Wednesday, August 08, 2007


This post is far too long and I don’t really expect anyone to read the whole of it. But what the heck? Publish and be dammed!

Questions of love, chivalry, feminism and the links between these three have much exercised James lately, here, here and here, so here is my inadequate two-centesimi’s worth on these matters:

First of all, let us remember that throughout history, there would have been no change without those who were willing to be strident, to break the law for what they believed in and even to risk their lives for it. Feminism, in winning the freedoms and rights that women in western countries now enjoy, was and is a necessary movement, for once freedoms have been won, they have to be protected.

As I have commented on James’s site, I am old enough to remember when a woman doing exactly the same job as a man was automatically paid less and I can remember when a single woman, however much she earned, could not obtain a mortgage in Britain. I can also remember finding it difficult to get lodgings because I didn’t have a “nice fiancé” [the landladies, presumably, thought that therefore hundreds of men would be trooping in and out of the place at all hours - if only!] and I can remember even having invitations withdrawn because I didn’t have a partner to accompany me to the parties or events.

A man, when he receives a letter or fills in a form, does not thereby proclaim his marital status to the world: a woman, until the advent of the “Ms” title in English-speaking countries, did. And make no mistake: marital status mattered. There were women who, if they received bad service, would threaten, “Oh, I’ll get my husband to deal with you” - as if they were incapable of standing up for themselves – and often, in times gone by, this utterance achieved the desired result. When I was teaching in secondary education, I could never understand why, at school speech days, the guest speaker 's wife would receive a bouquet of flowers from the Head. What had this woman done but come along and sit there? She obviously did not have a job if she could be there on a Wednesday afternoon; yet she got this bouquet just for being someone’s wife. I have never had any time for women who obtain their social status from men. [It is perhaps worth mentioning that in Italy you become signora and in France you become madame at a certain point: neither title is an indication of marital status.]

So yes, I am a feminist, in that I wish to receive the same remuneration as a man for what I do, provided that the work is truly the same, and in that I desire rights and freedoms which are really the rights and freedoms of all humanity. Where it all goes wrong, I believe, is when we say, “Ok, we’ve got those so now let’s get more rights and freedoms than men have.” I have never, for instance, gone along with the “wages for housework” idea for none of its proponents ever stopped to consider that single women have to do it as well, and certainly nobody was going to reward us. And, however “hard” running a home might be, it cannot, just cannot, be compared with competing in the ruthless, target-setting environment that is the world of work today. Whilst I’m on this topic, I should also say that I do not believe that the State should pay for pre-school child care or that women who are pregnant or who have young children should be exempt from shift work. If you take the job, you do the job, especially if you want equality!

Sometimes I do wonder if I have ended up in the wrong “bit” of life, though, and I imagine that I would have enjoyed keeping house, having children and cooking for someone. But would it have been enough? Victorian women [middle class and above] were so bored that they just took to their beds with their opium. And literature is full of exasperating, interfering or misguided female characters who would have been so much happier and fulfilled if they had only had a job: Emma Woodhouse would certainly have saved herself and others a lot of heartache had she been able to use her talents to run a matrimonial agency; status-obsessed Mrs Bennet definitely needed something to take her out of herself; and silly Dora Copperfield might have been a calmer and more interesting wife if she had been trained for something – she might even have lived, as might Richardson's Clarissa had she had more experience of meeting men and seen through Lovelace . But the character who takes the biscuit for exasperating modern readers has to be “Patient Griselda” who first appears in Boccaccio [Decameron, x. x ]. If ever a husband needed a whack around the head with a frying pan, it was Griselda’s, and if ever a woman needed contraception, an education and an interest outside the home, it was she!

