Women behaving badly for the good

October 26, 2001

Lisa Jardine chairs a discussion between Fay Weldon and Elaine Showalter on the women's movement - past, present and future. Karen Gold listens in

Lisa Jardine: Can you remember, Fay, when you discovered what a struggle making it as a woman was going to be?Fay Weldon: I don't think I ever tried to make it as a woman. I just tried to earn a living. And earning a living was extremely difficult. I got a scholarship to university, I got a first in economics and then I became a waitress because this was what you did. Even as a waitress they were very suspicious of you, because you had been three years without stamps and they thought I had been in prison. It didn't occur to them that women went to university.

Jardine: Was it different for you, Elaine, in the United States?

Elaine Showalter: The turning point of my life as a young woman was being disowned by my family. When I told them I was going to marry the man I am still married to (we were different religions), they said "we will cut you off without a cent" and I said "fine" and that was it. It was pretty dramatic but, on another level, it was very liberating at 21 not to have a family to answer to.

When I was young, I read all these biographies of great Americans that said you can achieve whatever you want and, although at times I think this is a very naive idea, I believed it. And that was how I felt about feminism and the women's movement and starting women's studies in the universities. I thought: "This has got to work, it is just a great idea, there is no way it can't succeed."

Jardine: What has changed? Can a mother be a top scientist?

Weldon: If you want to be a top scientist you probably don't have children. I'm sure you have the ability and qualities, but you are not likely to have the time.

Showalter: I am always an optimist. At my university, Princeton, the new president, Shirley Tilghman, is a scientist and a single parent of two and she is a top scientist by any standards. I think it will always make a difference to be a mother, but I don't think it will be an obstacle forever. Science can change, probably will change, and by the next generation this probably won't be a question that people ask.

Although the world has been transformed for western women in all kinds of amazing ways, the child care and child rearing has not been so transformed. I read Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions and I really could appreciate the things she was saying about the lack of childcare arrangements and support systems in the community. They are no more extensive than they were before, except that now women feel guilty about having nannies.

Weldon: But for most women, child care is shoving some child's stiff arm into a coat that hardly fits it any more, on an icy morning, and getting it to child care with a lot of other children equally distressed and confused. I don't know how you are going to change that. You are still handing your child over to another person to look after and this happens more and more, almost to the kibbutzing of our children.

Jardine: Fay, I'm amazed at this. Why is it proper to raise them yourself? I've raised three gorgeous children; I didn't raise any of them by myself. I farmed them out on childminders.

Showalter: Me too.

Weldon: But you could probably afford it. I tended to farm them at home. But bringing up children used to be a great deal easier than it is today because you just put them in a pram at the bottom of the garden and forgot them. They slept a long time because they were so bored, and you didn't spend your time developing their intellect and giving them piano lessons, you just let them grow up. My worry is that parenting ceases to be an issue and will wither away as fewer and fewer women have children, especially in the professional classes.

Showalter: I do think a lot of women who decide not to have children make that decision because they just can't see how they would handle it. I think that is too bad because otherwise they might not make that choice. It is the main issue to be tackled.

Jardine: I think a problem in the way the women's movement taught women to have higher expectations, to take control of their own lives, is that nobody is in control of their own lives. I see this with my graduating students: it is still the case that the young men simply expect to go into a job, while the girls are saying: "I want a job that is satisfying, I want a job that does this, I want a job that does that." And you get this clutching feeling in your heart and you want to say to them: "Just get a job."

It doesn't upset me that women don't want to be angry and in a movement, because their experiences really are very different from ours. I actually think that young women should enjoy the fact that there can be more diversity in what they want to do with their lives. We did do some things that were boringly repetitive. Every time I went anywhere when I was 20 I had to be the first one. I was the first woman to do this, the first to do that, and each time you had to be better than the men - not equal to them but better - better behaved, better dressed, nicer, awake for longer hours, writing more articles.

Showalter: I think if there is another women's movement, the women who are saying they are not feminists would probably be part of it.

