Books: Kitchen Think ; A (Male) Academic Argues That Girls Should Be Allowed to Embrace a Domestic Destiny. Anne Phillips Begs to Differ

By Phillips, Anne | The Independent (London, England), August 24, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Books: Kitchen Think ; A (Male) Academic Argues That Girls Should Be Allowed to Embrace a Domestic Destiny. Anne Phillips Begs to Differ


Phillips, Anne, The Independent (London, England)


JAMES TOOLEY'S book falls within a recognisable genre of "backlash" literature. He opens with the unhappiness of women who devoted their twenties to the delights of being single and the pursuit of a career, only to find in their thirties and forties that husband and children have escaped them. Bridget Jones figures large here.

Enlisting en route such unlikely allies as Simone de Beauvoir to testify to women's yearning for domestic fulfilment, Tooley trips through the hunter-gatherer societies of the Pleistocene period to establish the essential differences between women and men. The feminist campaign against the housewife has ignored crucial evidence about what makes women happy. Tooley calls for a new approach to the education of girls and boys.

The details of this approach are pretty undeveloped: free educational institutions from the fetters of the Sex Discrimination Act; stop insisting that boys and girls must study the same range of subjects; stop fretting about why there aren't more girls doing science and maths. I take it that the main practical implication would be to drop the requirement for all pupils up to 16 to study maths, English and science: not an obviously desirable outcome, but also too small a conclusion to justify a whole book.

Tooley's larger project is to halt the march of "equality feminism". If women value the private world of domesticity and motherhood, and men, public achievements in arts, literature, politics, philosophy and sport, then so be it. There's nothing wrong with gender stereotyping so long as each sex's choices are equally valued.

This is not a new debate. What's interesting is why we never get beyond it. In the Twenties, Eleanor Rathbone derided the "me-too" feminism that focused on getting women equal access to professions, and never noticed that most women's lives were dominated by motherhood. Lest Tooley recruit her, Rathbone was scathing about the inequalities visited on women in the distribution of family income and power, and shared none of his romanticism about men as protectors and providers.

In the Eighties, feminists revisited the relationship between public and private to develop radical proposals about patterns of employment that would enable both sexes to establish a better balance between parenting and work. The assumption of this last, of course, is that the unhappiness generated by having to "choose" between children and job is experienced by both sexes - and that the solutions lie in a more equitable division of both work and care.

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