As in literature so it has been in history: unsatisfied women in unhappy marriages from time immemorial, often with no outlet for their abilities or emotions before the last century. Contrary to what the adverts of the late 1950s and early 60s would have us believe, with their images of housewives dancing around because their “composition floors” had polished up nicely, many women resented being “just the little wife” again after making such a contribution to war work and certainly no one wanted to be a maid any more after WW2. A maid was unnecessary, anyway, as suddenly, in the west at any rate, all sorts of machines and gadgets were available which made housework easier [a process which had begun in Victorian times, only then it was still the domestic staff, not the mistress of the house, who used them]. So the appliances gave women more time on their hands but something else had enabled them to choose to work too: At last women could control their own fertility. In 2004 availability of contraception won the title of the most influential event to impact on women’s lives in a BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour debate.

With the acquisition of power in the workplace came a whole bunch of accusations for women: they were said to be neglecting their families, selfish and, most often , “unfeminine” or “mannish”. Was it not always so? Elizabeth I was deemed, by some, to be a man, for no other reason that I can find than that she refused to marry. Yet you do not need a PhD in psychology to figure out that if your father had murdered your mother, you might be a little wary of men. The TV programme Spitting Image always portrayed Margaret Thatcher in a man’s suit, because a woman who had won and retained power just had to be “acting like a man”. Now I am no defender of that lady and it quite worries me that a generation has now grown up who don’t remember the harshness of her regime and the misery she wrought. But Thatcher’s real genius was not in “acting like a man” ; it was in in manipulating the language: “We spend more than we earn”, she would preach, making the national debt sound for all the world as if you’d bought a 1lb of potatoes on the slate at the corner shop. Then “You” [meaning politicians] “have to do this and you have to do that” – not “one” any more – a use of “familiar” language similar to Mussolini's insistence on the use of the voi form for the polite "you". If you can control language, you can control everything! Ok, Margaret Thatcher did give the nation the shake-up that it partially needed and we will certainly never be the same again, but surely you would concur that banging on about credit when you have never had to use it because your husband is a millionaire and making political principles sound like housewifely platitudes is, shall we say, a bit rich? Thatcher was no ordinary housewife and she was not a self-made woman. Her marriage gave her the economic freedom to pursue her ambitions.

With liberation, too, there appeared, briefly in the 1970s and 80s what I call the “dungaree brigade” as in, “Oh, I can strip the walls / plumb in a new bathroom / build a house from scratch. I just put on my son’s / husband’s dungarees and get on with it”. Now I am not of a practical nature so these women made me feel seriously inadequate. And they forgot that they had men to do the heavy work and access to a tool shed. Nothing annoys me so much as women who profess to be independent in this way but never, in reality, have to lift anything heavier than a kettle! Now I’ve decided I don’t want to strip the walls / plumb in a bathroom, etc., even if I could.

So where does all this leave us on "love, feminism, chivalry and everything” ? I once loved a man who was rather like Mr Rochester: he didn’t have a mad wife locked in the garret and he didn’t attempt bigamy but he was self-centred yet madly attractive in the way that Rochester is. But when does Rochester become human and when does Jane love him most? When he is blinded and vulnerable, indicating that not only do we all need someone; we also need to be needed: I think that, because of the demands of our era, both men and women sadly spend a lot of time pretending to be strong and that we do not.

"It’s not every day we are needed”, says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot.

Romantic love, let us remember, is an invention. It was a convention which began in the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine. [Blame the French!] The songs of the troubadours were perhaps a release for more unhappy , aristocratic women. [I don’t suppose the peasants had much time to indulge such fantasies, for that is what they were.] An invention it may be, but we know about it now. And that means that we will go on searching for it, taking risks for it and even, in some cases, killing for it. This is nowhere better illustrated than in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry and the beach Romeos who await the naïve compliment-starved British girls in continental resorts worked it out long ago, cerebrally challenged though some of them may be. Whatever age a woman is, a Frenchman, Spaniard or Italian will always notice what she is wearing, her perfume , her hair and comment on it. Why an educated Anglo-Saxon male cannot do so is beyond me. Such a compliment lifts your heart, makes your day , makes you feel alive, for goodness sake!

