Monday, August 28, 2006


They are picky about who they will marry, tend to have flings, put off having children to the point of infertility, keep dirty homes and are miserable to boot. So why marry a career woman? The argument that working women make lousy wives was given a new lease of life last week by Forbes, a top American business magazine, prompting a slew of furious protests from women readers. One typical response was that the article was "blood-boilingly misogynistic".

Written by Michael Noer, a senior editor with, it began: "Guys: A word of advice. Marry pretty women or ugly ones. Short ones or tall ones. Blondes or brunettes. Just, whatever you do, don't marry a woman with a career." He went on: "While everyone knows that marriage can be stressful, recent studies have found professional women are more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat, less likely to have children and, if they do have kids, they are more likely to be unhappy about it."

Noer's article was a particularly brutal and highly selective way of summarising recent research, which has revived the long-tarnished concept of the "happy housewife". To many readers it was infuriating that a respected magazine that features female leaders of industry and finance on its covers could publish such "retro-nonsense". Michelle Peluso, chief executive of Travelocity, America's fifth largest travel agency, said: "This article feels like one that would have been behind the times were it published in 1950, never mind 2006."

Gloria Steinem, the pioneering feminist who famously worked as a bunny girl to expose sexism in the 1960s, rallied anew to the cause in, where she praised Forbes sarcastically for "saving many women the trouble of dealing with men who can't tolerate equal partnerships, take care of their own health, clean up after themselves or have the sexual confidence to survive". The glamorous Steinem, however, did not marry until she was 66 and does not have children.

Struggles over issues such as childlessness and fertility, the "mommy wars" between stay-at-home mothers and working women and the alleged misery of wives who try to juggle home and career have become publishing staples, squarely aimed at the women's market. In the tabloids the topic is equally hotly debated. If celebrity magazines are to be believed, the marriage of Hollywood stars Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt foundered partly over Aniston's desire to pursue a film career before babies. Meanwhile, Britney Spears's marriage to the dancer Kevin Federline is under scrutiny because she wears the trousers.

So had Noer provoked a tidal wave of anger by telling a few home truths? And was his chief crime the fact that a man was saying it? It did not help his cause that Noer had previously earned his credentials as a male chauvinist pig with an article on the "economics of prostitution" in which he posed the question, "Wife or Whore? The choice is that simple". Under pressure from staff and readers, Forbes showed a distinct lack of confidence in Noer's latest thesis, which was entitled Don't Marry a Career Woman, by removing the juiciest bits from its website.

A section headlined In Pictures, Nine Reasons to Steer Clear - which included the warning "She is more likely to cheat on you" accompanied by a photograph of a scantily clad woman lying across a man's lap - was speedily replaced with a riposte by Elizabeth Corcoran, a Forbes executive, wife and mother-of-two. It was headlined: Don't Marry a Lazy Man. Gone too was a photo and caption for the claim that "she'll be unhappy if she makes more than you", taken from a report by two sociology professors, What's Love Got to Do with It, published this year in the journal Social Forces. Noer failed to mention that other research suggested "increases in married women's income may indirectly lower the risk of divorce by increasing women's marital happiness".

The much-pilloried Noer has been forbidden by Forbes to give interviews. Yet some of his most controversial assertions, including "You are much less likely to have kids", had already been made by women. Noer cites research by Sylvia Hewlett in her much-discussed book Baby Hunger, which claims that only 51% of high-achieving women earning more than $100,000 a year have had children by the age of 40. He might equally have referred to the bestselling book The Bitch in The House, edited by Cathi Hanauer - a collection of essays by career women who write of their rage at dealing with the kids, cleaning up after working husbands and coping with do-nothing men.

There is also To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife by Caitlin Flanagan, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, which Virago is bringing out in Britain next month. In her book Flanagan compares the so-called epidemic of sexless marriages today with the "repressed and much pitied 1950s wives" who were "apparently getting a lot more action". "Nowadays, American parents of a certain social class seem squeaky clean, high-achieving, flush with cash, relatively exhausted, obsessed with their children, and somehow - how to pinpoint this? - undersexed," she writes.

Inevitably much of the debate comes down to personal experience. Molly Jong-Fast, a 27-year-old writer, surprised her friends by getting married in white three years ago and giving birth to a son. "My experience with stay-at-home moms is that they are more depressed, more lonely, more obsessed with their kids, more unhealthy, more likely to be left by their husbands and more likely to be divorced," Jong-Fast said. "They are dependent on their husbands for money, and that power balance is the kiss of death. I have my own life and it makes me more desirable to my husband."

