Reflecting on Women In Contemporary Society

The Silent Stealth Closing Toilet Seat is designed for the spinster who lives alone; no need for me to place a notice ‘This Seat Goes Down As Well As Up’ in the bathroom. Hmm a couple of days in the parental home – wonderful as it is to see my parents (and my brother fleetingly) – I do sigh with relief as I get into the car to drive home. Eccentricities invisible in one’s own environs  are revealed in the semi public arena of another’s shared living space; OK I am a self confessed eccentric spinster (and deliciously happy with my status)!

The weekend has focussed around Sunday entertaining; two sets of old neighbours joined us for lunch. Culinary preparations began mid week (that would be more accurately described as the previous mid week when the planning kicks in) and reached a peak on Saturday. My contribution (again) was making an indulgent trifle; trifle sponges made into little raspberry jam sandwiches, tinned peaches (in halves not slicing thereby requiring the slippery little devils to be chopped), alcohol to soak the sponge (brandy on account of having no sherry) and finished off with whipped cream. Did you know one can no longer buy whipping cream? By this I mean cream called whipping cream. I remember when I was growing up there was three types of cream: single (for pouring), double (for spooning) and whipping (for whipping obviously). Now one buys double cream for whipping; what I wonder wastefully has changed in the world of dairy products?

The most curious thing about the Sunday gathering was the presence of my brother and I; we are single, childless and never married. One guest commented that we were like perpetual teenagers; this was in the context of conversation about aging. Everyone confessing their age with the women correcting their men who universally seemed blissfully unaware of how old they were! Perhaps because they as retired gentlemen like men more generally, are not judged by the number of years they have spent wandering this earth. Rather they are rightly revered and respected. As should women in the same position of course.

The news this week has been frightening full of stories about women and our position in society. From the Church of England again wring their hands about women Bishops and nicely kick the decision into the medium length grass; not far enough to risk being accused of doing nothing but far enough to well do nothing. The editorials in the Guardian and Observer this weekend from Zoe Williams, Barbara Ellen and Catherine Bennett all focus on the machinations on women bishops.

Bennett’s editorial in particular made me think about the impact of inequality in the Church of England i.e. the established church and an official institution with the power to influence civil society through representation in the House of Lords. Frankly this is outrageous! The proposal that the synod turned down was Archbishop Rowan Williams half arsed attempt to pacify those members of his staff who would not feel able to work alongside women bishops (albeit with second-class status). But to quote Bennett ‘Williams still reserved the right to, as he put it, subject the legislation that would introduce women bishops to some unspecified “fine-tuning” by the House of Bishops, the – obviously – all-male group that will supervise the next step on the agonising journey towards equality.’

When I was growing up my mother campaigned for women priests as part of the local synod, I never quite understood what the issue was then and now I still wonder what the Church is scared of? Do women bring some mystic powers that will unleash untold chaos on the church authorities? Have I somehow missed a trick here? I remember when I became one of the first girl acolytes serving the Priest not only did we have to have new robes (cream with unfortunate pointy hoods) but some members of the congregation stopped coming to the services. The role certainly gave me an insight into the practicalities of the communion service; not all necessarily reinforcing. As soon as I left home I stopped going to church; today Midnight Mass is the limit of my commitment (embarrassingly my greater commitment to tobacco products means I can no longer muster enough breathe to sing hymns/carols).

And then Lynne Featherstone launches an initiative to tackle girls in gangs to raise awareness of their vulnerability; bolster individual self confidence enabling them to avoid being victimised. The reality of ‘lineups’, for which read gang rape, is horrific.  Sitting uncomfortably alongside has been the Leveson inquiry hearing evidence from the Dominic Mohan of the Sun; apparently Page 3 is just clean, healthy fun ‘an innocuous British institution’. Zoe Williams in Saturday’s Guardian argues whilst it may not be about sex it is far from innocent. The job of a Page 3 model is well paid with family friendly working conditions and a female photographer to boot! They’ve recently re-employed a model after she had a baby and some Page 3 models have been sent to Afghanistan as ambassadors (well done to the Sun).

To quote Zoe Williams ‘not only is the whole thing the opposite of the pornified image – the sight of a happy woman is, I think, taken to be an active turn-off in pornography – it’s the opposite of the modelling image. Catwalk models always look depressed, which may originally have been the unintended consequence of being on a diet, but it has become a cultural ideal in its own right – true femininity as a state of mysterious disengaged misery.’  She goes on to say ‘What we are really looking at is not a pair of breasts as sexual objects, but breasts as the hand grenades in a battle of self-assertion.’

What I do find harder to believe is that (according to Dominic Mohan (Bennett Editorial Observer) Germaine Greer has granted Page 3 her personal pardon on the basis that her odd-job man says “It cheers me up”. Hmm not convinced as it’s a tad too convenient. Rather like Mr Cameron’s visit to Stockholm last week to discuss with the Nordic countries why women are largely absent from the British boardroom. “It’s about quality,” Mr Cameron said. “Not just equality…if we fail to unlock the potential of women in the labour market, we’re not only failing those individuals, we’re failing our whole economy”. Why aren’t I reassured?

Well it could be that the progress since the Davies report last year, which proposed female quotas at boardroom level by 2015 if there wasn’t significant improvement, has been lack lustre in its slowness. As the Observer editorial notes women are disproportionately represented in the public sector where the cuts will hit especially hard. And that’s before you consider the raft of other austerity measures that will fall at our doorstep; in 2006 the Economist noted “economic growth is driven by women” (at a time when China, India and the internet where widely accepted as the sources of economic growth).

So where does this leave us I wonder? If you feel impotent to influence the bigger picture positively might I suggest you look a little closer to home? A couple of weeks ago one of the lady’s I swim with arrived with less than her usual mini whirlwind. She is hilarious and only does extremes of emotion: both high and low. This particular day was a real down day; she had responded to the local Council scheme to improve the insulation in her house and as she is disabled it was free. Great, only when the company started work the cavity walls were soaked and the investigative process managed to damage the pipe work leaving her with no heating or hot water. This had been a week earlier and she was finding it really hard to keep warm. Once the workmen downed tools she had heard nothing although they had said they would come back to sort it out. She was visibly upset as she could see no way out. I thought for a moment as my instant reaction was to gather this tiny woman to my bosom assuring her everything would be OK; of course this response was neither appropriate nor useful so I resisted the temptation.

I asked her if she was a pensioner careful to say I didn’t know. And was the cold making her pain and disability worse? Yes and yes she replied. I told her to telephone the company explaining what had happened, that she was a pensioner and finding the cold very difficult to deal with. Lay it on thick I said. Next day she arrived full of beans literally skipping into the changing room; ‘I did what you said’ she told me. And funnily enough the company came out the same day and fixed the boiler so she had heating and hot water. Too bloody right I thought don’t mess with the ladies!

Whilst you might not feel strong enough to punch above your weight ladies you’d be amazed at how much difference you can make at a very personal level. A few moments of your time can make someone else’s day; go on you never know it might even make you smile!!


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Filed under Musings of a Contemporary Spinster

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