Oh, c’mon.

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


7 replies

  1. One has to be careful when tackling someone named Stella Rimington – there’s no telling where she’s going to pop up; or parachute from, or scuba-dive under, or ski through… Thatcherite similarities aside, what a fantastic name for a spy!

  2. Check out all of the fawning rhetoric around Fiona Wood.
    “Dr Fiona Wood is a dynamo. Dr Wood packs more into one day than most people could fit into a week. A mother of six, a plastic surgeon, Director of the Royal Perth Hospital Burns Unit and has a cell culture business that employs 20 people.”
    “In January the mother of six was made Australian of the Year.”
    “2005 Australian of the Year, Western Australia’s only female plastic surgeon is a mother of six, Head of Royal Perth Hospital’s Burns Unit and Director of the Western Australia Burns Service.”
    “In this programme Dr Wood with great charm and humour of how she juggles her busy professional life, her considerable sporting activities and raising her six children.”
    “It was the mother of six’s second nomination for the award,…”

  3. I certainly don’t want to hate on women as fully rounded as Dr Wood, goodon’er, but if she was Frank instead of Fiona the number of children would be five paragraphs down the body of the article, not in the opening paragraph.
    If she was Frank, it would just be assumed that the spouse was pulling the familial weight in that household. But because she’s Fiona, apparently her husband still leaves it to her? Or else their relationship is being misrepresented by the press, and he’s not getting credit for what he does as primary carer for their children.

  4. tig – it’s a media con – these wonderwomen are always from the upper middle class ascendency with generations of money and education behind them.
    No one mentions the paid cleaners, nannys and even cooks they employ. The majority, like england’s royals will have their babies presented to them at 6 pm clean, fed and pacified for an hour of play, then whisked away again for some emotional interaction by the devoted carers.

  5. Good post Tigtog. I don’t have anything to add really except to say I too find this so frustrating.

  6. Neat post Tt, but maybe you’re pushing it the wrong way.
    Wouldn’t you like to know how many kids Gough or Branson has? That is, shouldn’t we be raising (broadening?)expectations for everyone, rather than the opposite?
    The solution? Duo-biographies (Can i say Duography without stripping away the important part of the word?) Stella and her hubby pen alternate chapters, unless of course FXH is right and it’s all a con. In which case we need to find better role models.
    Hmm… i’ll leave questions of ideal forms of family (or the lack of importance thereof,) for another time.

  7. Fair point, Mikey. I actually would be happier if it were standard journalese to always mention how many children a person had, although then what about the childless? There is a perception still of selfishness if one is childless, whether by choice or not.
    Either way, keeping the number of offspring out of the first few paragraphs would be a good start, methinks.

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