We came, we saw, we swished!

When we’re all tightening our belts, it’s time to make sure it’s one that makes us look fabulous…

So Saturday 23 July 2011 was our big day – The Big Swish!

Kent Feminista, the group of feminists I’ve joined, ran The Big Swish, a posh clothes swapping  event in aid of Stop the Traffik.  We also had a cake stall, a pledge wall and a children’s play area.  To help our guests feel glamorous, Sophie from Sophie@Ease in Tenterden offered mini hand, foot, head and back massages from a gleaming white gazebo.

The clothes swap itself went smoothly – most people brought more than one item, and were able to choose an armful of items they wanted in return.  In fact, people brought so many items that we were able to donate the remaining items to the Pilgrim’s Hospice. This felt appropriately feminist, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

 Why clothes swapping?
Well, we wanted to prove that feminism isn’t always about being cross about something, or just sitting round talking.  We wanted to do something useful.  Feminism’s interrelations with fashion are well documented (one of our number when interviewed for the local paper was asked if she’d burn a bra for the photo!) The stereotype feminist in the popular imagination is still 1970s: talk to five people about feminism and you’d be lucky not to have at least one mention dungarees…  But dungarees are not obligatory – we’d have been really surprised if there’s any available at the Big Swish!

As the focus on the Duchess of Cambridge/ Sam Cam/ Carla Bruni/ Michelle Obama’s clothes shows, fashion is politically important – the question is whether to oppose this – we are who we are and clothes shouldn’t matter – or to embrace it, recognising that women do care about these things and that feminism without the issues of interest to women is pointless.
After all, psychological studies show that well-fitting, good quality clothes boost happiness and confidence. As the makeover programmes on TV show, helping women feel good about themselves can change their lives.

What’s more, we’ve all done it – bought the fantastic top in the sale that’s a size too small, and never quite slimmed into it.   The Big Swish was a chance to swap clothes that don’t make you feel good – the dress that’s never really fitted, the too short trousers – for something that you love instead.

In tough economic times, the wardrobe of clothes we don’t wear is not just a mess, it’s a waste of money.  As well as being good for wellbeing and your purse, clothes swapping is the green option too – someone else using clothes means that the world’s resources aren’t wasted and you don’t end up sending that unworn shirt to landfill.

Why Stop the Traffik?
Kent Feminista are a group of Kent based feminists who are interested in finding creative ways of promoting equality for women and supporting women in our communities who are subject to the many inequalities present in our society.
Feminism is about establishing and defending equal political, economic and social rights and equal opportunities for women. It’s not just that women need to be more confident – some of this is about redefining what’s normal in terms of work, caring and household responsibilities for both men and women, and obviously that can’t be done without men getting behind the ideas too.

As we know, there are numerous variations on feminism and they are not all united on views on some of the big themes like abortion.  However there are some universal issues such as political representation and equality and human dignity on which we all agree.  So our fundraising focus this year is Stop the Traffik, the campaign to prevent the sale of people, protect anyone that has been trafficked, and to prosecute the traffickers.
This is very much a feminist cause: feminism is about how we interact with each other fairly rather than treat each other as things to be bought and sold, whether that’s selling ourselves by lap dancing, or each other through trafficking and modern day slavery.

We’re going to look at this in more detail soon, but just quickly, what did we learn that can help you set up your own Big Swish?

  • The style of event requires a premeditated decision to attend, not passing traffic and that means advertising.  Our posters were great and we got them out to the places we knew would take them plus a few more original locations (shop staff rooms in town).  We used Facebook, Twitter, got an article in the local newspaper, bits in a church newsletter, did what we could to tell everyone.  And so we did get people we’d never met before choosing to come and take part!
  • We went for a Saturday when most people were likely to be available. Early evening, somewhere with an alcohol licence might also be good.
  • We charged £2 entry and allowed unlimited clothes donations.  This works but you could also consider £1 entry and 50p an item to swap to encourage really good quality items.
  • We of course ended up with loads left over, but took a decision to donate these to another charity, the Pilgrim’s Hospice.  Old age and caring are much overlooked areas of life (and also within the feminist movement), but given the propensity of the current elderly generation to be women, we should care. Old age is a feminist issue.
  • Having pamper treatments there gave a real feel of glamour – a definite recommendation for any future event.


Faith and feminism: comrades or conflict? Part 1


There was an interesting article in the Guardian last month showing that women that identified themselves as feminists were much less likely than women in general to identify themselves as belonging to a particular faith.  They were statistically more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic, and to be interested in female-centric paganism, or in alternative spirituality.

 

But the challenge put to me by feminist friends was how is it possible to be both feminist and Christian?  Or, as feminist writer Cath Elliott put it:

“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”

So an attempt at answering that challenge.  There’s so much to say on this issue there may need to be more than one post…

1) Do we have a common understanding of what feminism is?
It is fairly clear that Cath Elliott believes that third wave feminists should have no truck with religion.  This is an old argument, and there’s pages of resources which gives an idea of how long the place of women in Christianity has been under debate.

But feminism is not itself a faith system with a common set of beliefs.  Wikipedia defines feminism as:

“a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Its concepts overlap with those of women’s rights. Much of feminism deals specifically with the problems women face in overcoming social barriers, but some feminists argue that gender equality implies a necessary liberation of both men and women from traditional cultural roles, and look at the problems men face as well”.

