How remarkable, but also how simple. 50% of the work, that’s all it is. To me, that’s the revolution.

*******

In other news, please don’t forget the Big Bad Bloggers Competition.

In still other news, this is my 500th post!