I try to imagine the kind of world that the Taliban have to offer and I have to tell you I would learn to fly a jet plane and drive a tank. If you were suddenly told there was to be a government that would take away your rights, forbid you to be educated, forbid you to work, forbid you to leave the house, a lot of women would be out there fighting back.

Karen Gold: Are there things you would do differently if you were starting again?

Showalter: In terms of the women's movement, I thought what we did was amazing and I wouldn't change anything.

I would write more for the general public rather than an academic audience. I think academic feminism much too quickly became cut off from the mainstream. With the theoretical movement in the 1970s there was a great deal of pressure to write in those terms and it was very, very hard work and I think it wasted a lot of time.

Jardine: At times all three of us have been quite badly behaved. Is bad behaviour a necessary ingredient to succeed as a woman?

Weldon: When I wrote The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, which was about a woman who really did behave badly, it seemed to me listening to my married friends in the middle of divorces or bringing up their children, that they were behaving incredibly well. People around them could take no moral responsibility simply because they knew that this person would actually look after the children. That still remains: if you look at professional people caring for their parents, on the whole it is the women because they can't stand the pain of behaving badly. I'm not advocating behaving badly actually, just not too excessively well.

Showalter: I think my students now are much braver and much more assertive than I was. Things that my generation used to stew over for days and weeks, and had to workshop with each other and tentatively came up with a solution, they don't have to think about at all. They just act out of a strong sense of self, and I think that's a legacy of the women's movement.

Weldon: But how are the male students doing?

Showalter: The male students seem to be fine. I think it's very much exaggerated that men are suffering. I think there has always been a problem with little boys, especially in school. But I think we live in a culture where women are still much harder on themselves than they are on men.

Jardine: Is there a danger that because we feel certain things have been lost as well as gained, that we might be saying to the next generation don't go there, look after the boys again?

Weldon: Would that women would listen. There is a sort of demonisation of men in women's minds. You see it in the ads on TV, in which men are portrayed as ignorant, clumsy, aggressive, buffoons who smile sheepishly. And the women seldom smile but always put the men down. I think you have to see men as an endangered species. What most young men want is the love of a good woman, and that's what they can't get.

They have been brought up by women, all their testosterone qualities have been curtailed. This is why the girls are having difficulty getting steady boyfriends and you have the 30s singletons like Bridget Jones. The girls want their boyfriends to behave like girlfriends. Testosterone behaviour isn't being aggressive and beating everybody up, it is practical attention to practical matters and a disinclination to talk about the film you've just seen, which girls find intolerable.

Gold: But men are still in charge?

Weldon: That's because women have babies. As women don't have babies, women are increasingly in charge. What we learn from the women's movement is that, if too much energy goes on gender issues, it suits the consumer society. It keeps the women competing: working harder, longer hours, competition all the time - between women to do as well as men, to outdo men, so we all become wage slaves.

Gold: What happened to the idea that if women ran the world it would be more supportive, less competitive?

Weldon: We got Mrs Thatcher. Power and gender are unrelated, because women are as competitive as men and as territorial as men. Though they do get meetings finished quicker, because they've got to get home to look after the children.

This is an edited transcript of a discussion between Fay Weldon, Lisa Jardine and Elaine Showalter at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and interviews with Karen Gold.

Fay Weldon and Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter, Born in Massachusetts 1941

First book: Women's Liberation and Literature (1971), published while teaching at Rutgers University. Subsequent works include: A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bront to Lessing (1977), Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1999) and Inventing Herself: An Exploration of Feminist Intellectuals from Wollstonecraft to Winfrey (2001).

Since 1984: Avalon Foundation professor of the humanities at Princeton University. Has a daughter and a son.

Fay Weldon, Born in England 1933. Brought up in New Zealand by mother and grandmother. Worked as a journalist and advertising copywriter before publishing her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, in 1968.

Novels, short stories and non-fiction works include: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)

The Cloning of Joanna May (1990)

Big Girls Don't Cry (1997)

The Bulgari Connection (2001).

Has four sons.

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