So far so good, right?  So let’s look at the definition of Christian feminism.
Christian feminism does not mean being Sarah Palin.  I promise.  It is one of the feminist movements covered in the definition above and looks at the position of men and women from a slightly different starting point, not just as individual units but as beings that find happiness in their relations with others, inherently equal but undeniably different, and that understanding this equality before God is essential to understanding our place in the world.

Essentially, as Helen LaKelly Hunt puts it, faith and feminism are “really different expressions of the same impulse to make life more whole“.
I don’t see these two approaches as being in conflict either, I don’t think Christian Feminism is an oxymoron, and I’ll attempt to explain why below.

2) “All religions oppress women”
This is the first challenge.  I can’t pretend to answer for all faiths – I’m a committed Christian and while I’ve looked at the other faiths because I’m interested in knowing more about what others believe, I can only answer as to why I don’t feel oppressed.

In many ways, the Christian faith as led by the church defines patriarchy. Indeed, the orthodox churches refer to their leaders as patriarchs!  But I’d argue that this was a reflection of the political period in which those structures developed rather than something naturally inherent in the message of Jesus Christ.

The slight cop-out answer, for me, comes from the fact of me being a protestant.  For me, the key is that Christianity is a relationship with God and not a religion.
The ceremonies, the churches’ structures, the stuff that is effectively man-made attempts to impose order – that’s religion.  I can see why you could criticise that.
We have women in leadership roles in my church, and I made the case for female bishops in a previous post and so I respect, but disagree with, the thoughtful considerations of other Christians that conclude that they do not believe there is a bible-based case for women in church leadership.  The message throughout the bible is that God created a perfect world, but that we humans use the free will he gave us and screw it up while he sends prophets and eventually his own son to try to help us get back on track.  I’d suggest that just possibly exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church may be an element of that?

3) “The Christian message and the Feminist message are fundamentally incompatible”
The Christian message is simply this: we all try to be good.
But we do bad things.  Christians call it sin.
We reason with ourselves that probably most of them are not so bad, but these things separate us from God, who is all good and who cannot tolerate sin.
The price of this sin? Death – eternal separation from all goodness.
But it’s ok – God loves us and wants us to be happy with him.
So Jesus bridges the gap – he died when he didn’t deserve to and paid the price for all of us.  Accept that offer of Jesus, and be happy with God as he intended us to be, living in his kingdom.

Nowhere in that is there an exhortation to treat women as lesser beings.  Nowhere does it say that this is a message for men not women, that women are not equally called upon to be forgiven their sins and help make the world a better place.
So where’s the incompatibility?

I think this slightly depends on what you think the feminist message is.  For me, equality is at the heart of feminism: political, social and economic.  If, for you, the main thread is about sexual freedom, then you will see incompatibility.
But equality is also there in Christianity: equal access to all spiritual blessings through Jesus.
Throughout the bible it is the people that treat women as inferiors, not God.
God’s angels address women directly just as they do men, and when women are in a position to make a difference, while some are consorts like Esther, you also find queens in their own right like Deborah.
Jesus’s attitude to women was truly counter-cultural – we have forgotten just how shocking even talking to a woman publicly was.
And God used the women at the heart of Jesus’s group of followers for one of the most important roles at Easter – it was the women that found that Jesus was gone from and who came to tell the others, this critical role played by women at a time when in the temple courts a woman’s testimony counted for nothing (“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)).
So equality before God?  Yes, it’s spelt out in the New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And yet there is a conflict.  Jesus’s model for changing the world was that of serving others, serving God.
We can talk about rights, demand respect, argue about fairness, protest about a lack of political and business representation, but ultimately in a perfect world everyone, male and female, would seek the best way to serve each other rather than put each other down and get one over each other.  That’s real equality.
For me, feminism is a stepping stone in this imperfect society to build something a little closer to this, to help us to do the right thing.

Next time: sex, and women in society…

True Finns- what just happened?


Finnish tshirt from www.zazzle.com – election of the true Finns risks a changed position for women in Finnish society

Eek.  Just listened to the BBC world service programme “World Have Your Say” on which friend and fellow Euroblogger Jon Worth just appeared.

The immediate EU concern is that – given the Finnish parliament has to vote on any agreed bailouts (or as Jon rightly points out, long term loans to stricken countries underwhich the lenders actually make a profit on monies loaned) – the Portuguese bailout may be delayed, or need to be changed.
The learning point from this – and the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere where the populist right is on the rise – must surely be that it is no longer acceptable to regard the EU as an inevitable grand projet, pushed forward by an elite with a common mindset, which the public will unquestioningly accept.  There needs to be more open and honest explanation of what is going on, what the proposed solutions are an the consequences of doing them and not doing them.  And while this is no doubt the economic big picture, it goes for wider policy making too.

However, there ought to be concern too because this party that just got 20% of the vote and may end up forming part of the next Finnish government apparently said that Finnish women should study less and stay at home producing more True Finnish children.
I’m appalled on so many levels at that statement.
This can’t be real, can it?  A progressive, Nordic country really just had an election in which True Finns was the only party to increase its share of the vote?
If you want to read a female Finnish bloggers perspective, I’ve just found this one.

In the meantime, welcome to the twenty first century.
We may be seeing democracy as a rallying point outside Europe, but we need to take greater care to remember that being elected is about representation, not just leadership.
And we also need to think about who is being represented.
If ever we needed proof that women’s rights have been hard won and are not inviolable, this is a wake up call.