As Noer has found, when men join in the conversation they sound horribly sexist. Yet with women now making up 48% of the American workforce, men are going to have to live with career women, like it or not. [Point missed there: Not all working women are career women]



Last week’s appointment of Caroline Flint as Britain’s first “minister for fitness”, charged with combating the alarming rise in obesity, is just the latest of the middle class’s perennial — and doomed — attempts to reform the lower orders. Political correctness forbids Flint from admitting her campaign is primarily aimed at the underclass, but the statistics for London tell their own story: the lowest rates are in posh Kensington and Chelsea, while downmarket Barking and Dagenham show the highest.

Throughout its 600-year history, the middle class has looked askance at the underclass: the great unwashed, hooligans and now hoodies. Sherlock Holmes always carried a revolver “east of Aldgate” — and the inhabitants of our dingier streets and estates have ever brought forth admonitions from the nanny state.

More recently, Jack Straw promised that new Labour would purge the streets of “aggressive begging, of winos, addicts and squeegee merchants” so that the “law-abiding citizen” could walk abroad undisturbed.

Middle-class to the tips of his toes, Tony Blair believes access to education will convert underclass youth into biddable, ambitious and hard-working citizens. But we have been here before; a middle-class visitor to the Oxford Industrial school in 1879 was comforted by the sight of children from “the dregs of the population” undergoing instruction that would halt their slide into “the criminal and dangerous classes”.

United by its dread of the underclass, the middle class has always disagreed about the reasons for its existence, and how it might be tamed and admitted into civilised society. But the underclass has manfully resisted attempt at reform: Victorian licensing laws and legislation outlawing bull-baiting and cock-fighting were seen as “them” telling “us” what not to do.

At every stage of its existence, including today, the middle class has been united in believing that reasoned and well-informed debate offers the best solution for all human problems. Its flattering image of itself has always been as industrious, prudent, self- disciplined and sometimes godly. When the 1832 Reform Act gave the middle class political dominance, it projected itself as the “intelligence” of the nation and the banner-bearer of progress.

Arrogant perhaps, but this description was accurate insofar as the middle classes have always been brain workers. An Elizabethan social analyst defined the middle orders as those who lived solely through the exercise of their wits. They practised law and medicine, managed estates, were schoolmasters, creative artists, merchants, shopkeepers and financiers. The industrial revolution provided new jobs for what, from about 1800, was called the middle class.

In 1900 it was calculated that the middle classes comprised a tenth of the population; by 2000 it was nearly two-thirds. A form of classlessness now exists, although what it means is that we live in a society that frowns on the idea of judging individuals simply because of their birth, education or possessions.

But egalitarianism is a recent phenomenon. For most of our history, class differences and deference have been taken for granted and religiously observed. Until the 19th century the middle classes existed within a hierarchical order, positioned between the landed aristocracy and gentry on one hand and the broad base of artisans and manual labourers on the other.

This tripartite society represented God’s will and it was accepted that those in the uppermost strata possessed a superior wisdom which entitled them to guide and discipline their inferiors. But as it began to expand, the middle class accumulated power. Its magistrates enforced laws framed to control the underclass and its excesses. The astringents of the statute books were supplemented by the gentler therapies of charity and persuasion.

This urge to rescue and reform runs like a thread through the history of the middle classes. It was nannyism before its time and, like its modern counterpart, it rested on the premise that the middle class knew what was best for everyone.

A medieval cleric deplored the habitual drunkenness of the poor, their addiction to “idle plays and japes” and, most alarming of all, their “sturdiness against men of higher estate”. In 1717 a Cumbrian tenant farmer invited his landlord’s steward to “kiss my arse” when taken to task in court. It’s reminiscent of the Wiltshire “chavette” who recently swore at a magistrate and boasted of her vices.

Defiance was understandable, given that middle-class programmes for the regeneration of the poor always rested on that Cromwellian axiom: “what is for their good and not what pleaseth them”.

However, it was not unknown for the middle class to kick over the traces — just usually well hidden. In RS Surtees’s Handley Cross (1843) a formal dinner for foxhunters and hare coursers ends in a drunken fight that spills onto the streets.

Victorian Britain is often — wrongly — cited as a golden age of civil tranquillity when the laws of God and the Queen were universally respected and obeyed. But at the beginning of the Queen’s reign, a public hanging at Devizes was marked by “disgraceful and indecent behaviour” and “beastly drunkenness and debauchery”.

