Many female MPs, especially Conservative ones of late, find it necessary to articulate a particular commitment to the cause of feminism. It’s a tick box exercise, declaring feminist credentials – usually via a written article or a speech in the Commons – it is necessary when the Labour party has, unfairly, always claimed the territory as its own.
As I can already hear the howls of protest, maybe I should just make clear my own feminist credentials. In 1987, I founded what became the UKs leading childcare consultancy. Within four years, six of the UK's top ten companies were my clients and had bought into my own mission statement of equality for women in the workplace.
This objective was achieved by ensuring that every woman on maternity leave, who wanted to return to work, could do so with ease. Each maternity leaver was provided with a personal childcare co-ordinator who not only sourced childcare during her maternity leave, but also provided ongoing training for home based child carers; spot checks, quality control visit reports to parents on a regular basis, emergency nannies, nursery appraisals and much more besides.
I took pride in the fact that my company born from an original idea, altered the way some of Britain's top employers thought about recruiting and promoting women throughout the 1990s. The feedback from companies such as Shell, Pfizer, GlaxoWelcome, Proctor and Gamble, Goldman Sachs and others was ‘employees love your service, and so do we’. My team and I were living the feminist dream.
So successful was the company that Harriett Harman sent a team of advisors in 1996 to spend a day in my head office to assess what we did and how we did it. Subsequently the new Labour government introduced a variation of my service at government departments in Harrogate.
Imitation is the finest form of flattery.
Occasionally, I was requested by co-ordinators to deal with some of the difficult cases. As the service progressed, the cases became more frequent.
As I talked to and dealt with these women, the more I realised that pursuing a course of perceived equality for all women can result in some being damaged in the process.
It became apparent that the provision of my company’s services within the workplace for thousands of women, took away any excuse for those women not to return to work. There was no longer any possibility of saying it was too difficult to source childcare or that the quality was an unknown entity. We were ‘hand-holding’ some women back into the workplace who didn’t actually want to be there.
Pressure not to be a stay-at-home mum now attacked these women from all angles; financial, employer, spouse or partner, family and my company, to which they were referred as soon as they informed the HR department they were pregnant. Most had relocated to work for their employer and many had no local family support whatsoever.
I sat with enough women crying many tears whilst I nursed their tiny babies trying to offer words of comfort, to understand that true feminism is about allowing without censure or prejudice, women to make the choices they want for themselves. There is no one solution that suits all women and that the mere concept of ‘having it all’ is a complete myth.
This week I read an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic. Anne-Marie held her dream job as a director of foreign policy for Hilary Clinton in the White House, when she had her own damascene conversion to the reality of the juxtaposition between good parenting and ambition. I can totally relate to her article.
When I first became an MP and left home for most of the week, every week, my youngest was thirteen and there is no doubt that she has suffered as a result. I will carry the guilt of that with me forever. In the same way Anne-Marie wasn’t there for her son, I was never there when my daughter needed me. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find the hockey socks when she needed them on a Tuesday morning at 8.45 am because I was in Westminster and she was at home, which made her late for school, different from the others because they did have their hockey socks and feeling bad, it was that I wasn’t there to notice the signs of unhappiness which crept into my home when the realisation hit that Mum wasn’t even going to be home at night like she had before.
And once again, I have come to the conclusion that the feminist dream of having it all only works if you are wealthy and can make real choices. If you can choose to work from home, thereby combining dual roles. Or run your own business, or be well paid enough to choose to employ a nanny and cleaner or an au pair and if you can have a job which means your work hours are flexible and you can get home at night. And then, only if that is what you really want.
Every woman’s experience of working and bringing up kids is different. It differs at each stage of a child’s life. Some women manage the early years with ease and then throw in the towel at the school gate. Some take off the early years and return to work later. The one universal truth is that for every woman who combines a career with childrearing and is on a middle or lower salary bracket and has no family support, life is tough and very hard work.
So, I hope no one minds if I am not one of the MPs who attempts to assert her feminist credentials at every opportunity. I have probably put mine into practice more than most. I am, however, a realist. Feminism has advanced equality for women and for that we should all be eternally grateful. But it has also created unrealistic expectations and has a large number of tears to answer for.