Mums and work: tell Rebecca it gets easier but only a bit

Rebecca Asher is – depending on your point of view – either a whinger who doesn’t understand how life works, or a modern woman who has discovered she’s been sold a pup.
As a journalist, she seems to have got published a feminist book that many of us have effectively written in blogs, talked about in playgroups or NCT get togethers but have not got the time or energy to write down on paper.  She’s called it “Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality“.
Very clever.  I’d say shattered is just how most new mums feel.
The essential question is:
I’ve been educated as well as any man, secured a high flying job as well as any man, earned my own money, built a social life, but – now I’ve married a man and had a baby and my life revolves around their needs- was this all a lie?  Are we really any further on than the 1950s?

And the honest answer is: it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I know exactly where she’s coming from.  There’s no easy answer.  Misogynists on the comments forums at the Guardian say that “you want to have your cake and eat it“, or “you should’ve thought of that before having a baby”.
Comments also call her spoiled, that it’s all a sense of entitlement that’s been frustrated and not a legitimate complaint.  Often there’s a comment from someone saying something like I hold down two jobs, I’ve got four children and you don’t catch me being all self-pitying.
Or, I did all this twenty years ago and it’s tough but you do it…  To be honest, I dislike those replies more than the misogynistic ones.  After all, they seem stuck in the view that things have to be the way they are, defeatist rather than simply offensive…

There is no real feminist answer to this problem.
Feminism focuses on work, treatment of women and sexual politics (including the avoidance of children) but this element of the majority of women’s lives is controversial for feminists.
Instead we have conflicting values at play here.  Let me show you why.

I want to work.
Work helps me feel a sense of self-worth, justifies the education that previous generations of female campaigners fought for me to be able to have, enables me to use my mind and skills putting something useful into the world, and have income to spend to make the money go around.

I want to raise my son.
I went through a lot to have him here safely, he is the most precious thing in our lives, I don’t think anyone else can raise him as well as his father and I can, he’s lovely, funny, interesting, cuddly, and I want to be with him.  I enjoy the camaraderie of early years motherhood (both online and in person) and, unlike Rebecca, I positively like the singing at toddler group (I’d better as I lead it!)

We have allowed the debate to become polarised, to become a choice.
Are we “real mums” who stay at home?  The household lives off their partner’s single income while they raise the children, balance the budget, avoid disposable nappies, chocolate and sweets, do baby signing, eat organic vegetables from their own plot, make the easter bonnets for the school competition and act as taxi service, PA, life coach, chef etc. etc.?
Or are we “real women” who go out to work?  We juggle career with home life responsibilities, earn our own money, build our careers and become the women we hope we can be, living as full, active members of the workforce.  And so our children go to daycare, and other people help with collecting them when the work deadlines have to take precedence, and we come home to collect overtired children that have been learning bad behaviour from the others they’ve been left there with…
Neither satisfies.

Society constantly undervalues the roles involved in childrearing.  Intelligent conversation, answering questions through exploration, reading together, learning tool use and acceptable behaviours… we have treated these as menial labour, partly because of an erroneous assumption that childcare involves a lot of gloriously free time (I learned otherwise – not all babies sleep in the day time), partly because looking after children ends up resulting in lots of genuinely menial work (more washing than you could ever imagine, feeding, napisaning the “real” nappies and tidying after toddlers).

In business, we are always told that the most important and valuable asset that a company has is its people.  Then look at the pay of childcare professionals, up to and including qualified teachers, and tell me that the pay really matches the long term investment that we as a society are making in the next generation of workers…

Then look at attitudes towards mothers in the workplace.
Leave aside the idea that it is middle class women that have benefited from feminism at the expense of working class men.
Despite the skills learned through parenting: multi-tasking, time management, compassionate communication (as one Guardian commenter described it), persuasion (getting my son dressed and out the house is sometimes the most difficult negotiation I have in a day)… none of these things matter one jot because they were away from the office and were not meetings-based skills (if you chair the PTA, that counts).

We are not the society we were in the time of the baby boomers.  Unlike our parents who are retired (and therefore able to help with the childcare?  But having done it once, why would they want to again?) we expect to work into our late sixties, to have minimal pensions, live into our eighties.
But we know that the penalty of taking time out of our labour market for childrearing impacts for the long-term.  So why allow 50% of the population to have their careers permanently scarred because of their gender and not their talents?
And just as our careers have to last longer, the need to be carers for partners or parents kicks in too.  The vast majority doing this at present are women – but that is generational.  What are today’s mums of young children going to say if it is them that this burden falls to again – because they’ve already lost out on career development through childrearing?
One woman commenting in the Guardian comments said she resented mothers expecting to pick up their career where they left off because they should accept the penalty for having had a baby and “working at 75% for 10 years” but a father was better than a bachelor because he has to work to support the family.  I’m horrified that another woman would say that.
I’m all for a right to request flexible working for all, including part-time working, but this commenter’s attitude shows there needs to be social pressure not only on companies but also with co-workers to ensure that working parents are not being made to feel guilty that they need to use leave, and work their conditioned hours so that they can spend time with their children rather than always the pressure to stay longer, and quantity of work appearing to be valued over quality.

