International Women’s Day makes me feel uneasy. The fact that there should still be a need for it. For all the leaps and bounds we’ve have made in Europe and other countries since the relatively recent times when women couldn’t vote or own property, there are still many issues to address before true equality is achieved between the sexes. And one thing I feel very strongly about is that more could be done by women themselves to redress this imbalance.
Every International Women’s Day, I mentally give thanks for having a vote and for all the countless other rights I enjoy which were denied to my female ancestors and, still now, to millions of other women all over globe. But I also feel deeply sad when I think of how many women – perhaps inadvertently – still fuel this gender inequality with their own attitudes and the signals they send out to men and, especially, to other women. Perhaps our first step should be true independence and self-sufficiency.
Naturally, I am speaking here about women who have a choice.
A few weeks ago, I was at a lunch, surrounded by half a dozen or so women I admire greatly for their education, their professional achievements and their indisputable intelligence. Every woman at that table could be a role model for any little girl. This is why I was somewhat shocked to discover that I was the only woman there who had not changed her surname after getting married. The others had kept their own names in the professional field but, in their personal lives, had legally taken on their husbands’ surnames. Time and again, I am surprised by the overwhelming number of women – and young women at that – who take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. Some will argue that most of us carry our fathers’ and not our mothers’ surnames, anyway, but there’s a huge difference between being given a name as a baby, when we have no choice in the matter, and consciously, actively choosing to take on a man’s surname in countries where this is no longer a legal requirement. Doesn’t that send a message akin to saying, “because we love each other I will let you own, change, part of my identity”? I hate to say this, but to me, this is setting the tone for inequality from the outset. Please explain this to me if I am missing something here.
How can you attain equality without self-sufficiency? A landlady I used to lodge with when I was a student once prevented me from doing an easy repair on the cat flap. She said her boyfriend would do it when he dropped by later. When I tried to insist, she said, “Never learn to do DIY, or you’ll always have to do it.”
Brought up in an all-female household where we fixed our own taps, I was shocked. Actively refusing to learn a skill you didn’t enjoy simply on the grounds that you might have to use it at some point in your life struck me as willfully curtailing, in however small a way, your self-sufficiency.
My landlady was not an isolated case. Too many women delegate financial matters to their husbands because they’re “hopeless at maths” (I confess I was guilty of that in my first marriage). Too many women lack the most basic DIY skills because “it’s a man’s job”. Women who – and that’s something I cannot understand – don’t have a bank account of their own. Fair or not, having at least a little of your own money is the first step to self-preservation, never mind independence. Many people choose to cohabit without getting married because it’s important for them to feel that they’re in the relationship out of choice and not because they’re bound to it by a legal document. Trust me, the legal document can be dealt with much more easily than the crippling, paralysing fear, deep at the back of your mind, that you couldn’t leave even if you wanted to because you couldn’t afford a roof over your head or keep yourself in the style of life you have been accustomed to.
I believe that loving and respecting your partner or husband is also expressed by not being totally dependent on him, because every ounce of dependence you place on someone else is the amount by which you prevent him or her from being fully him or herself. Of course, we all depend on our partners in many ways, emotionally, if nothing else. However, being financially dependent not only gives your partner power over you and limits your freedom, but places you in a potentially very vulnerable position.
Every Friday night, walking past the pubs in the city centre, you see young women in sheer, short or very low-cut dresses despite the cold weather. The men, on the other hand, are dressed for the season. Apart from feeling astonished that they don’t feel the cold, I can’t help but wonder: Why not just bring a jacket or a wrap in case they feel cold later or in case it rains? Are they so sure of their health? Are they consciously or unconsciously relying on a man gallantly giving them his jacket? I see these young women balance on such high heels, it is anatomically impossible to – should, God forbid, the need arise – run or even walk fast on them. As an older woman watching them, they appear to me like the picture of vulnerability and, consequently, potential dependence.
