With Thanks to the Suffragettes

April 6, 2010 at 6:24 am (Uncategorized)

I hope everyone had a good Easter break – ours was lovely. In Australia the death-and-resurrection yarn always heralds a welcome four-day weekend, so there’s very few complaints in these parts even if there’s rapidly dwindling Catholicism. And if the Vatican thought anointing our first Australian saint – Mary MacKillop, who sadly took her cancer cure with her when she swapped sides (pity, that) – was going to stem the tide of defection, I fear they were much mistaken. It’s at the point where people don’t even really say ‘Happy Easter,’ at least in my circles, where you’re much likelier to hear ‘Happy eating.’

Needless to say, there was plenty of that. In fact, I’m still going. I can’t seem to stop feeding my face…although herein commences the critically dull world of dietary restrictions, should the blast hold. Indeed, I’m beginning to suspect pregnancy – and even attempting one – is a rather elaborate plot to stop normally active and engaged women dead in their tracks: no, you can’t eat that; no, you can’t drink that; no, you can’t lift that; no, you can’t run that; no, you can’t apply for that; no, you can’t travel on that; no, you can’t wear that; no, you can’t even think about that; NO. I’m sure it’s enough to make the average hitherto very capable and freewheeling girl a little resentful. ‘Oh, you’ve got me now, society, haven’t you?’ – is that what pregnant women say under their breath, through gritted teeth, whenever someone unknown steps forward to continue the lecture? You know, I think perhaps the unstated reason women are exhorted to SLOW DOWN at this time is so society at large can catch up, sit them down (take a load off, darling, you mustn’t move around too much), and start delivering the lesson.

I’m just so glad I live in the age I do, an age in which women remain active, engaged, visible, productively employed members of society both as pregnant women and then later as mothers. I did quite a bit of reading over the long weekend, and there was an odd confluence at one point between Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Salley Vickers’s Dancing Backwards (no, I haven’t finished DeLillo’s Point Omega, because I was home alone Saturday night, and when I got into bed with a hot chocolate at about 7:30, it felt much more like a girls’ night in, so after finishing Mantel, I started on Woolf and then rounded it out with Vickers – a most satisfactory evening with friends). Both Mantel and Vickers vividly illustrate the dire straitened circumstances of the female student resident in one of the early, few and woefully underfunded, under-equipped women’s colleges. Woolf of course famously addressed her lecture to students of Newnham in 1928, at which several decades later Vickers’s protagonist Violet Hetherington is a student when it is still one of only three colleges where women can study for a Cambridge degree. Vickers’s description of conditions might have been taken directly from Mantel’s heroine Carmel’s women’s college in London, where she’s a perpetually cold and malnourished student at around the same time Vi is at Newnham:

The poorer women’s colleges were stingy with their heating and students were obliged to post shillings into their gas meters to light their hopelessly inadequate gas fires. Vi’s grant covered only part of her fees and living expenses and the money was not made up by her father. Rather than ask for what she suspected would not be forthcoming, Vi scrimped and did without extra food and heat in her room and consequently was always catching cold (Dancing Backwards, p. 55).

Chilling in more ways than one, ladies! And if you’re really looking to curl your toes, I suggest you head into the dining hall with Carmel in the pages of An Experiment in Love. Talk about unappetising.

Anyway, this three-pronged insight into the mean appointments and meagre facilities available to women hard at work on their education in the not-too-distant past sort of relates to what I’m saying about pregnancy and motherhood at least temporarily stopping women in their tracks. If you remember how grudging so many of the gains have been throughout time – and Woolf’s text spells that out more succinctly and eloquently than I ever could – then in some way, pregnancy and motherhood both enable the lingering vestiges of that resentment and suspicion toward modern women to find contemporary expression.

It doesn’t matter how educated you are, nor how important or public or vital your role in society may be, nor whether you are financially independent or not, if you are a woman, you will still be brought indoors and your individual propulsion stalled by the decision to carry and/or care for a child.  There’s no two ways about it; it goes with the territory. And I’ve already many times glimpsed the delight and horror this simple truth breeds in both men and women, who seem all to taste a measure of each. What I find most impressive about the age and society I live in is that women are largely empowered to make a comeback, if indeed it’s a comeback they choose to make.

