Friday, February 17, 2006


Article by high-profile career woman Amanda Platell:

You don't have to look far these days for evidence that women are losing their way. We fought hard for our freedoms, and for what? For a generation of women who, in survey after survey, say the stress of juggling their professional and personal commitments is making them profoundly unhappy. For a society which, as the Pope highlighted in his written address this week, no longer knows the difference between love and sex. For a set of priorities that has placed the yearning for professional achievement and the financial riches it brings above the joy of motherhood.

My mother's generation - the ones we pitied for a life of domestic and marital servitude - must look at us and wonder whether all they have missed out on is the right to make themselves miserable. Theirs was a world where men earned the crust and women made the sandwiches. It was a world that had to change. And it did. The first feminists blazed a trail for my generation. They gave us the chance to have it all ; to be truly fulfilled as career women, as wives and as mothers (in that order).

So why do I find myself now as among a growing band of one-time feminists looking back on our own lives and wondering whether the world we helped create is the one we want to bequeath to the next generation? On the surface, I've had a glamorous life, I've edited a national newspaper, been spin doctor to the leader of the Tory Opposition, and co-presented a primetime political TV show. I've earned big money and travelled the world - all from pretty humble beginnings. But have I really had it all, as we promised ourselves we would?

Fortunate as I am to have lived the life I have done, my marriage ended in failure and I was never able to have the children I longed for (though in my case that owed more to biology than circumstance). Look around you and there are plenty of others like me; the women who inherited a new world order - and who now bear the emotional scars to prove it. It's only now , as we start to look back, that we can see just how much we've scorched the social landscape around us. In our rush to embrace the new, we have systematically rejected much that, for centuries past, had brought women stability and happiness. Is it any wonder that the younger generation aren't sure what to think, and instead allow the thrill of youthful hedonism to drown out the conflicting signals around them.

On the one hand they are told they must strive to have it all; and on the other, they can see around them the evidence that this will never truly be possible. Or at least not without great cost to their physical and emotional well-being. Far too often, it seems to me, the unwitting price of female emancipation has been heartache, stress and a life spent chasing false promises. But if we women are ever to feel truly happy with our lot, I believe we have to stop whingeing, stop blaming men and society, stop playing the victim and stand up and ask the unthinkable; are we ruining for ourselves? Could it be that the freedom we now enjoy is part of the problem?

These were questions I wanted to answer when Channel 4 approached to make a documentary on the role of women today, to be broadcast next Friday (3rd February). To do so, I decided to seek out the people who might be able to tell me how and why women had lost their way. I spoke to the feminists who launched the revolution and interviewed women from all walks of life: career mums, health professionals, grand-mothers, sixth-form girls, politicians who make the laws, and the people who carry them out. The answers I received were both revealing and profoundly shocking - but not in the way I had expected. Far from mocking my theory that feminism had created its own set of problems, many acknowledged it as a great unspoken truth - the last female taboo.

Even those who led the feminist crusade were ready to admit that their idealism had laid waste to much that had made women happy in previous generations. For as long as I can remember Fay Weldon has been a feminist icon of mine. She reached me through literature in a way that other feminists never did through lecturing. If anyone could explain feminism's legacy, it would be her. But when I went to meet her, at the start of my research, what I got instead was an apology. "Women like you should be cursing women of my generation", she told me. "All we did was make you go out to work and earn money and have children and completely exhaust yourselves. I'm sorry". She called women like me 'the lost generation' - the ones who had inherited a barren landscape after the revolution had marched through. "If you want to be like a man, then feminism hasn't gone far enough", she said, "if you want to be like a woman, it has gone too far.

And there, straight away, was the kernel of the matter: feminism was supposed to about equality, not sameness. We wanted to better our sex, not obliterate it. But that is what has happened. In striving to be the same as men, the only things we were guaranteed were the exhaustion and stress and guilt that came with the effort of labouring to become something we never were and never could be.

