25 November 2015

Feminism is not to blame for the breakdown of society


If there are two forces that will define British politics over the next four years, they are the family and the axe. Put them together on a red background and you have all the ingredients of a Russian revolutionary poster. However, this isn’t Russian socialism that we are talking about but Conservative Party policy. The axe doesn’t symbolise hard labour for your country but, instead, budget cuts. And the success of those cuts depends crucially on the revival of the family. It is here that the real hard labour takes place and so it is by supporting the work carried out by the family, much of which has for too long gone on under the radar, that the Conservatives aim to fill the gaps left by a retreating state.

After more than three decades of being seen as the party of the free-market, and being associated with the famous phrase that “there is no such thing as society”, the Conservative Party is currently undergoing a transformation. Move aside privatisation and deregulation – the mix of traditional “One Nation” Conservatism and the new “Good Right” now trumpets family life as being the harbinger of a thriving economy. Reversing decades of family breakdown is, according to Tim Montgomerie, Senior Fellow of the Legatum Institute and a Conservative Party strategist, key to shrinking the state.

As a feminist and economist, I welcome this new family-friendly brand of politics. Feminist economists such as Marilyn Waring have long argued that analyses of the economy have been hampered by their excessive focus on individualism, self-interest and “the market”, noting that “care” is the true starting point of all economic activity – the care parents provide for their children, which provides the next generation of workers, and the care for the environment and communities which surround us, which helps to build foundations for the future.

To my mind, the fact that mainstream economists, the majority of whom are male, have focused on an individual market-centred approach perhaps accounts for why the vital contribution of families has been taken for granted for so long – and why, as a result, it has decayed. Unless you recognise the value of something and support its activity, it soon withers away. If family life really has eroded, perhaps it is therefore because economists and economic policymakers have failed to appreciate the backward and forward linkages between the economy and society: the way in which a successful economy depends upon a well functioning society and a stable home. By failing to realise this simple fact, the adverse side-effects that economic policy can have on society have been ignored. By being ignored, the side-effects have gone unaddressed and society has begun to crumble, something which has the power to keep pulling the economy down with it.

There is, however, an alternative explanation for the breakdown of society – and it is one that I have personally come up against in the form of Conservative Woman’s ink-fuelled attacks on my commentary for this platform. It is something that spells real danger and, if it comes to be accepted, has the power to reverse many of the gains women have achieved over the last fifty years: it is the claim that women are themselves to blame for the breakdown of society. According to one writer, “a century of feminism has failed us”. And, somewhat bizarrely, it is women leading the charge against their fellow women. This is something that needs nipping in the bud – right now.

What these self-professed housewife loving women fail to acknowledge is that feminism does not prevent women from pursuing a “traditional” role should they so wish – other things might stand in the way (dare I say money), but certainly not feminism. After all, there is no law against being a housewife. In fact, by giving women options outside of the home, feminism has meant that women who do choose to stay in the home are much less open to domestic abuse and mistreatment than they ever were in the past – they are now as educated as their husbands, placing them on more equal terms, and their ability to work (even if they choose not to) adds to their bargaining power. Unlike in the past, a housewife can be a true equal to her husband and it is feminism we have to thank for that. Unlike in the past, women are free to choose.

It is this freedom to choose that is key, not the actually choice women make (whether it be earning, staying within the home or some combination). By contrast, turn back the clock to the days of Mad Men and women had very limited freedom to choose their path in life.

Anti-feminist groups seem to think that feminism is about replacing the constraints of the past (those which chained women to the kitchen sink) with an opposite kind of constraint – one that forces every woman out to work, “destroying family life”. What modern day feminists like me are instead asking for is freedom and equality, respecting people’s ability to choose to live their life as they wish, whether inside or outside of the home and without being limited by gender. It means that I can respect the free choice of another woman (or a man for that matter) to stay in the home, and, in return, I can be respected for my choice to pursue a career (and, unlike in the past, on equal terms to that of a man). Feminism should not be about removing one set of constraints and replacing it with another. It is about removing constraints altogether.

Of course, any major forward-looking social movement – whether feminism or anything else – brings adverse side-effects, even if it is overall positive. For one thing, it would be foolish to think that change is always easy. Whether it is Housewife, 49 or Shirley Valentine, we can all accept that as “the worm has turned” – as women have woken up to new freedoms – dissatisfaction has, at times, rocked marriages. But this does not mean that feminism has failed or that women should be blamed for the breakdown of society. If we avoided any change that involved costs of adjustment, we would still be living in the stone age.

The solution to family and societal breakdown is not to blame feminists, but to remove obstacles that prevent men from escaping from their own stereotype. We must remember that feminism is not about turning women into men. It is instead about challenging traditional gender roles – enabling both men and women to be freed from societal expectations. As women have moved into activities traditionally undertaken by men, such as work outside of the home, the opportunity has also come for men to enter into activities previously seen as female-dominated, enabling them to get closer to their children and to contribute to their local communities. Where men and women have moved in tandem, society has been able to flourish. Where one person has moved forward but the other has not, conflict has arisen and society has paid the price. Or, in the words of Cristina Odone, the broadcaster and columnist for The Telegraph, we wonder “who’s left raising the babies, looking after the grandparents, volunteering for neighbourhood projects such as the village fete [and the] the homeless shelter”.

Like a ballroom dance, if women change their step and men stand firm, toes are hurt and the dance floor turns to chaos. If society has broken down, it is because adjustment has not been shared equally by men as well as women. When women enter the workplace, men need to do more outside of work to keep things moving.

It’s time for women to stop blaming feminists and instead encourage men to look differently upon activities outside of the traditional male domain, those within the home and the local community. If such activities really are as fulfilling as anti-feminist women seem to think, then let’s let men experience some of the benefits for a change. Gender equality means men and women being able to share duties within and outside of the home on terms that are not dictated by whether they are male or female. Where this truly can be achieved, then, as they say in Strictly, we can “keep on dancing”.

Dr Victoria Bateman, Economic Historian and Fellow in Economics, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, and Fellow of the Legatum Institute, London.