Sunday, February 01, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings continued - the unforeseen effects of Women's Liberation - 2

I finished my last post, Saturday Morning Musings - the unforeseen effects of Women's Liberation - 1, by suggesting that I found the views of today's young quite conservative.

I have to be careful here. In one sense, there is no such thing as "today's young". My daughters' generation is just as varied in mix and across space as older generations, perhaps more so. I cannot pretend to understand all the variety. So my comment should be read as an impression.

Conservative does not mean, however, that they hold the same views on gender issues as past generations. Their views are more complicated, more nuanced. 

To my mind, the single most important outcome from the feminist revolution, was the acceptance, indeed the expectation, that women would have careers. I say careers, not just the right to work.

In this context, we need to make an important distinction between acceptance of the right to a career as compared to the idea of a career as a norm. The first was well established by the sixties, the second took much longer.

The evolutionary process was not without its problems.

Men did not suddenly give up their own view of the world. Existing relationships based on the traditional view of marriage came under strain. To quote from an email I received after my last post:  

No when women had to work within the couple, and started earning more money, becoming better educated than their spouses during the turn of this social event.  It caused disenchantment.  Certainly did with me and my ex spouse.

He resented me working.  And I resented him expecting me to bake him a roast dinner and entertain his mates, after I had done 12 hours work (including travelling).

Pat's comment illustrates a second dimension beyond marriage strain, the continuance of traditional female roles. There is plenty of statistical evidence to suggest that the mass entry of women to the workforce meant that women had to work harder because they had added paid work to continuing home duties. Men did not increase their home duties to the extent required to compensate.

In time, this led to a counter revolution combining two very different streams.

The first stream represented a conservative reaction, a re-assertion of perceived traditional values, of the importance of family, of child care. The second stream involved women's responses. Faced with the load of work and home duties, women began to question whether women's liberation was really liberation at all.

All this played out not just in official debate but, more importantly, across the pages of the popular press and in women's magazines. Women agonized over the pressures and the choices they had to make. In time, this established a new principle, the right of women not to work, to be full time mothers if that was what they chose.

To a degree, men dropped between the cracks in all this.

Improved educational opportunities for women was a key issue in the feminist revolution. Boys dominated the education system, girls had to catch up. The outcome was a series of educational initiatives intended to give girls better educational opportunities.

These were almost too successful. By the late 1990s there was an apparent and growing reverse gap between girls and boys at school level. This flowed over into university attendances. The focus began to shift to ways of improving boys' education.

This was not the only sign that things were not right with Australian men.

There were increasing rates of male depression and of suicide, especially among young men. Books began to appear on bringing up boys. There was talk of the need for a men's revolution. New initiatives appeared such as MensShed intended to link together socially isolated males.

One central difficulty in all this was that men no longer had a defined role. This was reinforced by continuing economic shifts that reduced demand for occupations requiring physical labour, a traditional male strength. Some commentators queried whether the male half of the human species in fact had a future.

Those men who did move to take greater roles in activities such as child care faced unseen but difficult gender based discrimination. This is best illustrated by my own experience.

At the end of 1995, my wife accepted a position in Sydney as CEO of a firm of patent attorneys. After moving to Sydney, I chose to work mainly from home and to take on the primary child-care role. There were quite a number of other fathers at my daughters' school who had made the same choices. Swapping notes, we found that we all shared similar experiences.

Australia's current obsession with paedophilia has created a profound distrust of men. This worsened over the time that my daughters were at school.

A man in a girl's environment is always under scrutiny. Fair enough, perhaps, but it does make life difficult in a whole series of little ways. As a simple example, other parents may be reluctant to let their girls come to play with your girls once they find out that you - a male - will be the only adult there. 

Perhaps the greatest difficulty, though, is simply isolation in a world still dominated by and geared to women.

Whatever the social changes that may have taken place as a consequence of women's liberation, it remains true at least at my daughters' school that most day-to-day parent activities are dominated by women. This affects everything from topics of conversation to the selection of activities and venues for get to gethers.

Some working women I know including my own wife complain, with justice, that many activities are still geared around mothers who do not work or, perhaps, work part time or in occupations that give them a degree of working flexibility.

Yet it's far worse for a man because his very presence affects the social dynamics involved. The discrimination that follows is often subtle and unconscious.

It's partly a matter of feeling. Other men may be distrustful of a male in a wives' environment. Women may find it hard to alter their conversations, grouping with other women. But it's also a matter of the social structuring of what is still a women's world.

In the twelve years my girls were at school in Sydney, every invitation for one of the irregular daily gatherings went to my wife, hence her complaint. More importantly to me as the primary child carer, they were mum's gatherings, not parent gatherings.

The parents' gatherings were quite distinct. They were generally organised in the evening with the expectation that husbands would come.

Returning to Australia's young, earlier in this post I suggested that their views on gender issues were far more complicated and nuanced than that of past generations.

Issues of love and companionship are just as important to today's young as they were to past generations. The courtship dance continues, but in different and more complicated ways that I must admit that I do not fully understand.

I say this because I now live in a female world. I know to a degree what girls think, at least in the slice that my daughters belong to. I am less clear on boys.

I had intended to write just two posts in this series. However, there are still a number of issues that I want to tease out. So at least a third post is required.


Anonymous said...

Welcome to the club of those that do not still understand. I do not know about you, but I am quite content to call myself an anachronism.

Just as I started to comment here, the door bell rang and I had to admit a charming young lady who is part of my son's inner group of friends. She is a particular favourite of mine for successfully having navigated through a very difficult period of addiction, recovery and rehabilitation. She has just been asked to vacate her rented accommodation because she had a late night party last night!

I keep coming across many stories like these and all of them form the basis for my earlier response to your query about the situation in India.

For a flavour, you might like to read this -

Jim Belshaw said...

Again very interesting, Ramana.