And don’t think this is just a middle class issue – how many mothers working per hour in jobs that just about fit in with available childcare or school hours can’t get promotion because of not being able to take on the more awkward hours?
And if you drop out of the labour market, how will you get back in?

We need proper, high quality childcare available term time and holiday, recognising both the needs of the child in terms of care and learning, and of the parent in terms of a happy place to let their children develop which also allows them to work.

In the workplace, the first issue is one of recognising employees as humans not just resources.  Everyone has a life outside work – it ought to be a prerequisite!  But while being a champion skydiver is something to be respected and time allowed, accept that parents ought to put children first, or carers their care-ee first. Be clear that this is understood and they’ll be grateful for the flexibility and more dedicated and loyal as a result. Normalising shared parenting  - say, meaning that each parent has four days in their office each rather than five and three, now that would really help.

Finally, no one tells prospective parents what hell awaits them: birth, post partem life, colic, sleep deprivation, sore nipples, breasts as public property, being constantly covered in someone else’s bodily fluids…
This new job, at least in the first few months, one that is not limited in terms of office hours. So the men complaining that they’ve gone to work all day and why should they be handed a screaming bundle on returning home miss the point – the parent out to work may have worked nine hours but so has the parent looking after the child, and that evening caring time should be shared.

But it gets easier.  And after a year or so, they’re a delight.  When they go to nursery, you realise you’re sharing your house not just with an extension of you but an individual with thoughts, feelings, options, preferences, ideas and a whole life ahead of them which is theirs, not yours.  And with wrap around childcare you can even work!  Now, what to do about school journeys and school holidays…

But let’s challenge the perception that life isn’t fair and women should just accept it.  We do the next generation a disservice if we can’t persuade fathers that their role is with their children in person, not just as the wallet in the workplace, and employers that letting employees be themselves will help their wellbeing and their productivity.

Fat is definitely still a feminist issue

As the bloggers have it, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Christina Hendricks has apparently got so fed up with being called curvy, she’s going to slim down from her (UK) size 14 to fit the Hollywood norm. This is her at her current size.
Christina is of course already gorgeous, someone to aspire to look like and sparking a fashion revival of 1960s style c/o her role in the show Mad Men.
But she’s far from the first to feel the pressure to lose weight to seek public approval or worse, to feel happy with herself in public.

Sophie Dahl was voluptuous, the first plus size super model, but shed loads of weight after becoming famous. This is one of the “before” pictures.

Even Margaret Thatcher, whose voice famously changed as part of her makeover to become a credible party leader, lost a stone.  It was never mentioned.

What’s going on?  Leaving aside the issue that the fashion industry has nothing to do with making the average woman look beautiful and everything to do with selling us something to idealise (and to keep buying their products to cover our flaws), we have to ask ourselves why do women do this?

The idea that this might be being done to appeal to men is nonsense – men tend to prefer curves (according to an article in Current Anthropology, a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 is thought to be the best in terms of demonstrating good health and fertility).
So is the pressure coming from other women?  The front of the weekly gossip mags always seem to be about celebrities who have lost or gained weight, and in the case of the latter, sometimes there are pregnancy rumours. That seems a particularly cruel way of noticing that someone’s gained a few pounds.  Look at the female columnists: they seem to gain their prestige by criticising other women.  Which man gets the criticism for his looks that women in the public eye are subjected to?  It’s ludicrous.

The classic TV pairing of older-man-younger-woman is still the norm on regional news programmes around the country.  Moira Stewart has disappeared from our screens.  Jenny Murray and Libby Purves seem confined to radio.
But Kirsty Wark and Martha Kearney do still seem to be allowed out, and the BBC at least has been trying some positive action to encourage women over 35 to appear on our screens.  Last year, in an effort to overcome the apparent ageism, the BBC advertised for older women to read the news and added Zeinab Badawi (world news on BBC Four), and Julia Somerville and Fiona Armstrong to their portfolio of news anchors.
And I try to feel grateful for the existence of Loose Women on ITV1, even if it’s not really my sort of programme…
Notice though that these older women presenters are still relatively thin and certainly glamorous.
The average sized woman in this country is a size 16. For older women, the average is higher.  Can it really be the case that average sized women are only represented on screen by Mary Bryne on the X Factor and Anne Widdecombe  on Strictly Come Dancing?
Mary Byrne on the X Factor

Before you wonder if I’m going too far, think about Adrian Chiles, Michael Macintyre, Eamonn Holmes, Mark Addy in the Tesco ad… With the exception of Michael Macintyre (who appears solo and whom we can forgive almost anything if he can indeed get the country skipping again…) most appear on screen with a younger/ slimmer/ more glamorous female partner.

Having an all-male panel on comedy programmes is still acceptable.  More usually these days there’s one woman – for example Jo Caulfield, Andi Osho, Lucy Porter, Shappi Korsandi on Mock the Week,  Sandi Toksvig, Maureen Lipman, Jo Brand or Emma Thompson on QI.  But as Sandi Toksvig said recently, when are we going to get the three woman, one man panel without it being considered a “special edition”?  Well part of the problem could be that women aren’t funny (rubbish + more of this rubbish from Christopher Hitchens),the rumour that it’s women that don’t find women funny, and men don’t fancy funny women
(If you’re interested in all this, try http://www.funnywomen.com/index.php)

