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Woman the barricades, but not the corner office?

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 7 Mar 2012 04:34 GMT
Author: Samantha Nutt
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Samantha Nutt is founder of War Child Canada/USA and author of the Canadian bestseller, Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid. The opinions expressed are her own.

As the feminist movement stirred the imaginings of school girls in the early 1960s, my Scottish grandmother – then an editor at a Toronto-area daily and a feisty woman predisposed to ruling her own roost as well as any within six city blocks – betrayed her daughter’s dreams.

My mother, a diligent and capable student who would be the first in the family to graduate from high school, was instructed to shelve her post-secondary plans and attend secretarial school.

Any money for college or university, my grandmother declared, would be set aside for her only boy (who, as it turned out, had no such plans).  My mother’s younger sisters, when their time came, saw no point in even asking.

Like millions of women of my generation I am, however bittersweet, the beneficiary of such injustice. Resolute that her two daughters would have genuine choices, my mother assiduously rejected any and all gender conventions that might have undermined our potential, real or imagined.

From this domestic pulpit, she preached (and still does) intellect over attractiveness, opinion over deference, and autonomy over feminine sacrifice.  She found prevailing Jackie Kennedy-styled attitudes that “good” women should place men’s ambitions ahead of their own and be the stalwarts of hearth and home to be, thankfully, utter nonsense.

But despite the strides women have made in many parts of the world over the past half century, the confounding social constructs of beauty, youth, wife and mother still remain.  And they are just as hard to overcome.

In North America, women are now free to work inside and outside the home, but neither is without prejudice.

It is still widely presumed, for example, that feminine ambition is incompatible with maternity, and we stand in constant judgment of women’s choices.  “How do you juggle such a busy job and a child?” is a question I am often asked, while my husband never is.

Young women who leave the workplace on maternity leave to have children too often find themselves professionally marginalized, even after less than a year.

The chronic under-representation of women in politics and in executive positions is mistakenly attributed not to the systems that fail to support their personal and professional realities, but to women’s eternal quest for “greater work life balance” (a harmonious place located between Lilliput and Atlantis).

That women are still required to succeed on men’s terms, most pronounced within the corporate and political sectors, is rarely seen as the problem ab initio.

For many, feminism is regrettably now lived in the passive and not in the active sense.

Young women believe that previous generations, with effort and sacrifice, laid the foundation for their full and equal participation. Nothing more is required. But the competitive demands of the modern workplace are just another means of limiting women’s choices, ensuring that women’s desks are typically still found outside, rather than inside, the high paying board rooms and corner offices.  

And now we’re too busy juggling career and kids and home to pick up where our mothers left off.

In other parts of the world, women are wondering how they might wrest their dreams of equality from the dysphoria of revolution.

One year ago in Egypt, women were a galvanizing force in overturning Mubarek’s oligarchy.  But in the aftermath, women’s rights have been largely dismissed by Islamist political factions who now enjoy expanded influence across the country, particularly in rural areas.

In Cairo, female protesters have been subjected to “virginity tests”, and women have been largely excluded from the entire process of constitutional reform.  In Tunisia and Libya, women’s equality is also seen as a secular tradition that enjoyed an awkward association with the wives of fallen dictators and is therefore easily rebuked.

Within these countries as elsewhere, the women’s movement does not speak with a unified voice, often deviates substantively from the liberal traditions of women’s solidarity movements in the global North (limiting their ability to fundraise), and is hampered by a lack of training and experience.

Meanwhile, in the not-so Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Cotes d’Ivoire and elsewhere across Africa, thousands of women are at risk of violent rape and abuse every time they collect water or go in search of food for their children.

And in Afghanistan, efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban are stripping way even the most modest gains in women’s rights.

International Women’s Day reminds us that the women’s movement is unfinished everywhere.  My grandmother, like most Scots, was anchored to her pragmatism. For her, dreams were the playground of the idle.  My mother disagreed.  I’m grateful that she did, but I should not stop there.

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