Just listening on the wireless to a promo for a Literary Lunch with the best-named spy ever, Stella Rimington. The announcer described how she had been the first ever female head of MI5, and her prestigious career in counterterrorism intelligence. And then he informed us that she was “a mother of two”, and how she had had to juggle “the two most difficult jobs in the world, battling terrorism and being a mum”.
I wish I could just say “patronising little shit”, which was my first impulse, but apparently Dame Stella’s book is actually about combining her career with motherhood. For a woman of her generation this was a most iconoclastic step to take, so her experiences certainly should have some interest, but does the world really need yet another book concentrating on the battle of working mothers to be there for their kids as well while there are so few books on the battle of working fathers to be there for their kids too? Especially as not a few people have pointed out that far from being a feminist role-model and mentor, Rimington, like Thatcher, was more about the exceptionalism of succeeding as a woman in a man’s world, and made no especial efforts to address gender issues in the secret service generally.
Still, the focus which dominated the promo on how well she handled the double-shift annoyed me. Earlier I’d heard Pru Goward say[paraphrasing]:
If gender equality in the workplace does nothing but raise expectations of women with respect to the double shift, then feminism will not have benefited women as it intended.
So, to my first thoughts: are we ever going to get to the stage where an accomplished woman can have her career and achievements discussed without it being required that we know whether she is also a “real woman” who has opened up her womb? Who knows how many kids Gough Whitlam has? Richard Branson? There is more than a little speculation in the publishing world that Dame Stella has latched on to the gender prism through which to present her memoirs simply as a point of difference to other spying memoirs rather than as a genuinely committed reflection on gender issues.
Second thoughts: no mother would ever say that being a mum is easy, but “the most difficult job in the world”? Puh-lease. This is just yet another way of men patting women on the head and saying “oh, what you do is so hard, I could never do it as well as you, so I won’t bother doing more than chuck a ball around every now and then”.
Third thoughts: Pru Goward’s points about the ubiquity of the double-shift are well-made. Whilever workplaces can continue to rely on women falling into the double-shift while men just don’t insist on family-friendly policies, the work-family imbalance will continue to eat away at gender egalitarianism.
Categories: gender & feminism