A couple of weeks back Tom Paine wrote a post suggesting that people end up on their own because they look for perfection in a partner and I got in a strop about it because I think there are many more reasons why one might remain single, among them just pure bad luck. Maybe “real” as opposed to “romantic” love is what is left when the “scales drop from our eyes” and we see that the person we love is a fallible human being, just like ourselves. If, at that stage, we can still respect, talk to and – yes, love – the object of our dreams then we are very lucky.

What, then, do women want? We are all different but to illustrate what I think a lot of us want let me take you back to my favourite book as a child: yes, like a lot of little girls, I was brought up on Little Women. And, also like a lot of little girls, I wanted to be like Jo, not because I was what was then called a "tomboy" [I was, in fact, rather more like vain Amy than Jo] but because Jo had spirit, she broke the rules and she knew what was right for her. Most of my generation of western women had read Little Women and, in my time, I have met many women who wanted to be like Jo; I have met a few who wouldn't have minded being like Amy [who married rich, handsome Laurie, after all]. But I have yet to meet a woman who wanted to be like boring Meg or goody-goody Beth. I can't speak for all women but what this woman probably wants is a man not unlike Professor Bhaer, who would respect me, love me for who I am, discuss trivia and politics with me - and, yes, protect me from the world outside occasionally, as I would him. I suspect that most men want much the same thing. Or is that, and not romantic love, la grande illusion?


Crushed said...

Romantic love the way it is fed to us IS an illusion, and I think, a bad one.

We are encouraged to find 'The one'.

We can all be happy in eachother. Romantic Love is a bad ideal, because it means loving just one to the exclusion of all others.
That can't be right surely.

Love should be given freely, we can all love and be love far more than 'Romantic Love' allows us.

jmb said...

Well done WCLC, I made it to the end but I am going to save it and print it out and come back again to make a better comment.
I think on the whole we are totally in agreement. I think neither are la Grande Illusion, just not attainable for everyone.
I was tempted to write a post about this myself since I was ticked off by some of the ideas expressed previously elsewhere but you have done it in a very rational and ladylike way.
Well done

Chris said...

Well, I read it all, every word. Great post. Am now going to reread and digest.

Anonymous said...

WL -

This was a seriously heavy posting which I need to read and re-read again. You said much that is interesting and I should like to think further about it.

In the meantime, however, I should like to add the following:

A few weeks ago you had a post about the frustrations of life in Sicily in which you were somewhat diffident about criticising your adopted country. You needn't have been. I too am an immigrant. After 16 years living in a country in which I was not born, I have come to the conclusion that an immigrant's relationship to his adopted homeland is remarkably similar to a marriage.

When I first came to England I was full of starry-eyed wonder, just as I was when I met my partner 5 years ago. But relationships mature. In time we come to see the weaknesses and frailties that we were previously blind to. And yet our love endures, despite the shortcomings.

I love my partner more with each day, though I sometimes shake my head and wonder how we ever thought we were compatible. Yet I cannot imagine my life without him.

The same is true of my life in England. While I cannot imagine life anywhere else, at the same time I despair of my country's future.

Re-reading the above, I realise how lame it is, but at the moment I cannot express the ideas more literately.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Crushed. "Loving one to the exclusion of others" can be interpreted in many ways, of course. But the idea that there is a "the one" [or "Mr Right" for women] often does a lot of harm. Many thanks, jmb. I'm flattered you got through it! Will be interested to see what else you have to say about it later. Thank you, Chris. You are very kind.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hello, Ludlingtonian. How lovely to hear from you. Thank you so much for this considered comment. and thank you for your reassurance ragrding my "grumps" about Sicily post. You are absolutely right: we can love a place but becom very aware of its frustrations, and surely as we become more assured in that place, pay its taxes and do everything else that responsible citizens do, then we have the RIGHT to be grumpy at times? It doesn't mean that we love the place any the less - quite the contrary - it means that we are more settled in it. Thank you again for this comment.

Lord Nazh said...

You are feminine but not a feminist :)

Romantic love may have been celebrated first by the French, but to proclaim it an invention is to simply proclaim love an aboration.

Eurodog said...

You inspired me to re-read Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Wolfie said...

Great post.

