Feminism and having babies

I’ve been thinking about feminism after reading some of the posts on Oz Conservative (here and here). I also have in mind Cherry Ripe’s excellent post on the importance of feminism. Am I a feminist? What is feminism? Does it necessarily mean that you need to hate men? Is feminism important?

First, I want to define my terms. There are a few different types of feminism, and I want to be clear about the different strands.

  1. Strict equality feminism: there is no difference between men and women. Women should be treated in exactly the same way as men are. They are exactly like men in all respects.
  2. Feminism combined with “affirmative action”: where there is a choice between an equally talented man and a woman, we should choose a woman because of the difficulties suffered by women in our society. Women should be treated differently by the law as well, because they struggle under a disadvantage.
  3. Biological feminism: Men and women are fundamentally different. Women are more caring and connected than men.
  4. Radical feminism: Our culture is permeated by the patriarchy. Men have the power, and they seek to limit the ways in which women can exercise their power and intelligence. Women must overthrow the patriarchal paradigm.

Where do I stand? If you had asked me before I knew much about the male species (during my shy teenage years), I would have said that there was no difference between men and women, and that each should be treated equally. However, now that I am married and have watched my male cousins grow up, I would say that there are large differences between the way in which men and women operate. This is a generalisation, and of course there is a spectrum of male and female behaviour. Also, some individuals do not fit into the stereotype. One of the most misogynist individuals of my acquaintance is a woman.

I am afraid that I abhor the view that women are more caring and connected than men. Whoever came up with that one obviously did not go to an all girls’ school. Sometimes women can be far more manipulative and cruel than men. I’ve already talked about schoolyard politics in a previous post: if boys are bullies, they tend to be physical, whereas girls tend to be psychological bullies.

In the workplace, I would like my intellect and skills to be viewed without regard to my gender. I am the equal of any male lawyer. This is where feminism is really important. I hate it when nasty male solicitors or barristers just write me off because I am a young woman. Although, I suppose it is to their disadvantage to underestimate me: more fool them! Heh heh heh.

The hard thing, sometimes, is to get a foot in the door. I remember my mother telling me how she won a prize for Chemistry at university. The company who awarded her the prize later interviewed her for a job as a laboratory scientist. “Perhaps we could get you a menial job in the lab”, she was told. She said that she was excellent in the laboratory, and could do better than that. She didn’t get the job. At another job interview, she wasn’t considered because she might have to climb up ladders on site, and men might look up her skirt. All I can say is: thank God that feminism has changed attitudes and behaviours in this respect. I cannot imagine the same thing happening today. To write off intelligent and capable people just because they happen to be female is short-sighted in the extreme. Our society will suffer if it does not take advantage of what intelligent and capable women have to offer.

I’m not a big fan of “affirmative action”. If someone appointed me to a position based on affirmative action, I’d turn it down. I don’t want to be appointed because I’m female. I want to be appointed because I’m the best for the job! I am afraid I’m arrogant. I guess I’m also a strong believer that people should be appointed on merit. This is why I hate office politics: all I want is to do my job and do it well, and be promoted on that basis.

Why do I identify as a feminist? I strongly believe that women are individual human beings with as much right to participate in society as men. Women are not intrinsically sinful, and should not be forced to cover themselves up any more than men should be (see post on burqas). In Australia, married women were not allowed to own property until the 1890s – 1900s. Women did not usually get an opportunity to go to university. Australian women did not get the vote until 1902 (excluding, of course, Aboriginal women). I strongly believe that women should not have to put up with rape, sexual assault or physical violence. It is not excusable to say a woman was asking for it (see post on Sheikh Hilaly). I also believe that women should not be subject to practices such as female circumcision (aka genital mutilation) or suttee (where a widow is forcibly burnt on her husband’s funeral pyre). Women should not be forced into marriages (any more than men should be). Nor should women be treated as property. I despise cases such as R v Dincer [1983] 1 VR 460, in which a Turkish Muslim man killed his 16 year old daughter because she had sexual relations with a man. The accused pleaded the defence of provocation. The judge directed the jury to consider whether the accused’s conduct was reasonable within the context of his cultural background. The suggestion is that the girl was her father’s property, to be given to a man he chose, and that this is allowable through notions of “cultural relativism”.

What about Australia today? I am so lucky. I can own property, I can vote, I can marry whomever I chose, I can go to university, I can work anywhere, I can walk up ladders with skirts on, I can do just about whatever I choose. And I am really glad that our society is like this. It seems like most of the institutional barriers have been overthrown.

I’m not sure what “overthrowing the patriarchy” means. If it means encouraging women and men to be valued as equal human beings, both capable of contributing to society, and both capable of leading useful and independent lives, then I’m all for it. If it means hating men, devaluing the opinions of men, or turning our society into a matriarchy, then it seems just as evil as what it seeks to replace.

It cannot be denied, however, that there is one really fundamental biological difference between men and women. Women are childbearers. Feminism has sought to ignore this issue. Anyone who says it might affect women’s capability is howled down. Just put your child in childcare, and put your nose back to that grindstone, woman! Having children doesn’t make a difference. Well, I’m afraid that it does make a difference to what I can do.

When I was pregnant, I was amazed by how exhausting it was. It’s hard work making a human being from scratch. Others I know have had easier pregnancies, but I was sick and tired, and had a few complications. I admit that I couldn’t work with the same effectiveness as I did before I was pregnant. I ended up finishing work early, thanks to the sensible advice from a (male) boss, who said that nothing was more important than my health and my baby’s health.