A bugbear of mine is women demanding to be paid maintenance after a divorce if they don’t have young children to support. Women who feel that, having given “the best years” of their lives bringing up a family and then finding it hard to get jobs in middle age (and, yes, this is a social reality, unfortunately), they are entitled to be supported after a marriage has ended. As a divorce lawyer I once met put it: a marriage is a relationship, not a pension plan. Having no children myself, I cannot begin even to imagine how hard or even almost impossible it is to keep earning while raising a family well. But I also know women who, as soon as their children started school, began attending courses, keeping abreast of developments in their professional field, and taken on part-time work. Admittedly, many cannot go back to their original, pre-family careers, so they learn new skills. I am not, not, not suggesting this is easy. Only that it is worth doing whatever it takes to keep as much of one’s independence as possible. How can someone who consciously allows herself to be dependent be viewed as an equal?
I frequently come across women doing work they enjoy, often artistic jobs, which don’t pay enough to support even just them alone. They have the luxury of being able to do this because their husbands have “proper” jobs. Apart from the blatant unfairness of the situation, what if these husbands suddenly lose their “proper jobs” or decide they want a divorce? Are these women equipped to survive financially? I know only too well how soul-destroying an unfulfilling job can be, but, surely, we have a responsibility to have at least the potential to keep the wolf away from the door, don’t we?
I love it when my husband or a male friend automatically pays for me in a restaurant or coffee shop. It’s so chivalrous. But, sisters, we just can’t have it both ways. In general, I am often surprised by the number of self-proclaimed feminists who turn all 19th century fair sex as soon as it comes to putting their hands in their pockets.
I feel very strongly that one of the ways towards gender equality is also solidarity among ourselves. Wherever possible, it’s important that women stick together, encourage one another, are sympathetic towards one another, and not undermine members of our own sex.
Let’s stop watching one another in the mirrors of ladies’ rooms, trying to assess who is better dressed, better made-up, more attractive, more of a competition out there where the men are waiting. Let’s stop putting one another down. It is deeply sad but undeniably true that too many women see other women as competitors rather than allies. Too many catty remarks are made where praise and appreciation would be much more constructive. At the beginning of last winter, wearing a new russet-coloured coat and a Tudor-style, brown velvet hat on a slant, I went to see a female friend. The two men I was with had commented on how lovely I looked, so I rang my friend’s bell, a smile on my face. She opened the door, took a quick look at me from top to toe, and said, “Gosh! Russian winter, is it?” My smile disintegrated.
A couple of years ago, a friend invited me over for tea on the occasion of her birthday. H. had a prior commitment, so I went alone. To be fair, my friend didn’t bat an eyelid, but the other woman in her living room, complete with husband, said, “What? Without H.?” Her arch tone and raised eyebrow suggested a hint of disapproval rather than genuine surprise. But perhaps my making it an odd number of guests made the room look untidy.
Many a man is invited over for supper, by the wife of a couple, while his wife is away, “so he doesn’t eat alone, poor thing”. How many wives are invited over for dinner while their husbands are away?
When a woman is single, it’s true to say that – at least in this country – attached women will socialise with her when their husbands are otherwise engaged and seldom invite her to couples’ outings. Are they afraid that she cannot hold her own in a conversation without a man present?
Several years ago, a friend invited me to her engagement party. “Please bring someone,” she said.
I was single at the time, so told her I’d be coming alone.
“But you’ll have no one to talk to!” she replied.
I hadn’t realised that it was a “bring your own conversation partner” event, or that she viewed me as a ventriloquist’s doll. Needless to say, I declined her invitation.
My new female friend L. tells me this strong territorial instinct is a naturally-programmed leftover from our primitive female ancestors, who had to fight tooth and nail to keep other women from their males in order to ensure their very survival and that of their offspring. I like to think that we have evolved since then. We’ve had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, and the Suffragettes. It’s time to shake off the primitive leftovers, right?
Time to take full responsibility for ourselves, and treat our fellow women with compassion and encouragement – always. The fact that many men still consider us as second-class citizens is not a reason to lose our self-respect and our dignity, but, on the contrary a reason to consolidate it. This isn’t about their attitudes, but ours.