Germaine Greer visited Australia this year to say the Prime Minister has a big bum and the Governor General looks like a donkey. Germaine may be addled but if the mother of all feminists is lost, where are the rest of us? Even women who say they're feminist these days quickly add that they wear six-inch heels and lipstick. Is feminism finished?
To be honest, I prefer the early 20th century when it comes to feminism. My novel In Falling Snow tells the story of a small group of Scottish women doctors who started a hospital run entirely by women in an old abbey in France in World War I. When I think of their feminism, I imagine a university women's college or a medieval nunnery, all bustle and efficiency, women in navy blue or soft grey, intellectually engaged, clever and chock-full of idealism. There they are, handwriting letters to politicians, hoping the weight of an argument will hold the day, but gearing up for hunger strikes if it doesn't, united by their belief in a cause, that women should be free. For me, these women shine down through history with intelligence and fearlessness.
My novel looks at two important times in history. In 1914, women who had careers didn't have children. By 1978, women in the first generation to have it all, career and family, were hitting their stride. When I started my research, I knew there would be differences. I thought the modern women would be much better off. But having it all was never what it was cracked up to be. Women are not better off. They have more work not less, even if it's different now. in some ways, we are worse off.
I wonder now how feminism, which could get itself so deeply involved in women's rights, could so assiduously ignore motherhood. Women won a place at work, but without anyone at home to look after their children. Like many mothers, I work, but I'm not very good at my work and I'm not very good at mothering and it's possible I'm failing at both. I have it easy, one child, I live with a real dad, and I work a job I can pick my hours in. Some of my friends are not so lucky. They wake at dawn with the youngest, get everyone ready, rush to work after school drop off, hoping they're in a clean frock, work all day, leave by five thirty to pick up the kids from after-school and child care, get home in time to cook dinner, bath and bed, and get up the next morning and start again. One woman told me her 'me' time is between four and five in the morning. This is the better life feminism won for her.
Feminism created the possibility that women could work and have children, which was a great achievement, but except in a few places, families are an inconvenience in the workplace and childcare couldn't care less about children - in Australia it's even for-profit. Some women, looking back from the pointy end, are telling us that actually, you can't have it all. It's a relief, really.
Of course feminism has been a force for good in the world. My mother's generation couldn't work once they were pregnant. Many fathers didn't know their children. Feminism changed all that. But it ignored women as mothers, like an elephant in the living room. It let them down. Moreover, it let their children down. When Penelope Leach said that young children are mostly better off with a parent, grandparent or family day carer, in that order, she was called anti-feminist. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard talks about sexism and misogyny but her government has failed to engage with this issue, neither providing support for parents to care for children nor providing better non-family child care. In Nordic countries, where the state has intervened to support families and mothers at work for decades, governments support generous parental leave and return to job strategies. Gender equality is a given, and child care is high quality and publicly provided, not for profit.
I don't want feminism to be finished. I want it to remain the force for good in the world it's been in the past. I want it to help mothers and children now because it's the only movement fit for purpose to meet that challenge.
I've been heartened lately by the work of a group out of Duke University who post photos of student responses to the question, Who needs feminism? “I need feminism because I have been teased and self-conscious about my weight since I was eight years old... because I have witnessed that women aren't able to drive in Afghanistan... because I want to be part of the solution." I need feminism because... It's so simple.
They remind me of those first feminists of the early 20th century. They don't ask whether or why, just where to and how. I'm probably getting old, but I need feminism because I want them to be all right, those students, when they come to negotiate work and family, and I want their children to be all right, and I'm not sure, with the world we're leaving them, that they will be.