Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

There are many troubling things about Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments on motherhood. In response, I wrote some words, both personal and political.


In a seemingly never-ending series of political storms sweeping the UK this summer, the latest is to do with having ‘a stake in the future.’

Following the surprise referendum vote to take us out of the European Union, our Prime Minister has resigned, handing over responsibility for actually delivering this result to whoever will succeed him. After the initial voting, the remaining contenders for leader of the Conservative party are the more or less equally vile Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom.

So we will soon have a female Prime Minister for only the second time. I take no joy in that fact. When Margaret Thatcher became our first female Prime Minister I was a child, and entirely uninterested in politics, feminism or anything else of that kind. In retrospect, yes it was a significant milestone in gender parity. But that doesn’t alter my opinion of Thatcher or her legacy for this country (clue: I’m not a fan).

So although I had no actual optimism about either of these candidates (both of whom seem about as reasonable, humane and decent as Thatcher herself), it was nevertheless disheartening to find within two days of the race being declared female-only that the big issue is… motherhood.

No, really.

In an interview with the Times, Andrea Leadsom claimed that having children gave her a stronger stake in the future than childless Theresa May.

Mrs Leadsom is very angry at the article, claiming to have been misrepresented – but her words speak for themselves. At best, she has shown naivety in not anticipating how her comments would be received.

You can read a transcript via the BBC.

Mrs Leadsom said:

I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.

But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.

Wow.

The obvious first objection is that these same ‘arguments’ are never used when discussing and comparing the merits of men. When was the last time a male politician was judged on his parental status? When was it even suggested that a father would make a better Prime Minister than a man without children?

That underlying double standard is central to this whole debacle, but there are two specific points in Mrs Leadsom’s statement I would like to explore in more detail:

  1. Women who don’t have children are sad.
  2. Women who don’t have children have no interest in building a strong, successful future.

Mrs Leadsom’s first point is a thorny one – because some of the time it’s true. I speak from experience. I have failed to have children, and I’m sad about it.

I chose my words with care just then. I have failed. You can’t fail unless you tried. Hell, I tried. I only recently admitted defeat and stopped trying.

I am sadder than I can tell you. Sad every day. Sad every time I see someone else’s joy or pride or even frustration in their children. Which, of course, is many times every single day.

But not everyone tries. Many people, for many and various reasons, don’t want to have children. They are not sad about it. They made a decision. Their lives are happy and fulfilled just as they are. Projecting your own values and opinions on those people is arrogant and ignorant.

Like Andrea Leadsom, I know little about Theresa May. I don’t know whether she ever tried to have children. I don’t know whether she’s sad that she didn’t. If she ever was sad, I don’t know whether she still is. Theresa May is 59. Her potentially child-bearing years are long behind her. By the time I’m her age I certainly hope to be over the worst of my disappointment.

Mrs Leadsom’s sympathy (if that’s what it was) is inappropriate and patronising.

But what about that second point? Having children gives Mrs Leadsom a greater stake in the future.

Does it really?

In the immediate sadness of accepting you will never have children there is hopelessness; there is despair. There can be depression, a skewed world view that sees everything going to hell. At the same time a lethargy, because nothing matters. There is a greyness, a blandness, an emptiness lurking behind every ostensible joy.

I’ve been battling with that for the better part of two years now. But it is lifting, slowly, gradually. There are still days I don’t know why I continue getting up in the morning, getting in my car, driving to work, going through the same motions… When all I feel like doing is lying in bed and staring at the wall. But I do keep doing it. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, and moving forwards – and maybe there is some light up ahead. Maybe.

When that darkness recedes, when the light feels attainable, do you know what is my strongest emotion? Determination. Determination that I have to make my life matter some other way. I can’t rely on my genes marching forward into the future, providing a link in an unbroken chain stretching back millions of years and potentially reaching forward for millions more; to determine the fate of our planet, to travel the stars, to colonise new worlds…

I have failed to be a part of that great enterprise.

But what can I do? I can try to influence those who are taking part in that march. I can try to affect the world around me during my lifetime. I can try to leave the world a better place than I found it.

I am acutely aware that any legacy I leave is entirely up to me and my actions and how I influence the world. I have to strive. I have to achieve. I still have something to prove.

If you think I have no stake in the future, you are very wrong.

Theresa May might or might not be anything like me, but my point is broader than that. Being childless can mean many things. It can mean different things to the same person over the course of their lifetime. There is no valid label you can slap on a childless person, male or female, due to that single trait.

In my view, Andrea Leadsom has already failed a test of leadership potential. In a historic contest between two women to be the leader of the UK, almost her first action was to bring the argument down to reproduction, to traditional women’s roles, traditional values – undermining the progress in feminism that has allowed her to achieve the position she has.

Get a proper argument. Compare real achievements, not a thing so personal, so emotive, so dogged by unfair judgement – and so irrelevant.

You can read more (and from more incisive political minds than mine) on the Leadsom/May contest here.