Age is a problem, but fat seems to be the last taboo.
It seems that being fat is the fat person’s own fault, and therefore they’re a reasonable target for worse treatment or rudeness.
A while ago Ryan Air floated the idea of BMI-priced seating, and a fellow euroblogger stirred the controversy.  But my point – that pregnancy (and miscarriage) cause weight to increase, as does the menopause, show that policies like this could potentially discriminate against women…
I should probably at this point mention the fat/ poverty link.  But this is not an infallible rule. Some people who are fat are comparatively rich – not everyone subscribes the the Wallis Simpson maxim “you can never be too rich nor too thin”. And I’ve not even started on the race/body fat issue.
All I’m saying is that the issue of fat is a bit more complicated than the media might have it…

It’s worth noting that while one third of UK women are overweight, one third are underweight.  Being overweight can lead to all sorts of health problems, but so can being underweight.
So we should really be asking why, if fat people are kept off our screens in case they’re “normalised” or seen as anything other than a problem, why is it acceptable to show underweight people with such frequency?
I have friends with young daughters who are really concerned already by their daughters calling themselves fat, worrying about how they look – and the scary thing is that this seems now to apply to toddlers.  And don’t get me started on pink and princesses…

But if fat is a feminist issue, what should we do about it?
1) every time there’s a gym without childcare facilities, that’s a problem for mothers who want to exercise.  Any woman going to a gym should challenge this ongoing problem, on behalf of all.
2) Every designer who makes their clothes so that they look good on skeletons, and doesn’t provide samples/loan dresses even in a size that fits pre-diet Hendricks and Dahl, they put off someone like me from even bothering to slim to look good in their designs as I’m never going to both be happy and fit those clothes. We should make clear – perhaps via social media – that this is unacceptable, and by the way do they not realise how much of a potential market they are alienating.
3) Every time a female journalist criticises another woman for her weight or her looks, particularly if the woman criticised is a politician, scientist, writer, or is involved in a career which does not naturally lead to being a “brand ambassador” for a cosmetics company, we should comment on the website or email.

What do you think?

What’s wrong with being a feminist?

Today’s Stylist magazine (terrible name for what’s actually quite a good magazine)  had an article on what it means to be a feminist today and why we should all be feminists.
Rather than argue it all through again, I’d recommend you read their article, and consider whether you think the conclusion is a bit weak?

Also consider this… it’s not feminism that gives you hairy legs, it’s marriage (where you’re loved no matter what) and childrearing (time to pamper yourself is the casualty when trying to hold down a job, run a house, raise a child with their own activities and priorities etc. etc.) – feminism merely means saying do you know what, my legs get hairy sometimes.
That’s normal in women.
I’m not making a big deal of it so nor should you.
But it’s funny how it still has the power to shock!

The modern world is bad for children

Ok that’s it.  What, exactly, are we meant to do, to be doing the right thing?

         

As you can tell by my ever so slightly fed up tone, today there’s yet another report that say that something that parents do all the time is Bad For The Children. Today it’s television that’s in the firing line.

The article I’ve hyperlinked is fairly self-explanatory.  Children getting fat, eating junk food, have worse IQs in the longer run, etc. etc.  All of these things are apparently the long term impacts of toddler-age television viewing.
The professor in charge of the research says:

“Common sense would suggest that television exposure replaces time that could be spent engaging in other developmentally enriching activities and tasks that foster cognitive, behavioural and motor development.”

Ok.  No normal parent wants their child to miss out on important cognitive, behavioural and motor development skills.  So toddler TV’s got to be eliminated, right?  There must be something wrong with it – it’s illegal in France after all.
 
But let’s just think this through for a minute.
I’ve never seen my child watch TV for longer than about 10 minutes at any one time. 
Much as he loves Cbeebies, the TV’s just not that entertaining for that long when there’s building to be done, beds to bounce on, toy cars to drive up walls making vroom noises rather than just the lovely plastic garage, wax crayons and paper and all the card from the recycling bin to build with… and of course mummy to cuddle, to jump on, to play with, to help sort washing, to help find all the red buttons, to chase the frog across the lawn…

As you can gather, it’s not that my toddler lacks interest in the world around him.  That’s just a small sample of what he gets up to when we spend time at home (as opposed to the time in town, time at playgroup etc. etc.)
Nor does he lack the ability to concentrate, in fact he loves reading and often wants to look through books uninterrupted by me,  telling himself stories about the pictures, for a long time.
But even on what are laughably called my non-working days (unpaid work days more like, unless you count the non-means tested child allowance as payment?), I cannot spend 100% of my time as his playmate.  Nor should I – he also needs to play with other children his own age (hence playgroup to make friends), and to learn to entertain himself.
And sometimes, when I really, really need it, TV can be an electronic babysitter (not for long – my toddler has a kitchen stall designed to help him reach the worksurface safely so he tends to try to join in). 
But mostly we watch it together.
Timmy Time and the Tweenies are great for showing hm that it’s not just him that goes to nursery while his parents work, and the Tweenies teaches stories, nursery rhymes and social interaction, while 3rd and Bird stresses the value of a strong community.  Alphablocks and Numberjacks are so good that primary school teachers often use them in their literacy and numeracy lessons. I’ve never been a fan of In the Night Garden, and Waybuloo is a bit hippy trippy for me, but I like the sign language and normalised treatment of children with special educational needs and physical disabilities in Something Special.  Given the reaction of some parents to Ceri‘s employment, this sort of show is very much needed. 
And we don’t just sit and watch TV -we talk about what’s happening, when something similar happened to us…
 
But this is yet another report that tells us that we’re doing long term damage to our kids.
And while frankly I’d vote for the party that can actually bring the recommendations of “Toxic Childhood” into policy (NB it would involve cost, social change, standing up to the Daily Mail and the older feminists for whom equality is about the workplace), the central theme of that book is implying that parents are not up to the job.