And striving to be like a man had other consequences. For a start, men don't like it - at least, not the kind of men you'd want to spend your life with. This has led to another unsayable truth. Women today take their 20's out for themselves, to pursue career and relationships - but not permanent ones - to experiment, to have fun. It's the 'me' decade of their life. I have no problem with that, but it does lead to a kind of independence that can make it hard for women to ever settle down with another person and willingly accept all the emotional and financial compromises that entails.

This, in turn, has led to another unintended consequence - this time biological. The principled and often pathological belief that men and women have to be treated the same has led women to believe they can have kids whenever they want and with whomever they want - or even by themselves if they choose. The principle legacy of that belief is not more contented mothers, but more women putting money in the pockets of a booming fertility industry as they discover the hard way that nature doesn't perform to order and pays no regard to social idealism.

Yet when two highly esteemed doctors had the temerity to point out this simple truth, they were pilloried. To howls of derision from the feminist lobby, Susan Bewley and Melanie Davies - consultants in obstetrics and gynaecology - wrote an article for the British Medical Journal stating that the "the most secure age of childbearing remains 20-35". I went to meet them, and they told me that the growing belief among women that pregnancy can be delayed until their 40's is becoming a serious public health problem. "The problem is that women think because we're healthy and we live longer, somehow our reproductive health goes on longer", they told me. "But that's not the case.

But what about the whole IVF industry? "People just don't realise how fantastically ineffective IVF is", they replied. "At maximum, one in three young women using IVF to get pregnant will be successful, provided they haven't got a serious problem. But once you're over 40, the numbers go right down".

Yet we, as a society, are complicit in this lie. We look at women like Cherie Blair, pregnant with Leo at 45, and assume that this is every woman's right. Too many women have found that this complacent self-assurance results only in years of heartache and despair. But if even the people we trust to look after our health get burnt when they try to address the issue, how can we ever have an informed debate about the life choices facing women today?

Shouldn't the Government make it their duty to tell women the truth about the costs - to their health and emotional wellbeing - of chasing the have-it-all dream? The Blair government has, in many ways, been progressive in its attitude towards women. It has has had more women cabinet ministers than ever before, doubled maternity leave and introduced paternity leave rights. But do such gestures disguise an absence of understanding about the real problem facing women today: that they expect to much of themselves, and that too much is expected of them?

I felt sure the Minister for Women, Tessa Jowell, would have some right-on feminist response, so I tracked her down at the start of a countrywide tour where she was listening to women's concerns. I expected a sop: what I got was a shock. Tessa said straight out that her daughter would not tolerate the stress of the impossible juggling act that women of her generation performed. Moreover, she admitted no amount of government policy would ever bring about the perfect work/life balance that might help make women happier. Part of the problem, she admitted, was that the anticipated participation of men in the home and parenting stakes has simply not materialised, and certainly not to the degree expected. Women, even when they work full-time, are still the primary carers of children and elderly relatives, still do most of the housework, cooking and shopping. Only a fraction of men have taken up paternity leave. Perhaps, as Tessa suggested to me, such characteristics are part of women's DNA - and no amount of legislation can change this fundamental difference between the sexes.

Yet unequal though the share of domestic duties may be, marriage is still the most successful way to raise a family. So why, then, has the Labour Government done so much to remove any recognition of, or incentive for, marriage? Perhaps in part because we women haven't taken it seriously enough ourselves. I certainly didn't when I got married 22 years ago. I spent more time thinking about the frock than the future I was embarking on. The result? The dress was great; the marriage a disaster.

And there are plenty of other women like me still making that same mistake today. Indeed, the law makes it easier to get married than to buy a used car. But it's not just the ease of marriage that has brought the institution down; it's the ease of divorce and the way women increasingly see men as meal tickets for life. If men and women are to be treated as equal, how can we support the huge payouts now coming through the divorce courts to women from relatively short and childless marriages? Of couse it is right and proper that when a woman has devoted her life to raising a family when the husband has been the breadwinner, then she should be entitled to the same financial support if the marriage falls apart. But with more and more women earning their own incomes within a marriage, why are men still obliged to pay them vast sums if they go their separate ways?

