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What women really want

by Mike Johnson [email protected]

Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

You might consider it presumptive for a male to profess to know what goes on in the mind of a woman, let alone suggesting that a whole world-wide movement dedicated to promoting the influence of women in the world is losing its way.

I am second to none in my admiration for women and for what they have achieved over the years, but I think there is now a real danger that what I call militant feminists are taking women in a direction with which many of them are beginning to feel uncomfortable.

In 2010, Mothering Sunday in the UK and International Woman’s Day happened to fall within a few days of each other and this has resulted in a plethora of well-meaning, but I think misguided, suggestions that the world is full of women just dying to occupy the position of men.

Of course there are some who are driven by a desire to get to the top of their respective tree, but there are others, and there is evidence that they are growing in number, who are taking a hard look at woman’s role in society.

I think it might be worthwhile to look at the history of what has become popularly termed ‘Women’s Lib’. It began in the early 1900s, when oppression and inequality spurred women on to become more active in demanding change.

In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York demanding better pay and voting rights, and the following year, the first National Woman’s Day was observed across the United States.

This trend was followed by initiatives in Denmark, Austria, Germany and Switzerland, where the first International Woman’s Day was observed in 1911. Russia joined the movement in 1913, and the following year, women across Europe held well-supported rallies.

However, it wasn’t until 1975 that, with the backing of the United Nations, it became truly global and, together with Mother’s Day, became an occasion for the celebration of the role of women in what was still largely a man’s world.

Let us now take a look at what has changed 10 years into a new millennium. There are certainly more women in business boardrooms, in politics and at university, but equality with men in many areas has not yet been achieved. They are still not paid equally when compared with their male counterparts and, globally, women’s education, health and violence against them is worse than that of men.

Women have achieved much in the male-dominated world of politics. They have become presidents and prime ministers and are more influential in the world’s legislatures. Hilary Clinton has advanced from being a president’s wife to become the US Secretary of State. In Britain, there have been great efforts to increase the number of women members of parliament.

Margaret Thatcher was unique in that she led the Conservative Party for 15 years and was prime minister for 11 of those. She is the only woman to have held either post.

After the landslide victory which brought New Labour and Tony Blair to power in 1997, a total of 101 women Labour MPs entered parliament and were known as Blair Babes.

They were photographed smiling and waving but, over the ensuing years, many became disillusioned and left politics.

Now, for the 2010 General Election, Labour, in an effort to guarantee a greater female presence in the House of Commons, has invoked all-women selection lists of candidates.

Politicians’ wives are also being dragged into the fray, appearing on television and giving newspaper interviews. They are expected to behave like first ladies, making speeches and appearing at party conferences, gazing adoringly at their husbands.

The first to do so was Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister’s wife. She was already a prominent PR executive when she married Gordon and has certainly greatly contributed to improving his previously dour and gloomy public image.

This has prompted the Conservative leader, David Cameron, to launch his wife, Samantha, into the public arena. Both women have given highly-creditable performances, but there is a growing feeling of unease amongst the public. Aren’t we in danger of going back to the bad old days when women were just ‘accessories’, instead of gaining prominence in their own right? Doesn’t Sarah Brown, talking openly and emotionally about the death of their newly-born daughter, after 10 days in intensive care, wonder whether doing so somehow demeans her? Samantha Cameron tries to convince us that husband, Dave, despite his old-Etonian upbringing is just an ordinary bloke at heart, helping with household chores and bringing up their family. Does that mean he would make a good prime minister?

Without doubt, the emergence from the shadows of President Obama’s wife, Michelle, greatly helped his election campaign, and President Sarkozy of France has benefited from the public role played by his wife, former model and singer Carla Bruni.

These two women have contributed to the current situation in Britain, but I wonder how many potential women voters can identify with them. There is a growing feeling that women are being misunderstood.

Certainly, they don’t all rate a high-salaried position as a priority. A new survey shows that most would prefer to combine looking after their family with a part-time job. They value home and family life above a career. Maybe surprisingly, these women feel that the ‘femocracy’ of women in power does not apply to them.

If you are a woman who puts career first, it’s a sobering thought that one in four of the 100 major registered companies does not have any women on its board and there are just four female chief executives among them.

Of the remainder, there are 113 female directors, compared with 947  men. If asked, in which country would you think women are offered the greatest business opportunities?

The answer is India. In the financial sector, the banks RBS, UBS, HSBC and JP Morgan Chase are all run by women and they comprise half the number of deputy governors of the Reserve Bank of India. So what makes India different? The answer is that it has a greater social network than many so-called developed countries.

A career woman there knows she has the backing of a large joint family and also has household staff available.

In Britain, this support is not available to most career women, who have to rely on paid childcare, subsidised, if necessary, by the state.

It’s understandable that an increasing number of them want to look after their own children, even if it means not becoming a high-flyer, who seems closer in gender to her male counterpart. On the other hand, she can always move to India.