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?