There’s a terrible irony that we are so child centred these days, but that it is in a sort of “quality time“, taxi driving to activities way.  Being with the children takes time - for example, when I ask other parents how they handle the change to available nursery hours when their child turns three, they say I don’t know, I had a second one so I’m at home and able to do the school run, or that they are lucky to have grandparents near by etc.  otherwise they couldn’t work. 

But the child-centred approach that parents have is being squeezed. 
For example, some people I know have had their ability to work and raise their family affected by local authorities that can’t allocate the school places in a way that avoids someone having to drive miles between a school drop off and a nursery drop off. 
For others, it’s been that in order to “get on” – i.e. to be in the running for promotion etc., work has to be full-time – and that means 4 or 5 full days a week at nusery for the bambino, something we’re also told by the childhood experts is not good for children (note how short the school day looks to a parent and you’ll see that has been accepted fact for some time).
 
Long parental working hours are not good for anyone – tired workers are less productive, tired parents that don’t see each other suffer strained relationships not least because being a parent is really very hard work, parents working hours don’t get to see their kids and are not on good form when they do.  The right to request flexible working is genuinely a good thing (supported by all 3 main political parties in the UK) and being allowed to work from home sometimes cuts travel time and therefore means that more time can be spent with a child before and after childcare, and reduced hours means sometimes actually being able to do one leg of a school run rather than trying to get one of the rare paid childminders willing to do both before and after school and who ends up seeing more of the child than the parents do.
But many parents seem to fear that flexble working will impact negatively on their careers, so one parent doesn’t do it and the whole set up just gets even more complicated. 
Some compensate by treating the children as princes and princesses – in other words little monsters that are so used to being indulged that they don’t know what no means, and have been treated that way not necessarily becausse parents mistakenly think that this is what being child centred is, but because they are so damn tired all the time! 

France might think it has it right by banning toddler TV, but few women breastfeed there for fear of ruining their figure and if you are a career woman, your contemporaries expect you to return to work after 12 weeks otherwise you are letting down the sisterhood.
But even in the UK where we value choice, we don’t really value mothers that choose to stay at home to raise the kids in the way the childhood experts recommend for the first two years. 
Or if we do, we make it a choice only available to the middle classes who can just about afford to exist on one income, and the very poor who don’t work at all.
And those that work part-time are at risk of everything crashing if they are not circus-quality jugglers.
And those that work full-time are effectively letting someone else bring up their child.
And the tired, stressed out parents probably let the kids watch TV so that they can relax a bit.
Oh. 

So basically, with an economic set up that expects both parents to work, and a soul-selling attitude to work that – no matter what the lovely words in the HR guidance say – sends a mesage that flexible and part-time models are for slackers that don’t want to get on in their careers, and every moment that the child is with the parent needs to be a learning activity but that learning activities include pairing socks as well as structured play… argh! 
Basically the modern world is bad for children. 
I just don’t know what to do, except hope that trying to bring my son up to be happy, secure, friendly, outgoing etc. etc. in the best way I can is enough.  And try not to add yet another thing to the list of things to be tired over and stressed about…

And this?  My toddler took an unexpected nap and I was quick typing it…

Leaders’ Wives…

… or how who you are married to makes you a news story…

 
(image from bbc website video package)

In the week since the election was called the focus has (thank God) swung a little bit more away from the women that the leaders of the three most popular political party’s leaders are married to, and back onto policies. 
Not that I’m actually that clear whether the parties have actually thought through the costs, feasibility and the practicalities of implementation of some of the things that they are campaigning on (may be they don’t have to – I guess that’s why there’s a much lambasted, primed for cutbacks but nevertheless non-political and permanent civil service) – but that a whole other issue.

We’ve seen the party leaders portraying themselves as family men.  And that’s meant a focus on the wives, two of whom it is reported have their own press officers.
For the current Prime Minister’s wife that’s probably not too much of a change, after all, Sarah Brown has been acting every inch the political First Lady for a couple of years now, for example leading events for International Women’s Day. 
So I guess it was the contrast that meant a lot was being made of the fact that Miriam Gonzalez, Nick Clegg’s wife, intended not to take a key role in the election campaign (and can’t even vote in it!). 
But even this story was eclipsed by the coverage of Samantha Cameron’s pregnancy. More of which in a moment.

All three leaders’ wives are intelligent, successful women in their own right. 
All three are probably entirely capable of saying interesting things in a debate on Mumsnet, although as a PR executive, tax lawyer and director of an upmarket stationers, it’s unlikely that they’d ever be asked to be the subject of one.

It’s the underlying messages that are interesting.
The coverage of Sarah Brown in recent months has pretty much been I-love-my-husband-he’s-great-and-handsome-and-that’s-why-you-should-vote-for-him-girls.  I guess the message is the Prime Minister is portrayed many ways but he’s human and a decent person loves him.  I agree with the Times article from the time of her Labour Party conference speech- this is patronising towards women voters, but good PR tactics and sadly (for feminists), terribly effective (ladies, we are our own worst enemies sometimes). 

