Sometimes you read a book and it plays on your mind, making you question accepted beliefs and existing norms, even questioning where you stand in the grand scheme of life. I have just finished reading Down Among the Women by Fay Weldon, and this has prompted some degree of careful introspection on the state of our society.
As I get older I am perhaps more in tune with, perhaps more engaged with, the world around me. Maybe it’s because I have a daughter, maybe it’s even because I have a son, but definitely because I am a mother, I find myself questioning, with increasing concern, the nature of gender differences and the structure of our modern society. Idle curiosities about what place my children will have in modern society, what they will be battling against and what privileges they will be enjoying (if any) as a consequence of their gender are turning into something more serious as I realise I have to equip them with the tools and emotional capability to deal with these realities.
I believe I should have read Down Among the Women when I was younger, most certainly when I was reading English Lit at Uni (actually it probably WAS on the recommended reading list had I bothered to explore it). Fay Weldon is an astute observer of female lives and this book explores the maturing of seven women starting in the 1950’s with the ‘shame’ of an unmarried and pregnant 20 year old and continuing by chronicling the ups and downs through the next 20 years. The book isn’t so much a novel as a document of the state of female lives across a 20 year time frame. A time during which women had to rely on men to determine their place in the world and the state of their heterosexual relationships as their measure of, and even their right to, happiness. However, it was also a time when feminism rose to prominence, gaining momentum through scientific developments and post-war baby boomers.
Although I should have read this book when I was younger, its subject matter probably only resonates so much with me thanks to the 40 years of life experience I now proudly embody. It is a remarkable novel to read and really gives you a flavour of the state of gender inequalities only 40 years ago, leaving the same bitter after taste that a cheap chocolate leaves behind. The world Weldon describes is the world in which my mother came of age. Women were expected to marry and to give up work to reproduce. Women were expected to tolerate domestic abuse and indeed embrace it as a natural consequence of their own failings. Women were expected to stoop under the superiority of men in all areas of life.
Sat here from my 40+ year vantage point it is incredible to see just how far feminism, and the quest for gender equality, has come. Yes, I know that we still do not live in a gender equal (gendqual? gendequal?) society but damn does this book made me glad to live in 21st Century England.
My situation, that of a woman who has achieved tertiary education, a woman who had a good career, who has chosen to be an (almost) full time Mum and who has a husband who is willing to support this choice (both financially and emotionally) and yet who is still happy to contribute to the household chores, is now not that unusual. In 21st Century England, Down Among The Women, it’s not so bad. At least not as bad as it was.
Having been given the mixed blessing of a girl and a boy to raise I am all too well aware of the great responsibility this has brought. T and J are the adults of tomorrow and their ideas will dictate the shape of society for their children, just as ours do.
When my daughter reads Down Among the Women and can understand how constrained women were I hope she relishes the freedoms she now enjoys and embraces the (almost) level playing field she now occupies. When my son reads this book I hope he is shocked by the gender inequalities and the derogatory manner in which women were treated. I hope that both children are struck by the unhappiness pervading the lives of both sexes as a consequence of a patriarchal society. I hope they are shocked enough to realise that this is not an acceptable way for either gender to live. Shocked enough to be thankful that they have been born in an age where neither patriarchy, nor matriarchy, is overly dominant. Yes, I am not naive enough to not know that there is still work to do, to have a truly gender equal society, but damn, we’re SO close.
There is of course the worry that women’s liberation will be so successful that it will prompt inverse sexism, where females are favoured over men continuing the existence of gender inequality. The lessons that feminists learn from the centuries of patriarchy must ensure that we are big enough to recognise that delicate point when equilibrium between the sexes is established. That we don’t get power crazed and hungry to avenge the injustices of our past*. Taking the moral high ground is always hard but I really hope that this will be the chosen path.
At this moment in our social history I look to the future with a mix of fear and delight. Not fear for my daughter, I believe she will have all doors open to her, she will be able to do and say anything she wants to, to get whatever she wants out of life. Instead my fear is for the adulthood my son will enter. He is a bright, sensitive boy, but will he find doors closed in his face simply because he is male?
Gender equality and gender stereotypes are a fascinating subject matter, when do you cross the line and become guilty of reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes? When a boy holds open a door for a girl? When you tell your daughter to sit in a ladylike manner and not show her pants to the room? I have always tried to hammer home the message that girls are just as good as boys and boy and girls are capable of achieving the same things, playing the same games, reading the same books. Is that good enough? I don’t care that my daughter likes sparkles and pink (which, believe me, is a totally alien concept to me) nor that my son loves football and cars. Neither of these preferences causes harm to them or any other human being for that matter. I also don’t care that my daughter loves Lego and my son still has his Baby David doll.
What I do care about is that they are both happy, independent, strong humans who don’t judge others for the harmless choices they make, who recognise that every human being is unique and that our many, and varied differences, are cause for celebration rather than condemnation. It’s sad and lonely Down Among the Women if we can’t achieve this.
*Another book I can recommend is The Power by Naomi Alderman who has written an uncomfortable novel about a dystopian world where women become the dominant sex thanks to the awakening of a hidden super power that is quite terrifying.
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