I was at a dinner-party recently which descended into various drinking/parlour games. Having to ask people simple questions about what they had ever done I asked if anyone had read "Little Women", much to my surprise not a single woman (or man) could say they had. This was a well educated crowd too.

I think a lot of the reasons feminism has run aground in recent years is that many young women want it both ways, to be liberated and empowered yet also live vicariously off men without the responsibilities that coexistence entail.

I find it interesting that before feminism many more educated women bemoaned their social requirement to marry men of means that they did not love yet now that they have the freedom to marry whom they choose many choose to marry men they do not love for want of a life of luxury and idleness.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Well, the conventions of courtly love were invented, LN. Our emotions are a different matter! Hi, eurodog. Do let me know what conclusions you come to on reading LCL again. Thanks, Wolfie. I suppose a lot of people don't want to admit they've read LW! It is true that womwn want it both ways and the situation you describe here in your 3rd paragraph is, indeed, ironic - and sad, for all concerned.

jmb said...

I don't know which circles some of your commenters are frequenting, Welshcakes but speaking on behalf of my daughter and all her friends, they are busy trying to juggle careers with children and husbands. Not at all because they need the money, but because they are trying to make use of their advanced education and establish careers in their own right.

I don't think feminism has run aground for young women although many of the goals have been achieved so perhaps there is more complacency than in former times.

Also I don't see young women living off men or marrying men they don't love to live a life of luxury and idleness. So I don't know what world Wolfie is living in. It's not the one here in Canada nor in the States where my daughter lives, nor where her friends live.
Nor was it the life I lived. I did not need to work for the money, because my husband made an adequate salary but I worked for 31 years out of the 38 of my married life until I retired because I wanted to use my talents and education and to contribute to society. (Seven years out for child rearing, then part time work till finally full time when they were in school.)

Well what do women want? I can speak only for myself but I think I always wanted to be able do follow any career path I wanted without being told I couldn't do that because I was a man. To have equal pay and equal opportunity in my career to any man. To be treated with respect as a person, for my ideas and actions, not necessarily just because I was a woman. When I married I expected to have equal weight in making decisions that affected the family, in other words I expected a partnership. If all that sounds a bit cold. Let me repeat what Welshcakes said here.

"but what this woman probably wants is a man not unlike Professor Bhaer, who would respect me, love me for who I am, discuss trivia and politics with me - and, yes, protect me from the world outside occasionally, as I would him."

Luckily I did find a man like that , a man who agreed that I should be an independent fulfilled woman within this very satisfactory marriage which has lasted for 46 years.

Liz Hinds said...

Oh, yes, Jo for me too! And she was a writer as well.

James Higham said...

Wonderful post, good discussion above and my answer here:

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Jmb, I've never had to "juggle" so I don't know what it's like but in my "career woman" days I think I neglected my Mum and my lovely Grandad. I would have loved just NOT TO HAVE HAD TO WORK - to have had some chice about it. But the grass is always greener, I suppose, and I might have been a Dora Copperfield. Yes, I do think some women are complacent now - take the number who don't even vote in the UK, for instance. I think you have been very lucky in your marriage and I envy you. Liz - Jo every time! Yes, the fact that she was a writer made me like her, too. Thank you , James, for being so - well, gentlemanly - and thank you for your reply post, which I have read and commented upon on your own blog. It gives me hope when men and women can debate like this. Auguri.

fake consultant said...

that was a nice read...thanks

fake consultant said...

i forgot that i had a quick question for you:

from your description of yourself as a woman who identifies with strong female characters, would it then follow that you're a rosalind russell fan?

i've just been watching "his girl friday", hence the question.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, FC. You are very kind. Oh, I love that film and yes, Rosalind Russell was /is one of my favourite actresses, along with Katherine Hepburn and Myrna Loy, the eternal "strong little woman".

jams o donnell said...

What a thought provoking post. I can see why you put this forward as a top post of 2007, Welshcakes. I will have to go back and give it re-read

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thank you, jams. It is very kind of you to say so.


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