Sam Cam (as she has become known – I sympathise as someone with the first syllable of my first and last name identical!) has been a high profile political wife since David Cameron won the Conservative party leadership.  
But she’s now having to endure a public pregnancy – bad enough that people feel they have the right to pat pregnant stomachs on mere mortals but to be publically pregnant through a stressful election campaign, with your own events calendar for the campaign, while being accused of timing it to be a publicity stunt and having still fairly recently lost a child?  Not only not fun, but something you should never have to go through.  And as for the look-how-viral-our-leader-is stuff from tories online… yuck.
I can’t work out how she’s got the time off work to do the election campaign…  I’m pretty clear there’d be no special leave for my husband from his employer if I was a candidate.  And certainly none the other way round given my job.

The Private Eye cover (“Leaders’ Wives”) called Miriam Gonzalez “the other one”. Well yes, as the one with the husband least likely of the three to be prime minister, that’s probably fair enough. 
But The Austrialian news is interesting on this point – is getting-on-with-it, you’re not voting for me but for my husband attitude actually earning her respect?  And if so, is it ironic given that attitude if that respect were then to be somehow transmuted to her husband?

As you can probably tell, I have a bit of an issue with the whole First Lady role.

Essentially we do not have a first lady in the UK constitutional set up. Nor tradition. 
We don’t vote for a prime minister (see here and here ) no matter what the UK press seem to think, because we don’t actually have a Presidential electoral system. 
And if we’re not really voting for the prime minister, we certainly shouldn’t be voting on what their wives say, think or do, or would or would not do as a ceremonial role were their husband to gain office.  
There’s a lot of campaigning going on to get women more involved in politics – I can’t help but feel that “vote Dave, get Sam”, or “vote Gordon, get Sarah” undermines the getting women into power in their own right. No matter what Glenys Kinnock says about it all being ok.
But at least MPs will still be able to employ their partners as assistants (that’s a tradition going back to Mrs MacMillan driving prime minister Harold around in their car!) 
  
But again, the UK political set up is actually very flexible. We do not have a written constitution, so if a prime minister wanted his wife to take on a First Lady role (or, if Caroline Lucas - the only female party leader – were by some incredible fluke make it to no.10, first gentleman) there’s no constitutional impediment to them so doing. 

And even if you have a written constitution like the USA, it seems the role of the First Lady needn’t feature, can be defined by the President and his wife themselves but can still have public money spent on it.  Of course that’s a whole discussion we still need to have here…

So a vote for Dave and Sam, or Gordon and Sarah, may well be a legitimate concept.
Even if it sets my (feminist) teeth on edge…

Politics: What Women Want?

There are a lot of things not to like about Mel Gibson, but “What Women Want“, his 2000 movie also starring Helen Hunt and Marisa Tomei was actually quite funny.

                                             

Throughout the centuries men have been asking what women want, and while the answer from Mel (not to be taken for granted) differs slightly from the answer that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath gives ( “Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee. As wel over hir housbond as hir love, And for to been in maistrie hym above”) the core is the same.

But despite the fact that the answer has been out there for so long,  it seems that this is again being asked, this time in the context of politics.
While the newspapers wage the war between what they describe as “real women” and “ardent careerists who should be in the kitchen having babies” (although I might have misread this last point), the politicians are vying for the female vote.

Netmums, Mumsnet and other female-led online communities are the battleground.  Yesterday – Mothering Sunday – Gordon Brown appeared live on Netmums.

There are 16 pages of discussion to read, if you want, but it’s interesting to note that while Mumsnet was accused recently of being the internet home of middle class Boden wearers, Netmums was keen to point out that a quarter of members that had filled in a survey were on under £15000, and half on under £25000.

So what are mums interested in?  Well a quick scan reveals the following topics got time and attention: tax credits too complex, what’s happening with childcare vouchers, children centres, cost of childcare, maternity services, decline in maternity services, child internet safety, more support for stem jobs, new plans for improving maternity services, childminders early years training costs and tax breaks for looking after own kids, breastfeeding, benefits – v- working , marriage, public sector jobs, mums returning to work, nightmare neighbours, supporting mums to stay at home with their kids… ok I got bored after 4 pages.

 A lot of the time, comments were about the posters’ personal circumstances, and the Prime Minister did offer to put a few in touch with the right minister to get the the information they needed.  A lot of the time the answers looked like standard briefing text – and fair enough, personalising everything in the time necessary for an online debate is a real challenge – but if, for example someone complains about childcare provision in their area and the difficulties it causes the in their day to day lives, telling the that there’s more childcare than ever and some of it is now paid by the state doesn’t actually help them. 

But what the various leader’s debates have shown, bearing in mind that the people that actually coment in these discussions are only a small subset of mums, let alone of women, is that the interests and issues affecting women are incredibly diverse. 
And that “women’s issues” are not a simple box that can be ticked.

The National Equality Panel report showed that there is almost as much disparity between top and bottom earning women as there are between top and bottom earners overall. 
Contrary to what the Daily Mail tried to say this meant, it doesn’t mean that there is no gender pay gap or that it is not important in terms of sorting out the inequalities in this country (it does however mean with inequality on this scale it is not simply restricted to disadvantage by gender).  It also means that women may not all individually think that the top priority for them is addressing the barriers to women reaching the boardroom, or even have a view on the level of income at which tax credits apply.