I wondered if men were being put off marriage by the way the divorce laws were being interpreted by the courts, so I went to see one of Britain's leading divorce lawyers, Sandra Davies, who handled Princess Diana's separation from Prince Charles. Again I was prepared to be told I was out of touch with modern life. Again I was suprised. Sandra said something I had long suspected, but never dared articulate: that in her experience, women did not try hard enough at marriage any more. "I think women today have different expectations of marriage than the previous generation", she told me. "They feel they're entitled to be happy, that they don't have to make an effort for it. And because of the disposability mindset of society today, if a marriage isn't working they simply move on".

Sandra admitted that the divorce settlements at the top of the league were having a trickle-down effect. "I think that it has created a groundswell of anxiety in men, and it is certainly in my experience putting men off getting married at all". So, by supporting and perpetuating an increasingly unfair divorce system, we are in effect putting men off marriage - the institution most women still believe makes them happier and more secure than any other. How sad.

But then, once again, there is a silence borne of political correctness that surrounds this whole issue. Even to hint that we women have some culpability in the slow degradation of marriage has for too long been seen seen as a betrayal of the sisterhood. Yet until women can own up to our own responsibilities how can we ever try to improve our lives?

I was particularly concerned about the potential inheritance we were leaving the women of tomorrow, so I headed off to Henrietta Barnett's in North London, one of the best academic girl's schools in the country, to talk to them about their expectations of the life that lay ahead of them. I was not suprised that all the 17 and 18 year old girls wanted to have it all: marriage, kids and a high-flying career. But there was little understanding that life is not that easy, that there will have to be compromises reached and sacrifices made along the way. Their headmistress, Mandy Watts, admitted the school gave the girls no counsel in these matters and saw it as a big gap in their education. As a result of the issues we discussed, she now hopes to be more up-front with her girls about the difficulty of having it all. If only all schools could be as honest.

And so my journey had brought me full circle, from the past generation to the future one, and the thread running through it all was a startling realisation that women are covertly contributing to our own unhappiness. So why had we put up with it for so long? Because to tell the truth felt like a betrayal of the core promise of feminism, an admission of failure. But women haven't failed: it's just that our expectations were unrealistic. We set the bar too high and so have spent our lives crashing into it. The simple truth is that we can't have it all. We can't have everything we want, when we want.

For decades it has been a crime against our sex even to say these things. Perhaps now we can start to admit that the real crime has been the conspiracy of silence.


Elitist attacks on the ways of poor people

Last Friday's euro lottery jackpot of o120million was shared between three lucky winners. Eleven rollover weeks had seen an explosion in ticket sales accompanied by the usual media frenzy. Polls were conducted on the 24-hour news channels, with familiar arguments being raised for and against. Alleged experts on the human condition voiced concern that the recipients would be somehow damaged. Viv Nicholson, the 'Spend, Spend, Spend' football pools winner of the 1960s, was mentioned as testament to working-class folly.

One criticism, which initially seems reasonable, is that a state lottery is a regressive tax. The statistics bear this out by showing that the overwhelming majority of ticket buyers are from the lower income brackets. All those pounds are redistributed in ways that the majority will gain little advantage from. Few Doncaster pensioners are ever likely to visit the lottery-funded Royal Opera House, for example.

It makes sense that the less well-off should ignore the abysmal odds and buy more tickets than the well-off. The drudgery of low-paid work and unemployment is magically vanquished, if only in the imagination before once again the wrong numbers are rolled.

However it is patronising to suppose that this will somehow damage or traumatise. Fantasising about a dramatic reversal of fortune is a condition of being human, as is having enough self-awareness to understand the limits of such dreaming. And there is, after all, next week's jackpot to look forward to! It would surely be better to put the argument for progressive tax than to rail against something which is, after all, a matter of choice rather than compulsion.

Another argument against the lottery is that a big win can damage the individual and community. When the UK lottery was introduced, it was argued that profit would be used to bolster rundown estates, with the building of sports centres, youth clubs and grants for new businesses. Yet opponents point to how communities can in fact be irreparably damaged. One example cited is the closure in 1998 of a south Wales oil company when its lottery syndicate hit the jackpot. The winnings were distributed between members, the notices of key workers handed in. Although the majority chose to stay on, the site was no longer viable. After an unsuccessful search for replacements the company was forced to relocate to Manchester. Company chairman Paul Miller solemnly announced the closure: 'I can confirm that we are closing the operation down because the workers have won the Lottery. We interviewed each of the staff about their intentions and decided we could not carry on. The whole situation has come out of the blue.'