Once I had my baby, all thoughts of career went out the window for at least 4 months. All my priorities changed, and they remain changed. My main priority is spending time with my dear little girl. That being said, I do enjoy my work and the chance to use my brain. I’m working two afternoons at the office, as well as working from home. I will still make a valuable contribution to my workplace, but it’s certainly a lot less than it would be if I were single and childless. And I can’t deny that. So I won’t advance as quickly as a woman who doesn’t have children or a woman who choses to put her child in full time childcare, which is fair enough. Childcare is an absolute nightmare, but that’s a subject for another post. Ideally, my husband and I would like to share the responsibility of caring for our girl, but it’s better that at least one of us has a decent income.

I note in the post in Oz Conservative, the UK Friends Reunited site found that women who went to university were twice as likely to be childless as women who did not go to university. Why? I can only speak from my own experience. Getting a degree took time and concentration. I got married a few years after I graduated and qualified as a lawyer. After a few years in practice, the biological clock was ticking. I had to make a choice: career or child? I was just establishing my career, but I really didn’t want to leave it too late. And thanks to commentators such as Virginia Haussegger, I knew not to be complaisant about having a child. So I chose child over career. And I’m glad that I did.

As a result of feminism, I think we now have a generation of woman who, for various reasons, were encouraged to sideline having children. Now that’s fine if you don’t want to have children. Women should be entitled to choose not to have children. But other women do want to have children: they just leave it too late, or can’t find a partner. I believe that in some respects, feminism has not served women well. Feminism has broken down nasty institutional hurdles in our society. It has caused us to question notions that women are intrinsically sinful or intellectually inferior, for which I am profoundly and eternally grateful. But more recently, in its modern incarnation, it has failed to take account of the fact that women have children, and that this often has an impact on what they can (or want to) achieve in the workplace. I think the low representation of female barristers, CEOs, judges and the like is not due to the patriarchy. Instead, I believe it may be due to the fact that women bear children, and may want to be able to spend time with their children rather than devote themselves 100% to career. Heresy? Then let me be a heretical feminist.


Seems that my instinctive rubbishing of the notion that women are necessarily more “caring and connected” might have some empirical basis after all. Apparently a study has shown that women bosses in the office are more likely to discriminate against other women than men are. It is called the queen bee syndrome.

Well, I’m not surprised, and I don’t think many young professional woman would be surprised either. As a young law student completing a seasonal clerkship, I remember a female partner at a law firm being extremely unpleasant to me; I was told that she had this attitude to all junior women. Another friend of mine suffered significant bullying by other women in her office a while back. She is a very intelligent capable woman. Apparently she represented a threat to the established coterie, especially to one particular woman who started a whispering campaign behind her back. She was so unhappy that she ended up changing jobs, because she couldn’t see that she was going to progress in that environment.

This is not to say that all female bosses are queen bees, or that all women are awful to work with. I have worked with some women who have been fantastic, both as bosses and co-workers. They tend to be the kind of women who will be upfront with you and tell you right out if they have a problem.

So, it seems that the patriarchy is not the only barrier for women. Sometimes women can be their own worst enemies.

(Via J.F. Beck)



Filed under feminism, law, motherhood, politics

8 responses to “Feminism and having babies

  1. missv

    Nice post. I don’t think all feminists have ignored the fact that women are childbearers though. Don’t forget that many women campaigned for maternity leave in Australia in the 1970s and continue to push for the expansion of paid maternity leave. Perhaps a certain proportion of feminists would like to forget women’s childbearing role – but not all.

  2. missv

    You might also find this post interesting.

  3. Stewart

    Legal Eagle,

    I found your post on feminism really refreshing and sensible.

    If this is what feminism is, can I be a feminist too?

  4. Make Tea Not War

    I had similiar experiences working in law firms- some women can be pretty obnoxious to other women. Secretaries and support staff can often be quite difficult to young female law clerks and solicitors too.

    Its interesting you say you’d like your partner and you to be able to share care of your daughter. That is my ideal too & I think one of the remaining battles for feminism is changing the world of work so it is no longer structured around a “male” ideal worker ie. one with no dependents or one with a wife to do the care work. Instead we should all have equal opportunities to both work and care.

    See Joan Williams (an excellent legal feminist) Unbending Gender for a good read on the topic.

  5. Legal Eagle

    Yes, I’ve done a post on legal secretaries and support staff. I hadn’t thought about it before as a gender dynamic problem, but it makes so much sense! None of the men on the same level as me had the same secretarial issues…

    My husband would love to be able to share in the care of our child. I know of other families where they have managed to wangle it so that they can share care, but the problem is that it’s financially precarious.

    I’ll have to have a look at Joan Williams!

  6. Anonymous


    I liked your article. It was well balanced, sensible and thoughtful. I wish we had more women like you in positions of authority- to balance out the likes of G. Greer.

    I realize its probably quite impossible for Australians to consider this- but in many countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia – foreign maids are hired to look after children or to clean the home – whilst the parents go out and work or to free the wife from back breaking house cleaning chores.

    I know of a few Australians who are working in Singapore who prefer to live there – because its easier to hire maids – to look after the kids , cook, and to share the housework. God knows you don’t want to come back from work at the end of the day and think about vaccuming the carpet and preparing dinner.

    Australia has a vast land to manage- if we all sat down and thoughtfully worked out our differences and set aside our ideological and partisan barriers, we’d be able to turn the desert green.

  7. Law Student

    Ali G (aka Sacha Baron Cohen) on Feminism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oftOCN1jkNo


  8. Legal Eagle

    Love the Ali G feminism clip – good to have a bit of a laugh at it all. The thing which really cracks me up is how polite that Professor is (in such a very English way!)

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