I woke this morning realizing that I am one of the luckiest women in the whole of the history of the world. Born in 1950 I missed the impact of war, though its aftermath shaped my childhood and made me value the peace we experienced in England. Yes, girls were still regarded as less important or intelligent than boys and we were told to become secretaries, teachers and nurses rather than managing directors, pilots or doctors but the social and political changes of the 1960s overturned much of those attitudes and we did, indeed, become more than had been anticipated for us. With the pill, for the first time in history, we gained control over our lives with an ease that no previous generation of women had experienced. We could plan the number of children we felt we could manage financially, enabling us to work alongside motherhood and to become economically independent. Research overturned the concept that women were not as intelligent as men and we achieved excellent results at school and university, providing career opportunities we hadn’t thought possible.
I want my granddaughters to be as free and empowered as we have been. But I have fears that there are forces potentially trying to turn back the clock to a time when women had less power and influence. Trump’s anti-abortion and misogynistic rhetoric puts such attitudes centre stage. In addition, lad culture, internet porn, those who resent and berate feminism such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Erdogan’s reforms, plus integration with radical fundamentalist cultures who believe women to be inferior to men, could reverse the changes I have enjoyed. We have witnessed leaders introducing repressive regimes in Iran, Afghanistan and in countries across the globe. Let’s be watchful that we don’t sleepwalk back in time on these issues…
Throughout many parts of the world today women still do not have the same legal or voting rights as men. Women the world over, eg half the human population, throughout history have been treated as inferior mentally and emotionally. Social behaviours and laws have been developed to control them and, until the 1960s we could not easily limit the number of children we had so women frequently experienced multiple pregnancies and births. Death in childbirth was common and the effort of carrying and raising that number of children was gruelling. This remains the situation today for women in many other parts of the world.
Life changed for those of us born after the Second World War. We began to see that we were just as bright and capable as men and men started to adjust to treat us as such. Our relationships became generally less subservient and in the western world men have taken an almost-equal role in raising the family, cooking and sharing the responsibilities of home life. As a single woman I was able to take a mortgage – a simple right that was denied previous generations unless a man signed the deed for you. I set up a business, borrowed money to invest in that business, travelled the world on my own without hassle.
In my youth it was edgy for a woman to go into a pub or cinema on her own. Today we can go where we choose. Whether single or in a relationship the opportunities to participate in culture, travel, clubs and social life has been easy for me. Now, as an older woman, the opportunities are amazing in comparison with those of previous generations.
Equal pay and equal rights aren’t working perfectly but I think young women can’t imagine how different it was for their mothers and grandmothers, some of whom had worked in the war but then were hurried back to the kitchen. I and my peers have benefited from the NHS and medical advances that would have amazed and potentially saved the lives of our grandmothers and their children. It’s easy to forget how dangerous and damaging back-street abortions were too. Girls put their lives and health at risk and seldom took the decision lightly. Those who carried their babies to full-term were ostracised and had to have them adopted, at great personal cost. Don’t let’s go back there.
We have had a tendency in this country to accept behaviours that are unacceptable, including forced marriage, FGM, bigamy, domestic violence, honour killings and women losing their children post-divorce. We have fought hard to change the lot of women in the UK within a very short time. What the suffragettes started was carried on but it isn’t so long ago that the generation of women born before the Second World War were frequently subjected to the kind of behaviours we see in Mad Men, where men felt entitled both to touch and undermine them. Those men would have found it hard to conceive that their secretaries might one day become their bosses. We can’t tolerate a return to that sense of entitlement that existed then but internet porn and lad culture do indeed threaten to turn back the clock and encourage men to abuse girls, as the research in Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Sex demonstrates [Harper Collins].
It’s too easy to lose what one doesn’t appreciate. Think about your daughters, granddaughters, nieces and the future generation of women wherever they may be. We need to protect their dignity and their freedom to contribute to business, the arts, science, politics and more, with their minds and creativity. Our sons and grandsons benefit too where there is a balance of equal respect. The world needs the voices of women in senior positions to counteract Trump-style chauvinist behaviours that could otherwise overwhelm us. Those countries where women work and are in positions of influence do better economically and are civilised places to live. We all need to be alert to any chipping away of women’s position or respect. It’s not a joke. Generations of women and girls have suffered and still do across the globe.
Speak out, write about it and complain should these rights and freedoms be put in jeopardy. Not just for your own family and friends but for the whole of civilisation. 50% of the human population has just as much right and just as much to offer as the other 50%. It may be different but it is every bit as valuable a contribution to humanity. Let’s work together to ensure that male and female voices have equal status in taking the world forward in 2017 and beyond.