Magazine article The Spectator

A Feminist Footnote

Magazine article The Spectator

A Feminist Footnote

Article excerpt

When the definitive social history of late 20th-century Britain is written, a statistic released this week may be identified as the footnote that marked the end of feminism. In September, for the first time, there were more women in paid employment than men. Eve pipped Adam by a mere 12,000 jobs, but a milestone was passed nonetheless.

The male breadwinner bringing home the Hovis for a wife chained to the Hoover is passing into historical record. But can the doughty feminist warriors, veterans of the sex war, hang up their pens and retire, confident of a job well done?

Not according to a new report from the Policy Studies Institute. Women are paid less than men for comparable jobs, are less likely to win promotion, and, having reached a certain height in organisations, find their progress impeded by a glass ceiling created, apparently, by a male chauvinist closed shop at the top. Women, argue the feminist front line, need positive discrimination more than ever.

It would be naive to argue that discrimination in the workplace does not exist. But the war against it has largely been won. Not only do women now expect to work, but their labour is required to keep the British economy going. Women have met the growing demand for flexible workers in the service sector, often taking jobs which their husbands, fathers and brothers were not prepared to accept. Today the fairer sex dominates the base of the labour market pyramid, and in time more and more will work their way to its apex.

But the success of women in the workplace has not been matched by changes in other parts of British society. In the home, wives and mothers are still expected to play a traditional domestic role, even if they earn more and work harder than their husbands. No law can enforce sexual equality in the kitchen and bedroom, and some men, masculinity threatened at work, overcompensate in their family life. Men are still learning to accept that they no longer live in a hunter-gatherer society, and that their identity is not dependent on being the sole household breadwinner.

Government also has lessons to learn. In the Eighties, the tax and benefit system was reformed to take account of sexual equality, with the introduction of independent taxation for women. Two-earner couples have been left better off, but traditional families, often at the lower end of the income scale, have lost out. At present, there is no sign that politicians from any party are prepared to face up to the contradictions between a commitment to sexual equality, support for the family, and help for the poor. …

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