Diana Wichtel: We've come a long way

I am woman, hear me whine. It's inevitable there's been a bit of a backlash against feminism. And it's not just coming from people like Leighton Smith, who seem to think it's been all downhill for Western civilisation - or at least for people like Leighton Smith - since the invention of the Pill.

I find I don't like to use the "f" word myself, these days. In fact, I was reluctant to call myself one, even back when it was fashionable. It became tedious blaming the patriarchy for everything. And if all men were rapists, she was going to be a very hard road indeed finding the right one.

So my bra went unburned and I would rather have set my hair on fire than attend those wimmin's DIY gynaecology groups.

Men who took to calling themselves feminists made my fillings ache, especially the former colleague who tried to tell me I was being sexist when I used the word "manhandle" in a story.

Still, we have come a long way, baby, and mostly I'm grateful. But it seems some women have much more serious gripes against the pioneering libbers who dared to suggest we could have it all. "The Sins of Our Feminist Mothers" was the ominous title of an article on the website of the Melbourne newspaper, the Age.

At 39, with a career as a television journalist, Virginia Haussegger is a success story for our post-feminist times, isn't she? Apparently not.

Haussegger blames the feminist ethos in which she grew up for not telling her that a woman needs a man a great deal more than a fish needs a bicycle. At least for some things.

"I'm childless and I'm angry," writes Haussegger. "Angry that I was so foolish [as] to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfillment came with a leather briefcase."

She has a point. I had my first child in my 20s and did time as a 1970s earth mother. But opportunities were opening up for women, change was in the air so I changed. Career, a new relationship, the heady freedoms of the times - I was so busy I nearly forgot to have another baby. Luckily I got my last order in before nature called "time" and shut up shop.

As Haussegger points out, somewhere along the line women got the impression that we could control everything, including our fertility. It turns out we can't. But why blame feminism? When I was having my last-minute baby, it wasn't the sisterhood that was appalled, it was other beleaguered mums telling me I was mad.

Haussegger notes ruefully that in blaming feminists she is putting herself in bed, as it were, with the Australian equivalents of Leighton Smith. But she still insists her cafe-latte, Collette Dinnigan-frocked, too-busy-for-babies lifestyle is all somehow the logical outcome of women getting some basic human rights.

If too many women are heading towards 40, as Haussegger is, partnerless and with biological clocks on red alert, it's probably more to do with the market-driven, look after number one, work all hours, child-unfriendly, youth-obsessed society that has evolved over the past couple of decades.

Watch anything from Sex and the City or Havoc to all those 40-something guys in skate gear and say it isn't so. Why have a house in the 'burbs and a family when you can have disposable income, Botox and an endless, unclouded adolescence?

Feminism is, perhaps, to blame for one thing - being too successful. If women aren't roaring as much as we used to it's because we're too tired and stressed out. "I am woman, hear me whimper." Gloria Steinem never said having it all would be such hard work.

Many of us are pulling in a full-time wage when we're not busy cooking, shopping, ironing, supervising homework, cleaning up cat sick and running the kids around.

Meanwhile, yet another survey comes out alerting us to the fact that Kiwi men still can't clean a toilet. (To be fair, mine manages it ... occasionally.) What do women want? The answer today might well be "a wife".

It's easy to feel resentful, and I often do until I remind myself of what life was like before the bra-burners hit the streets. I remind myself what it was like when my mother arrived back in New Zealand in the 60s with three children.

There was no DPB. She couldn't even rent a house without a relative - male, of course - standing guarantor. Jobs for women were appallingly badly paid, so she worked from 8am to 6pm, six days a week, to barely maintain us. There were no support groups and, in those rigidly conformist times, solo mums were considered suspect or, worse, invisible.

Then there were all the women of my generation who were traumatised by back-street abortions and unplanned pregnancies in a time when "unmarried" came even further down the social order than "solo" when it came to mothers. Many had no choice but to give up their babies for adoption.

Looking back, it was barbaric. Things changed for women not because of some feminazi conspiracy, but because they needed to. Who would ever really want to go back?

Those 70s feminists never guaranteed we could have it all, but they made sure we had some genuine choices. If women like Virginia Haussegger haven't figured out how to make those choices, she shouldn't blame the bra-burners. If I'd missed the baby boat because I was too busy having a lifestyle, I would be angry, too. At myself.

But then, if the song had gone "I am woman, hear me take some beep beep responsibility for my own decisions", none of us would ever have heard of Helen Reddy.

nzherald.co.nz/nzwomen

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