At its end, hooligans including “pistol gangs” of teenagers rampaged through the inner-London suburbs, scaring the middle classes and prompting editorials about the nation’s terminal moral decline.

The Victorian middle classes may have civilised industrial, urban Britain with street lights, sewers, museums, art galleries and public baths, but they never curbed the violent instincts of the underclass. Hooligans were followed by teddy boys, mods and rockers, skinheads and hoodies. We have been here before, although it may be no comfort for today’s middle class to know that their experience and fears of street crime and abuse were shared by their ancestors.

Modern correctives may ultimately become redundant if future miscreants can be identified at birth. Spotted in their cradles, they will receive treatment and grow into responsible and maybe huggable members of society.

The brave new world of the bar-coded baby is at hand — the government is considering a plan to track the progress of every child born in Britain — and, its architects hope, it will be one where the middle classes will finally enjoy that peace of mind which has eluded them for so long.

Yet perhaps some humility is now required and we should concede that human nature cannot be changed completely, either by compulsion, lectures about diet or even the scientific monitoring of toddlers. But such an admission would have been and perhaps still is unthinkable to a class which has inherited its predecessors’ assumption that the world would be a better place if everyone behaved and thought as they did.


Conservatives were right after all (as usual)

Quick, somebody buy a wreath. Last week marked the passing of multiculturalism as official government doctrine. No longer will opponents of this corrosive and divisive creed be silenced simply by the massed Pavlovian ovine accusation: "Racist!" Better still, the very people who foisted multiculturalism upon the country are the ones who have decided that it has now outlived its usefulness - that is, the political left.

It is amazing how a few by-election shocks and some madmen with explosive backpacks can concentrate the mind. At any rate, British citizens, black and white, can move onwards together - towards a sunlit upland of monoculturalism, or maybe zeroculturalism, whatever takes your fancy....

It has all been a long time coming. Some 22 years ago Ray Honeyford, the previously obscure headmaster of Drummond middle school in Bradford, suggested, in the low-circulation right-wing periodical The Salisbury Review, that his Asian pupils should really be better integrated into British society. They should learn English, for a start, and a bit of British history and a sense of what the country is about; further, Asian (Muslim) girls should be allowed to learn to swim despite the objections of their parents (who did not like them stripping down even in front of each other). Muslim kids should be treated like every other pupil, in other words.

For these mild contentions, Honeyford was investigated by the government, vilified as a racist by the press, ridiculed every day by leftie demonstrators outside his office and was eventually hounded from his job. He has not worked since. Perhaps it will be a consolation to him, as he sits idly in his neat, small, semi-detached house in Bury, Lancashire, that he has now been comprehensively outflanked on the far right by a whole bunch of Labour politicians, including at least one minister, and indeed the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. Then again, perhaps it won't.

It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of this shift. To give you an example of the lunacy that prevailed back in Honeyford's time: then, the Commission for Racial Equality was happy to instruct Britain's journalists that Chinese people were henceforth to be described as "black" because that, objectively, was their subjective political experience at the hands of the oppressive white hegemony.

I don't suppose they asked the Chinese if they minded this appellation or derogation - the question would not even have occurred. By definition, people who were "not-white" - from Beijing to Barbados - were banded together in their oppression and implacable opposition to the prevailing white culture and thus united in their political aspirations. People from Baluchistan, Tobago and Bangladesh were defined solely by their lack of whiteness. This was, when you think about it, a quintessentially racist assumption, as well as being authoritarian and - as the writer Kenan Malik puts it - "anti-human".

We are not born with a gene that insists we become Muslim or Christian or Rastafarian. We are born, all of us, with a tabula rasa; we are not defined by the nationality or religion or cultural assumptions of our parents. But that was the mindset which, at that time, prevailed.

This is how far we have come in the past year or so. When an ICM poll of Britain's Muslims in February this year revealed that some 40% (that is, about 800,000 people) wished to see Islamic law introduced in parts of Britain, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality responded by saying that they should therefore pack their bags and clear off. Sir Trevor Phillips's exact words were these: "If you want to have laws decided in another way, you have to live somewhere else."

My guess is this: if such a statement had been made by a member of the Tory party's Monday Club in 1984 - or, for that matter, 1994 - he would have been excoriated and quite probably would have been kicked out of the party. "If you don't like it here then go somewhere else" was once considered the apogee of "racism".

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