Glad confident morning should it be – to adapt Robert Browning – for a young woman studying at Oxford, or indeed any other university in the year 2009. And yet, for the first time in 30 years, I begin to wonder whether the clock is turning back and that far from being glad or confident, young women should start to worry.
I look back 30 years because it was then that I left Oxford, confident that even the last bastions of the male establishment were crumbling in the face of feminism. Well, maybe to those of us wearing dungarees who spent too much time in “consciousness raising” sessions, the decision by five Oxford colleges to admit women seemed more significant than it was. But at the time it appeared momentous – the first five colleges, surely, would soon be followed by all the rest, and Oxford would become a genuinely co-educational place.
And so it did, but as women entered further education as equals, and then politics and then the City – there was the inevitable backlash. Now instead of smashing through glass ceilings, today’s young students must be feeling the ceilings being lowered upon them.
There are signs of the post-feminist backlash everywhere: only recently, Jill Berry, President of the Girls School Association declared bluntly that “modern women can’t have it all” and seemed to suggest that any woman considering having children might as well give up any hope of an interesting career.
I’ll be the first to admit, as Berry claims, that it’s tough “keeping all the plates spinning” . But I certainly don’t agree that you can’t aim for the top as well as bringing up a family. The exceptions to her rule are simply too numerous to mention, including Helen Alexander, President of the CBI, Jana Bennett, Number 3 at the BBC, or Paula Radcliffe, world champion marathon runner.
And then even when they do reach the top, there will always be carping. So Baroness Ashton – recently appointed as Europe’s High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs has her reputation trashed immediately: she must have been the fourth choice; she only got the job because she is a woman and so on. Yet almost everyone who has worked with her either at Westminster or in Brussels has been extremely impressed with her understated yet well-briefed diligence.
Even more alarming is the reaction to David Cameron’s attempt to bring his party into the 21st century. Rightly ashamed of the Conservative’s poor record, Cameron has, from the start, sought to increase the number of women MPs. Under his leadership a lot more female candidates have been selected and depending on the size of his majority (assuming he wins), there could be up to 60 conservative women MPs in the next parliament.
Yet there’s a backlash here too, with the neatly named “Turnip Taleban” of local Tory activists trying to deselect Elizabeth Truss in Norfolk because she had failed to mention an affair. More turnips are popping up in other constituencies too, with activists in Central Suffolk and Beckenham also apparently reluctant to help Cameron change his party’s image.
The turnips have been given encouragement by the Tory MP Anne Widdecombe who predicts there will be a “whole tier of second class citizens” if David Cameron has his way. She somehow manages to ignore the large numbers of “second class” male MPs who have sat on the famous green benches for years, without achieving much at all except an honours degree in fiddling expenses.
Individual women must, of course, make their own decisions about the right balance between work and family. The Observer’s former political editor, Gaby Hinsliff, stepped down from her high profile job recently, saying she wasn’t seeing enough of her young son. That’s fine – but let’s not forget that she had many rewarding years at the top of her profession. And there’s no reason at all why she shouldn’t return to a top job as her family grows up.
Yes, juggling the plates is hard work. But then women have always been brilliant at multi-skilling. Just because there may be some years when the career is put on hold, that’s no reason for women not to aim high – glad, confident and ambitious.