Having a full-time family is no barrier to female self-fulfilment

by ANGELA SHANAHAN From, The Australian, July 07, 2012

THERE are times in the business of commentary when one can’t help saying I told you so. Former Hillary Clinton aide Anne-Marie Slaughter’s decision to leave her job, acknowledging women can’t have “everything,” was not exactly the shock-horror moment for me it was for many American commentators. I have always been a feminist heretic. The old anti-male and anti-family rhetoric of institutional feminism jars with reality.

Clever and morally astute women of my daughters’ generation are wary of the excesses and patronising assumptions of old-style feminists.

For this silent majority of women, family will always come first. Husbands and children are not barriers to self-fulfilment.

However, the Slaughters of this world can afford to downscale. For most Australian women, work is not for breaking glass ceilings but for making ends meet — and the mortgage.

So, for some time now the rhetoric of institutional feminism has subtly changed to fit the political agenda. It has softened, and become more family oriented. Even the Leader of the Opposition has taken it up, using the “satisfying career” mantra to justify paid maternity leave and extending childcare supplements to nannies — while failing to introduce any better measures for the family as a tax-paying unit based on a usually male main income earner model.

Interestingly, there is no real policy difference about the actual aim of all this new softer feminist rhetoric. It simply aims at getting more women into the workforce — not very touchy feely in a society in which mothers have always been able to choose not to engage in paid work. The bureaucrats and politicians have simply found a clever new way of packaging a fairly pragmatic old Stalinist aim — more social engineering.

A more palatable new face to achieve a rather old end was evident when NSW Minister for Family and Community Services and former federal women’s adviser Pru Goward launched a comprehensive report on the state of women in NSW at the Sydney Institute this week.

It was not hard to judge this book by its cover. The photographs were all of women painting and doing plumbing, even as the report bewailed the fact that not one woman had begun a plumbing apprenticeship in the past year.

Women in NSW are doing pretty well, so well that I began to wonder when someone was going to put out a report on men and boys who are falling behind. However, the family and welfare sector and the policy it produces are totally feminised, so women’s problems remain the main focus.

But those “problems” are perceived, as in this report, largely in feminist terms. Sure women have specific health problems, but the focus is paid work, and even though women are participating in paid work at all levels, the focus of Goward’s presentation was that our workforce was too segregated and there were not enough women in trades — except the “women’s trades” such as hairdressing.

Surely it is strange that we have spent 30 years trying to develop women’s education to the point where 57 per cent of university graduates are women, only to be fixated on plumbing and the so-called gender gap in the trades?

Why do feminists find it hard to acknowledge that the so-called “gender participation gap” and the gender wage gap happened because of choices? The first because girls don’t want to do certain types of work, and the second because they work overall fewer hours than men. And why is that so? It is the kids of course — or in report-speak “parenting”.

In the end, reports like this leave you thinking why bother?

The only valuable data in reports like this is in health and fertility, issues particular to women. Aside from them, one suspects these broad social reports are simply meant to justify themselves and to steer more women into short-term economic productivity in the workforce. Of course, this narrow grasp of what is productive leaves out the long view — bringing up your family.

So isn’t it about time we stopped looking at women and “women’s issues” as if we are a separate species disconnected from the fathers of children. It seems men are really the ones falling behind.

The bureaucracy of feminism is a waste and a thinly disguised attempt to justify a shift in the social paradigm. For all its new rhetoric, institutional feminism is still highly regressive, with a vision reminiscent of the Iron Curtain workers’ paradises where women were forced to work full time, simultaneously chained to the kitchen sink and the childcare centre.

The new feminist social engineering will be no more palatable for Australian women than the old social engineering, nor will it produce more children. Those old workers’ paradises had some of the lowest birth rates in recorded history.

Ironically this robs women of the supposed cornerstone of feminism, choice. Whether mothers want to or not, most will have no option but fulltime work if all family benefits, particularly those that favour institutionalised childcare over mother care, are tied to that outcome. It is all about the productivity of paid work, with a passing nod to family responsibilities, no matter who is in government.

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