Educated though they have been – and I know Woolf would be heartened to learn I was taught to take as given my equal standing; it was never once, not once, suggested to me that girls were any less capable than boys – and though they don’t suddenly unlearn their expertise and forget their vocations, it’s clear pregnancy and motherhood still change the playing field pretty potently for the majority of women. And that, being a matter for the grand Mother of us all, Nature, is never going to change. I guess this is why I am suspicious of and irritated by the conceptual limitations of “equality of the sexes”; by their nature, the male and female sex of the species deals in difference, not sameness; in human beings, only women can carry and (naturally) feed young. Let’s be frank: there’s nothing equal about it. But that – as fundamentally as it comes – is life. That difference means life. Gives life. Creates life. Continues the very cycle of life. That essential role does change things for women, and I think it always will, it’s too fundamental for it to be otherwise, but I do feel daily the privilege of standing on giants’ shoulders. Today I reap the freedoms and rewards of their work on our sex’s behalf, women to whom I owe a lifelong debt of thanks for all that I am, and for all that I always felt free to be. I couldn’t be here, living this life, without them, thus I can’t help feeling that in some small way, all my words are theirs.

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14 Comments

  1. charlotteotter said,

    Oh yes, we definitely had the same Easter weekend. How lovely!

    I also took my equality as a given, until I became a parent, and then the change in my life was difficult to swallow. However, I felt privileged to have three healthy kids, and I now feel privileged as they grow away from me to have the time to focus on my own work and interests again. We can indeed be grateful to those who preceded us and fought the battles that we no longer need to fight.

    I do think we have other battles, though, and as Germaine Greer recently said, the revolution has only just begun. However, it’s an irrevocable one, it’s not going away.

    • doctordi said,

      It’s very pleasing thinking of us at opposite ends of the earth stuffing ourselves with books, isn’t it?!

      Yes, Charlotte, I think if we are successful in our efforts to get pregnant, this is something I’ll struggle with. It’s clearly a huge change in a couple’s life, but still much, much more so for the woman. And while I think there are some aspects that one can address and change – and that have changed already in some cases – I can’t see there’s any way around the physical requirement that temporarily takes women out of contention as individuals, socially and professionally. That status – the individual – is compromised when one is fundamentally NOT – the entire logic and fact of pregnancy and nursing is that there is an Other, being the child.

      It’s well worth noting, I think, that Germaine Greer is childless. So was Virginia Woolf, who notes the same of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot. A contemporary example is Lionel Shriver, who noted the arrival of menopause with relief.

      One Greer quote is ‘Freedom is fragile and must be protected. To sacrifice it, even as a temporary measure, is to betray it.’ Well, thank you, Germaine, but what do you suggest women do about being the only ones who can bear children? Freedom is fragile, I agree, and it’s precious and hard won, but women who have children do temporarily sacrifice their own, and I think it’s deeply unhelpful to then, by following her logic, charge them with betrayal.

  2. Lilian Nattel said,

    That’s an interesting take on pregnancy and motherhood, Di–that it’s an opportunity to hem women in as well. While the biological reality is that only women bear children, I can imagine different ways of constructing the meaning of that and different ways of constructing the social reality around it. Imagine if status and power were not all around money and the achievements that bring in money, and if pregnant and mothering women had financial and social support, what a different experience that would be.

    • doctordi said,

      Lilian, you’ve perhaps inadvertently highlighted one of the problems with this idea of constructing a new social reality around pregnancy and motherhood, when you say ‘if pregnant and mothering women had financial and social support…’ Both these things *require* money, indisputably, which is one of the reasons why paid maternity leave, for instance, and job protection for mothers returning to the workforce, arouse so much controversy and in some cases open hostility.

      I don’t doubt pregnancy and motherhood remain justifications for all sorts of sexist behaviour. Women of a certain age experience outright discrimination in the workplace based on even their plans to procreate, let alone having those plans come to fruition.

  3. Norwichrocks said,

    I’m often reminded of the tradition of ‘confinement’ during pregnancy for the upper-classes. Basically, it could be construed as “You’re now unwieldy and unreasonable, keep out of sight until its all over”.

    And as for the proliferation of “No, pregnant woman, you shouldn’t eat/drink/do that”, I refer you to the French. Their attitude is “Fuck it, I like cheese and yoghurt and fish and a glass of red wine with my meal never did any previous generation any harm so you can keep your ridiculous American superstitions, I will continue to eat and drink what I like in moderation, thank you.”

