Better Late Than Never
March 12, 2019
As a teenager and self-proclaimed militant feminist, it was simple to fight the patriarchy; I just had to pick fights with my father.
Why, yes, it is a Guardian article. Specifically, A Feminist’s Guide to Raising Boys by Bibi van der Zee.
In the 1970s, from my child’s-eye point of view, it seemed pretty much agreed that boys and girls were essentially the same; it was just society that turned us into “boys” and “girls.” Simone de Beauvoir had said: “One is not born a woman but, rather, becomes a woman,” and the whole planet had nodded in agreement, and that was that.
Readers of a certain age may find that their memories of the 70s, and of boys and girls being supposedly interchangeable, and of the whole planet nodding at this conceit, are somewhat different.
In the early years of my career in journalism, being a woman was no brake on being able to work as late, be paid as little and drink as much as any of the male reporters I knew. Then I had sons. It may sound naïve, but I hadn’t really thought about how that would work. I had a vague plan that… my life would more or less carry on as before.
It does sound a tad unrealistic.
This was not what I had expected… Because I was the one with the womb and the mammary glands, I would be the one carrying the children and then feeding them.
At which point, readers may wish to remind themselves that Ms van der Zee writes political commentary, and guides to activism and protesting, in order to share her insights with the world.
It was a startling window into other times and worlds, where, if you had no birth control and your body belonged to your husband by law, then you could just be impregnated over and over again, side-lined and kept at home.
Ah, yes. The modern marriage.
Suddenly my feminism was visceral.
An intensification brought about by the realisation that babies and small children generate quite a lot of laundry and disorder, and require feeding, bathing and near-continual attention. And by the fact that, if your husband is the main breadwinner, his work will tend to take priority over your own attempts at freelance journalism. In short, that, as a parent, a mother, one’s life will not in fact carry on as before.
And so, complications ensue:
Looking back, there were a lot of things I should have talked more about to the boys. Many of my friends turn out to have strategised. One friend said: “Make it normal to bring up topics around the table – talk about Brett Kavanaugh, the middle-class white male dominance of government, pornography, social media, talk about strong women and men.” Someone else admitted to “constant nagging on my part about how to treat women, with the occasional lecture on systemic patriarchy.”
Lectures on systemic patriarchy. Also, eat your vegetables.
At one meal, when I tried to explain to a table of men and boys why #MeToo was a necessary act of mass civil disobedience, how the ideal of a rule of law actually shielded white men and protected the status quo… The meaning of rule of law was explained to me… it all fell apart… I lost it and walked away in tears.
When the boys were small… their boy-ness made me doubt what I’d always believed – that it’s nurture, not nature, that underneath, all humans are basically the same. But it was impossible not to notice how differently they behaved to some of the girls we knew.
It occurs to me that feminism could be seen as a kind of doctrinaire retardation – one that often seems to necessitate a lot of subsequent correction and belated catching-up.
None of them ever wanted to go clothes shopping with me. And they absolutely weren’t up for a romcom on a rainy Sunday afternoon either.
It also occurs to me that to be shocked by differences in how boys and girls often behave, as Ms van der Zee admitted in an earlier Guardian article - such that “even the suggestion” of innate gender differences, now clearly visible, “felt like sedition,” indeed “revolutionary” - again suggests a practised, almost farcical, denial of reality. One that in turn prompts a suspicion that perhaps one shouldn’t be quite so credulous regarding feminist claims of How Things Really Are.
Happily, and despite heated mealtime lectures on the evils of white men, Ms van der Zee’s children seem surprisingly well-adjusted:
My eldest son, Sam, now 17, likes to talk about films or tell me amazing facts about the stars and the universe. My middle boy is a great cook; we’ve spent hours covered in flour together. My youngest, Joe, is obsessed with music, and some of the happiest times of my life have been spent playing YouTube jukebox with him. They like some of the things I like and not others. It’s almost as if they’re… individuals?
They may yet turn out to be oppressive, patriarchal monsters, but the signs are pretty well submerged for now.