Darts, dogs and dusting

September 8, 1995

As the United Nations' Women's Conference in Beijing propels gender issues to the top of the international agenda, Stella Hughes (right) describes the fury in France ignited by perceived male domination of women's studies, John Davies (left) looks at how the British Association is preparing to tackle the changing roles of men and Sue Wheat (below) reports on how a bank manager became an idol for thousands of Bangladeshi women.

When the national dailies come to report on the papers given at this year's British Association meeting in Newcastle, it is a fairly safe bet that the session entitled "Families: Behind the Headlines" will get its share of coverage. The family is, after all, a common cause of concern these days.

But what will their headlines be concentrating on? Could it be that elusive phenomenon, the New Man, however defined? For Norman Dennis, whose paper is entitled "Men's Lib: Has it Happened?", the new man is someone who "has been released from the expectation that he will be responsible as the head of a family". Such a figure is central to his argument that the social changes of the past 30 to 40 years have meant a diminishing masculine role, an "increasing number of self-centred individuals without responsibility", and thus an increase in lawlessness.

In general, single fathers, in his view, are bad for society. "We talk about families without fatherhood, but what about fathers without 'familyhood'?" asks Dennis, until recently reader in social studies at the University of Newcastle. "In other societies adult men have had a considerable contribution to make as sociological as well as biological fathers." "It is poppycock", he adds, to claim that it makes no difference whether a child grows up with one or two parents.

A different view will be put to the BA by Peter Selman, head of Newcastle's social policy department, who will be speaking on "The Relationship Revolution" and its implications. "Norman's raised some very important issues - he and I have had an on-going dialogue for some time - and I do think there is a very real problem," says Selman. "Men have to adjust to the fact that women are now more economically independent, and want to have a career." He will be looking at two particular changes in the past 40 years: the increase in marriage breakdown, and the growth of non-marital cohabitation, comparing this with Scandinavia "which experienced a move towards this pattern much earlier than we did". There, he argues, "a lot of the changes were initially seen not simply in terms of the end of the traditional family, but also that people would no longer want to have children - the population would collapse and all that sort of thing. But in Europe now the only country apart from Ireland that has a fertility rate above replacement level is Sweden."

In Selman's view, the new relationship patterns are "rooted in the changing role of women, in the ability we have to control reproduction. We have to come to terms with (them), and with a diversity of family typesI New types of family need particular forms of support. But what we can't do is operate a penalising system, stigmatising certain types of family as unacceptable because of the costs to children."

Meanwhile, what of the more common use of the phrase "new man", the male who is said to be muscling in on traditional female areas like childcare and housework? Selman's Newcastle colleagues Jane Wheelock and Susan Baines will tell the BA that such a phenomenon can be detected even in an "unexpected" area such as North-east England. "The North-east really has a rather macho reputation," says Wheelock, whose research into "who does what in the household when men become unemployed but their wives continue to work", was conducted on Wearside. "There was not complete role reversal," she goes on. "But what did come aross was a move towards more husbands and wives working together in the jobs that needed doing around the house, and in the bringing up of children."

Wheelock recalls a comment from one of her respondents. "He said that a few years back if you went down the club - which is very much a male preserve - you'd never hear anyone talking about housework. But now you actually have conversations about vacuuming." Wheelock, who together with Baines will also be reporting on current research on how families have been affected when husbands have started up businesses from home, is cautious about jumping to conclusions about role change.

"It's a slow process. Obviously in the economy as a whole we've got more households where both spouses are working and also a lot where men are not working. But some of the men not working were completely distraught (at the loss of a job). Many commented, 'Yes, we do get satisfaction out of taking more of a family role, we appreciate getting to know our children more. But it's not a complete substitute for being a breadwinner'."


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