Women’s interests are affected by their differing situations, just like the interests of men, but with added experience of using the NHS, schools, childcare and all the things that get pigeonholed as “women’s interests” when actually everything is a women’s issue (yep, even men’s health. You think if something happened to my husband it wouldn’t be a priority for me?)  

And while the audience of the discussion forums can suggest that women’s issues are special and selective, women can have views on the economy overall (some of us are perhaps more likely to admit that it is not immediately obvious how something so complex actually works- but then isn’t that the problem that the banks didn’t admit to, that they didn’t know either?), heavy industry, the appropriate structure of the labour market and all the things that apparently are “male” issues and keep these thoughts in their pretty little heads along with which shoes goes with which outfit, the state of the Beckhams’ marriage, which kid is doing which after school activity when just as well as a amn can keep football scores, engine capacities and recipes for his most impressive pasta dish in his (because we’re not into gender sterotyping, are we?)  

The women’s vote in 1997, the apparent fact that women changed from moderate conservatism to supporting Tony Blair’s New Labour, was instrumental in bringing about a change of government.  With all the courting of the women’s vote, the striving to appear a nice an as well as a leader who loves his family, and the talk of a hung parliament it is clear that it’s thought to be decisive again. 
But don’t patronise us. 
We don’t need to know that you are a loving husband and father – if you have a wife and kids we should jolly well expect you to be.  
Some people might want you to be “ordinary” and know the price of a pint of milk and what’s happening on Corrie, but others may not be convinced those are great indicators of leadership.  If you actually understand economics, the way in which our various relationships with other countries and international institutions functions and amplify each other, recognise the professionalism of people doing their jobs and treat the that way, then you might be worth voting for. 
Of course you could just mainstream equality: recognise the value of the contribution that women make to the world as well as men, talk about the things that affect our lives more than those of men as normal not an add-on or a luxury.  You don’t have to be a woman to recognise the value of that (though a few more in parliament challenging ideas through that filter might be a good idea). 
Listening to us, and enabling us to do some of the decision-making too. Enabling us to make the decisions about who we want to be without barriers that are there not through design but overlooking because someone that knows best didn’t take that consequence into account.  I could go on, but I won’t for now.

I don’t think that’s too far from what the Wife of Bath’s Tale set out, is it?

Guest post day: Don’t put your daughter on a pole, Mrs Worthington

   (image c/o www.meltormes.wordpress.com)

In line with the #guestpostday stream on Twitter, I’d like to introduce something a bit different today – a guest post by a friend @parishspinster prompted by my blogpost on women and violence.
Please give it a read, and encourage her to keep writing…

In this age of instant celebrity, it’s becoming less and less likely that Noel Coward would have urged against child stardom in such an old fashioned medium as the stage. 
When you can post your angel’s every waking moment to Facebook and YouTube every child can be flashed around the world in less time than it takes to say ‘mind the paedophile’. 
Most parents are convinced of their offspring’s innate talent, genius and beauty.  With these springboards, there should be no limits to their achievements. 
So why do so many aspire to nothing higher than being ‘famous’?

Fame these days is a very transient state.  To reach the pinnacle, you need to have that something extra that will keep you in the public eye.  It’s hard to predict the alchemy that produces this longevity.  Still, not to worry.  You can always sell your soul to the media.  Others will follow your example.
There’s no need to be any good in your chosen area of fame.  Mediocre is fine.  Believe you can be a star and a star you will be.  Start acting like one now.  No time to waste.

Be orange.  Never mind that all your friends are orange too.  You know theirs came from sun beds or bottles but they will believe yours came from your jetset lifestyle. 
Straighten your hair until it doubles as a plumb line.  Handy for those little DIY jobs around the house, but your nail extensions are so long you can’t unzip yourself to go to the loo, let alone wield an electric drill.  Anyway, that is what men are for.  Whatever you do, be thin.  If you can’t be thin, hate yourself.  If you have daughters, make sure they learn to hate themselves too.  A girl is never too young for pierced ears, or for false eyelashes and lipstick for that matter.
Because a daughter is more than a human being in her own right.  She is the embodiment of your hotness.  She exists solely because you were so damn sexy that you got yourself impregnated.  So it’s only right to celebrate this fact, to dress her up in tiny tight tops with ‘kiss me, I’m gorgeous’ appliqued across the area her breasts will occupy in another decade or so, to see her totter across the room, her still-forming feet wedged into glittery stilettos.  It doesn’t get much cuter than that.  And it does no harm.  Everyone else does it.  Suri Cruise just looked so adorable.

And when she’s older she can go into HMV and buy a button badge that reads ‘Dirty Whore’.

And when she’s a bit older than that she can choose her wedding dress from the bridal shop next to the gentlemen’s club, the one advertising pole dancing lessons.  A nice bit of symbiosis, that.  Buy the dress and get the stag night special offer thrown in.  The boys’ll be okay, they can warm up at the pub over the road.  Erotic dancers every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  £3.50 entry.  Over 18s only, of course.  Doesn’t matter about the advertising hoardings (or should that be whoredings?), they’ll have already seen worse on the internet.

Sorry, what did you say?  Treating women as sex objects?  What do you think all this was in aid of?  The tanning, the hair, the  nails, the clothes, the absolute horror of not being like everybody else.  This is image we have chosen.  We’re all porn stars now.

Fame is just around the corner.