Housework rules! picture source: http://feministing.com

No. It doesn’t.
[picture source: http://feministing.com%5D

I’m currently having a slight crisis of confidence in the protagonist of my work in progress, Kikimora.

Very loosely based on Slavic folklore, the story is set in 17th century Hungary and follows the life of a girl created by a grumpy magician for the sole purpose of terrorising the local miners and driving them away from his mountain home.

During the course of the story, Kikimora comes to empathise with the miners and question her duty to the magician, whom she thinks of as her father.

So far, so good. The problem I’m having is that for the first half of the book, Kikimora’s defining characteristic seems to be a great willingness to do all kinds of housework :-/ Rest assured, she has far more interesting things to do in the second half – but I’m worried my readers may have abandoned her in disgust by then.

This is in fact just one aspect of a greater dilemma I’ve been having regarding realism versus telling a good story.

While researching what would occupy the days of my 17th century characters I began to fully appreciate quite what a big deal housekeeping was in the days before fridges, vacuum cleaners, electric ovens, gas stoves, irons, washing machines, indoor plumbing, disinfectant, rubber gloves, antiseptic… You can read about the daily toil here.

Floors needed scrubbing. Pots needed scrubbing. Many households produced their own preserves, beer, cured meats. They kept livestock, which would need daily attention. Vermin were a constant nuisance, and had to be kept from the food stores. Much of the clothing would be homemade; holes would be darned; clothes which grew too tight would be let out. Firewood would be needed for cooking and heating the home.

My protagonist, Kikimora does not shun all this drudgery housework. She embraces it. Partly this is due to the folklore the story is based on – the original Slavic Kikimora was a household spirit, assisting respectful housewives in their daily tasks, and playing tricks on those who angered her. That’s the author reason. But the character’s reason for embracing housework is because it is the exact opposite of what she is supposed to do. She was created to be a monster. Her duty is to terrorise. But she’s really not that keen on her duty.

The heroine of my all time favourite book, Howl’s Moving Castle was also quite enthusiastic about housework, and I didn’t think any less of her for it. Personally I detest housework.* It is the quickest way I know to get sweaty, bad tempered and bring back to roaring life all the aches and pains my yoga, pilates, hot showers and regular (self administered) neck massage barely keeps at bay.

During the course of the story Kikimora makes up her own mind about what she believes and what she will fight for.

Ultimately I think I’m content with the feminist credentials of my protagonist. But what do you think? Am I over-thinking it? Is it even an issue? I’d love some opinions on the matter.

* I don’t count cooking as housework – though I know many people do. Cooking is creative. Cooking is enjoyable. Cooking garners praise, wonder and gratitude. None of these things are true of housework (especially gratitude, for some reason).

Pippi Longstocking

My extremely well thumbed copy of Pippi Longstocking. Yes, that is the pages all falling out of the middle :-S

I saw this post today about creative people providing positive role models for girls. It’s a new venture to showcase non-stereotypical products for girls. They don’t want pink things (unless they’re science kits), nor are they interested in things related to external beauty.

“Passive Princesses are an absolute No No but we are happy to showcase Bold, Daring, Adventurous, Self-Rescuing Princesses.”

I signed up, as a purveyor of self-rescuing heroines with maths skills, and it made me recall some of the interviews I’ve done during the course of promoting Darklands.

I’ve cherry-picked a couple of relevant pieces below.

In my very first interview I was asked what I’d wanted to be when I grew up. I had this to say:

I wanted to be James Bond. I wanted to be Tarzan. I wanted to be Dracula. I wanted to be a mad scientist with sticky-up white hair. I wanted to be a pirate. I wanted to be a Viking. Eventually I realised that writing would allow me to be all those things.

And btw, it wasn’t lost on me that all my childhood aspirations concerned the male characters. Why? Because they got to do the interesting stuff. What did the female characters do? Stand around squealing, and then run away and trip over nothing!

I’d like to think girls do a bit better for role models now than they did when I was a kid.* But I guess things still aren’t great, or this initiative wouldn’t exist :-/

Zencherry at World Lit Cafe asked me a while back about the physical appearance of Sophie, Darklands‘ heroine, “She was a little plump and thought of herself as a mite homely and yet she had strength that she discovers along the way.”

Was I purposefully going against the grain, she asked. This was my reply:

There are at least a dozen different answers I could give to this. Like how I was a gawky adolescent with no self esteem. Like how billions of advertising dollars are spent convincing attractive young people that they are not attractive enough, and their lives will be richer, happier and more fulfilled if they only buy this or that product to make themselves more beautiful…

But I’ll give you this answer: Many years ago I nervously gave one of my first stories to a friend to read. She was far kinder than it deserved, but what I chiefly remember is her asking quite pointedly, ‘How come interesting things only ever happen to beautiful girls?’ A very good question! I have given far more thought (or maybe far less thought?) to my characters’ appearances ever since.

Plus, I just like geeks.

Well, who doesn’t?

* I have since thought of one geniune female role model I had as a kid – Pippi Longstocking, who is just ace 😀 In fact, she’s so good, I think I’ll have to do a post all about her another time.