Monday, 23 February 2015

Equalilty plea for women

I refer of course to Patricia Arquette's speech on accepting an Oscar at last night's award ceremony. She was speaking about the unfair deal given to women in America, the Land of the Free, the Land of Wonder Woman.

What does the torch held by the Statue of Liberty stand for, if not hope, and the promise of an equal chance for everyone? And yet if the women of America, those self-aware, super-vocal, super-assertive, extraordinarily well-educated and politically-sophisticated women, who might be expected to lead world womanhood, can't get basic equality in the most go-ahead of Western Countries, what can their awful plight be elsewhere in the world?

It is a reasonable question to ask, whether most women are second-class citizens - or even slaves.

Second-class citizens? Well, who (even now in 2015) is assumed by outsiders and strangers and even officialdom to be the 'head of the household', the one with the most life-experience, the best brain, and the one who makes all the Biggest Decisions in a family? Who, generally, has the most financial clout, and therefore the most independence, in a relationship? Who, generally, has the most time and personal freedom to spend money as they wish, in or out of the home, and not suffer questions about it? Who can dress and slob about as they like - and who can't, without being thought sluttish? Who is physically the strongest? Who, generally, can use the threat of pain, punishment or humiliation to exact attention, services and body-use from their partner? Who can, without much effective social or legal sanction, behave as they please towards their partner, including obsessive mental control and cruel indifference? Again, no prizes for guessing who it is. Clue: not the wife.

And women as slaves? Consider. A slave is bound to a master at his whim, and is property, bought with money or through barter. A slave is not a person, but a possession, and may be abused simply to demonstrate who has the commanding status. Male attitudes everywhere treat a woman as something to own, and when a man tells a woman 'You are mine' it's a statement of fact, not a poetic device to make her feel flattered and wanted.

In that respect the world has never altered. Nowadays in the West the possessive reality is sugared and blurred with love and romance, to make the acquisition ritual seem benign. Thus the bride has her day, but lives to rue it. But once secured, the woman is trapped, forever playing the role of second fiddle, and having to give up an independent existence for a home-centred life and stifling constraints. It might be a formal marriage or something looser, but the woman is the one stuck in the web and persuaded by the entire machinery of society that this is the safest and most satisfying place. If the conditioning of men is designed to make them strong and overbearing, the conditioning of women is designed to make them compliant and servile. All for the illusion of a secure home of their own.

Oh, I'm not denying the existence in all periods of spirited women who stood out. I'm not denying all the accumulated social freedoms won by women. Nor all the legal protections and rights given to them. Nor am I denying the positive and unique joys of happy family life, and the special status within it of the mother.

But look at what a woman who has submitted herself to a shared life cannot do on her own. The things she cannot be. There are many signs of being slavishly bound to a male master - the direct and obvious emotional and material ties, but also the many obligations and responsibilities that a relationship imposes. Children most of all. Escape is made so difficult. I am sure that many women resign themselves to no escape, so that their best plan - the virtuous plan, the only feasible plan - is to accept their dependency, and play the willing slave until the death or desertion of their partner releases them.

I paint a stark picture because I want to make a clear point. Of course there are many, many exceptions to my bleak description of the woman's state. I need think only of my own Dad, and how he regarded Mum, and the life they constructed together, in which each seemed to contribute equally. They looked after each other through all setbacks, and they shared all their successes. And they were mutually and humbly dependent on each other as life drew to its close. I read Mum's nursing records the other day, and learned how Dad faithfully tended to Mum's weeping sores with his arthritic hands, every day, until she went into the hospice. It was a matter of pure survival by then, and not a case of one dominating the other. The straightforward relief of discomfort and anxiety, both ground down equally by the harsh facts of old age.

They were certainly not unique. I suppose all long-standing relationships end in one partner nursing the other, with no pretensions left.

And yet in their active years the relationship between Mum and Dad was hardly equal. Dad was most definitely in charge; society had placed him in that position; and although Mum voiced her opinions often and forcefully, she never wore the trousers. It had a certain simplicity to it, that way of living. Mum and Dad tut-tutted over the freer arrangements and experiments of later generations and found them wanting. Mum actually said to me that the position of women had declined: that nothing substantial had been gained by feminism, only a disturbance in the natural order of things. How could a woman be better off, she said, if knocked from the pedestal, if no longer treated with the old courtesies, if she were made a dependent of the State instead of a loving husband?

I often ponder what might happen if I met someone and fell for their persuasions. It's no part of my modern Life Plan, but the future might hold many surprises. No doubt it would be in some respects a rational and sensible bonding - double the income to splash about, a lovely new house, constant holidaying, cultural events, good food, the lot.

But as the woman I would not be an equal. I would have to defer. I would not have control over my time, my personal space, my body, nor my future plans. It would be a kind of slavery, and I would not wish to sell myself into it.

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