    🙂

    • doctordi said,

      Yes, yes, exactly! “I prescribe complete bed-rest, for the duration of gestation!”

      The French are indeed a most civilised people. I am much more of their thinking, and if I do get pregnant, I won’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who has me in their sights that they can stick their sanctimonious hysteria up their arse.

  4. Norwichrocks said,

    Oh, and I think one of the battles we still, as women, have to fight and win is our society’s growing obsession with infantilising women – particularly the insistence on a lack of body hair and that annoying ‘little girl’ voice I hear so much these days. Squealing and clapping hands like a 5 year old. Drives me potty.

    • doctordi said,

      Well, this is an interesting example, NR, because women have to be held to account for their own behaviour. Who’s doing the infantilising here? I know we are all influenced to some extent by the society in which we live, but women surely must be responsible for perpetuating some of these fetishistic images of the childlike woman themselves. No one’s dragging them off to get a Brazilian, or forcing their hands together, or pinching their larynx into a falsetto – these behaviours are a choice. Why on earth you’d choose to dumb yourself down and play the baby is anyone’s guess, but a choice it remains, and therefore I lay the ultimate responsibility for such displays squarely at little Shirley Whirly Girlie’s frilly-socked feet.

  5. Pete said,

    Good points there, Di. I would add that women who have had children and are back in the work environment are definitely hamstrung by childcare but they also have extra clout somehow. Maybe it’s just me but I’m always a bit in awe of those women who juggle work and family and damn if they’re not often more productive than the ones who just work.

    • doctordi said,

      Me too, Pete, I really think they are all trying so hard. I don’t doubt some can’t manage to pull it off, but in general I think women just flog themselves half to death trying to get it right. I am so lucky, actually, that I already work from home and already have flexible hours – and am already well accustomed to spending time here alone. I think it must be a dreadful shock to women coming from a bustling, social corporate environment. Even I had a major adjustment to make when I moved from my university office to working from home.

  6. Grad said,

    Unfortunately, there are a few things a pregnant woman should or shouldn’t do/eat/drink. But regarding those things, it’s more a matter of science than of society. Science can be a bummer, but I had to trust my doctor in “prego” matters. The good news is, there are a very precious few of those things. Now, as for Easter, you had 4 days off? And although all Christians, not just Catholics, celebrate Easter, I am Catholic and didn’t get any time off at all. There’s something wrong with that picture, don’t you think? Of course, I also celebrated Passover because I love the tradition. No time off for that either, though.

  7. doctordi said,

    I think, Graddikins, that list varies wildly depending on whom you ask, but like you, I’ve decided to stick with my doctor’s advice and close my ears against all the other noise. It’s just too much, all the chatter. And yes, according to him there’s not a lot I’m not allowed to do, within reason, being moderation, of course. And yes, you’re quite right, of course other Christianity based religions also celebrate Easter. I only know Catholicism, though, so tend not to chance references to ‘Christians’ at large. But yes, I think it’s pretty odd that the hotbed of Christian faith in the modern world, the United States, doesn’t think the story of Christ’s dying and rising from the dead worthy of a public holiday. But the US has a pretty stingy attitude toward holidays in general, I’m told. Two weeks of paid holiday leave a year? There’d be riots if you tried that here. Same with messing with any of our public holidays. But we pay far higher income tax here, so people really feel they’ve earned the time off whether they’re Christian or not. We’re all true believers when it comes to the right to take a day off. Or four.

  8. litlove said,

    Loved reading this – and I recommend to you The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, which has THE most chillingly distressing description of pregnancy as a claustrophobic incarceration in the body that I have ever read. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it. Ah… pregnancy. As with all things, moderation is the key, and that is a dull lesson that just about any human being, man, woman or other, will have to come up against at some point in their lives. I figure women get a head start on the race for wisdom since they have to learn so much so fast when motherhood bulldozes over the top of them. It’s an advantage of sorts! 😉

  9. Grad said,

    Di, odder still that I am living in the Bible belt, no less! And still not time off. I’m gonna protest. And I hate to admit this, but the last time I took a two week vacation was when my oldest child was 10. He will turn 30 this year. What does that tell you? No wonder I’m dull at cocktail parties.

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