Certainly this impacted on the community, with a loss of trade to local shops and business. Yet cost-cutting practices are hardly the unique manifestation of lottery wins. A business folding because of a lottery win is a rarity. Companies downsize, relocate and collapse all the time. This is because of the volatility of market forces, something which communities in South Wales already have much experience of.

The impact on the individual is also a concern. Among the winners at the factory was 21-year-old Mark Baylis, who three months before had matched five numbers and the bonus ball to scoop o27,000. 'I regard myself as the luckiest man in Wales', he said. 'I am certainly going to keep playing the Lottery. I know it might sound greedy, but after all, everything comes in threes. To be honest, I've done everything I wanted to with the money from the win in May but I am sure I will find something to spend it on.'

Winners who are flagrant and free in their spending are more easily demonised. These include 'lotto lout' Michael Carroll. He was accused of 'terrorising' his neighbours by racing quad bikes and, in a 'just' end to the morality tale, ended up in prison on drug offences. The Daily Mail took pleasure in vilifying his nouveau-riche lifestyle. The Guardian condemned the Lotto for encouraging a culture of instant gratification. There is also the notorious 'Lotto rapist', Iorworth Hoare, whose o7million win while on temporary release gave rise to widespread outrage. Claire Phillipson, director of 'Wearside Women in Need', was delighted that the press had revealed his identity. The fact the lottery is entirely random, and therefore unselective, seems to have been temporarily forgotten. Luck, it seems, must come only to the deserving.

When the UK lottery was set up in 1994, a broad platform of Calvinists, penitent gamblers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) argued that the seeds of addiction would be sown among the disadvantaged in society. This is an assertion alarming in its condescension. Anecdotes aside, there is no solid statistical evidence in support of the assumption that playing the lottery plunges a person into addictive behaviour. For the overwhelming majority it is harmless fun on a par with backing a horse in the Grand National.

It's nothing new for the well off to be concerned about the follies of the working classes. In the early 1900s cinema going was similarly demonised, as were the adventure paperbacks known as penny dreadfuls.

The impulse to patronise remains. Take for example Camelot's insistence on counselling its big winners. It's debatable whether this reflects a puritan disdain for excess, or a fear of the bad press should the winnings be blown in an orgy of drugs and sex. The advice given before the fat, life-transforming cheque is handed over is more sober than any winner is likely to be. Camelot says:

- Do not rush into anything
- Get used to what you now have
- Look forward to planning your future and consider all options
- Consult a financial advisor
- Ensure you know what is happening to your money
- Make a will
- Don't talk to strange men in parks and under no condition return home with them to view puppies.

Academics are also keen to put a dampener on the celebrations. Since the launch of Britain's lottery in 1994, 1,053 millionaires have been created. It is easy to suppose that each of these has had an easy time of it, but not according to research conducted by Michael Argyle, a professor at Oxford University.

According to Argyle the big win undermines any reasonable stability that a person has until then enjoyed. The termination of a work contract severs links with friends, without gaining automatic acceptance by an alternative peer group. The win is a source of estrangement rather than fulfilment. Similarly, the papering over of problems in any relationship merely serves to hide rather than solve them. Taste in clothing, housing and even food may be challenged. The basic belief at the heart of such theorising is that ordinary people lack the capacity to cope with change, even when it is so obviously sought after. He argues: 'The things we really want - love, health, eternal life - can't be easily bought.'

To the best knowledge of historians, lotteries have been around since Old Testament times, with Moses using one to award tracts of land west of the River Jordan. The Great Wall of China may also have been financed by a lottery, as was the network of roads in Julius Caesar's day. Portugal set up the first one in the modern era, in 1498, with the profits being distributed to the poor. However, it is arguably only in our own age that lotteries have been subject to such fear, loathing and condemnation.


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