CAN WORKING WOMEN HAVE IT ALL? by FAY WELDON
Collected online from the Daily Telegraph, UK. Hence not the views of the blog author.
Twenty-three years ago the journalist Valerie Grove went in search of a mythical beast: the woman who has it all. What makes a marriage endure? How can you pursue a proper career and raise happy children? In the feminist literature of the 1960s and 1970s Grove had found few clues as to how successful working mothers might manage their lives. So she set out to conjure up some role models in her fascinating 1987 book The Compleat Woman: Marriage, Motherhood, Career: Can She Have It All? (a play on Izaak Walton’s 17th-century classic The Compleat Angler).
To qualify for entry each woman had to have been married for 25 years or more, have at least three children and a professional career that equalled that of her husband. Early adventures in having it all, you might call it.
Among the 20 powerhouse women Grove interviewed were the philosopher Mary Warnock, the novelist Fay Weldon, the barrister Barbara Mills QC and the children’s author and illustrator Shirley Hughes. Grove was less concerned with the machinations of the boardroom than the day-to-day compromises of married life, and how they might sit alongside such impressive levels of professional success.
What can a young woman starting out today learn from these trailblazers about how to wield power and prestige in the workplace while upholding a contented home life? Still bandied around is the notion that the former must come at the expense of the latter, but is that true?
Today The Compleat Woman is long out of print. Grove’s subjects, meanwhile, have gone on to even greater heights. Baroness Warnock, Britain’s foremost moral ethicist, has chaired government committees on special-needs education and human fertilisation and embryology. Dame Barbara Mills became the most powerful female lawyer in the land as the Director of Public Prosecutions from 1992 to 1998.
Fay Weldon CBE has published more than 30 novels, as well as screenplays and works of non-fiction, and, in 2007, Shirley Hughes OBE saw her book Dogger announced as the best ever winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal. How do such a formidable bunch look back on their days juggling career and family?
‘You just had to grit your teeth and get on,’ says Barbara Mills, 70, recalling the time when clients would be surprised to see a woman defending them or jurors shocked to encounter a female judge. ‘There’s this awful phrase that you’ve got to be better than a man. I don’t think that’s right, but in a world where there aren’t any women you obtrude.’
Mills met her husband, John, at Oxford University. She was 21 when she married and had four children by the age of 31. ‘It never crossed our minds not to have a family when I was young,’ she says. ‘You didn’t do what women do now, which is often to not have their babies until their late thirties. Partnerships don’t seem to form, or stick, at such an early age now. None of my daughters was married before they were in their thirties.’
She says that settling down young meant that she missed letting off steam in her twenties, but, on the other hand, she became a grandmother before she was 50, and now has eight grandchildren.
Mills often had to think on her feet. When the local nursery was due to close the family made a bold decision – to run it themselves in their own basement. ‘We thought, “Well we’ve got space and we’ve got a nanny who’s not really terribly pushed for work so we could combine the two.” We got up to 24 children in the end and were licensed by Camden council. We had endless little potties in the basement.’
Another time one of her daughters had a minor operation and Mills’s only option was to squeeze hospital visits into her lunch-break. ‘I went to see her and she wasn’t at all well. I remember walking back into court and someone came up to me and said, “How’s the little girl?” and you know it was just too much because it was a confusion of the two lives, which was very difficult.’
Mills is now chair of the Professional Oversight Board at the Financial Reporting Council and John owns the household goods company JML. They divide their time between north London and a second home in Provence. A passionate advocate of sexual equality in the workplace, she believes that the advent of job shares and part-time working, together with improved maternity – and paternity – leave, have benefited women enormously. Does she see equivalent progress in women’s domestic lives?
‘Men do actually feel that they’re part of family life, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty – who employs the nanny or the au pair, who buys the birthday presents, who buys school uniform, who arranges for cover at half-term or the holidays – that almost always still falls to the woman.’
‘I think it’s very hard for mothers today,’ agrees Lady Warnock, 86. ‘One thing I deplore is the kind of taken-for-granted denigrating of middle-class mothers. There’s much more censoriousness about the way you bring up children now than there used to be. What you give them to eat, what you get them to wear and what time you spend with them.’
For Warnock, who came of age during the Second World War, such fuss was unheard of; you simply muddled through. She and her husband, Sir Geoffrey Warnock, a fellow philosopher who went on to become Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, had five children in the 11 years from 1950 to 1961. Her own nanny, a relic of what she describes as her upper-class Edwardian childhood, was on hand following the birth of each child.
Later she relied on a succession of nannies, and her mother-in-law who lived in. As the first married woman to be a fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, Warnock recalls taking a baby in a basket to a tutorial (‘I was rather a breath of fresh air’) or staying up until midnight writing lectures after spending the day with the children.
As the headmistress of Oxford High School, her working hours were more rigid. ‘I remember one occasion when my eldest son said, “Real mothers take their children out for picnics.” There was always an air of slight frenzy about the household,which can’t have been particularly advantageous to them.’
Widowed in 1995, Lady Warnock now lives in south-east London and has seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. (Her daughter Fanny died last year.) They have been raised in a variety of set-ups, from the traditional to the modern. One daughter-in-law stayed at home until her two children were at secondary school, another hired a nanny. Her youngest daughter, Maria, works full-time as a school head of art while her Portuguese husband runs the house.
Lady Warnock finds it hard to conceive of Sir Geoffrey in the same role, although he was good with a Hoover. ‘One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that in ordinary circumstances it’s very difficult for a woman to be more successful than her husband.’
For Fay Weldon, 79, who has four children and six grandchildren, one of the key differences between then and now is that parents were far less anxious to propel their children through the educational mill. ‘You didn’t have the fridge plastered with letters trying to get them to read,’ she says.
‘You weren’t having to indoctrinate your children or teach them dancing or worrying about exams. Nowadays to be clever is how you survive and if you don’t manage to push your way through this terribly complicated system then indeed you are condemning your child to a life of poverty, but it was not like that.’
There was also far less focus on parenting skills. ‘You were conscious that you needed to put your children in matching socks, but it was a sort of local social pressure; it didn’t come from newspapers or television. You certainly had visits from the welfare people if you had a baby, who could help you, but you weren’t bombarded with messages of what you should do and how you should do it.’
Women didn’t feel such relentless pressure to keep in shape, either. ‘As soon as you were married you gave up, and girls were married at 23,’ says Weldon, who lives in Dorset with her third husband, the poet Nick Fox. ‘I didn’t get married until I was 28. I was terribly ashamed of myself.’
By this time Weldon had an infant son. She went on to have three more sons with her second husband, the antiques dealer Ron Weldon, and found work as an advertising copywriter. She kept her life strictly compartmentalised. ‘At work you pretended you didn’t have a home and at home you pretended you didn’t go to work. Both were seen as mutually exclusive.’
In the 1960s, when law and medicine were opening up to women but there was not yet equal-pay legislation, it helped to be part of a relatively young industry. ‘New professions didn’t see much difference between men and women so long as you could do the work.’
At home Weldon hired au pairs, and took advantage of a community spirit she sees lacking today. She let her boys – who went to Primrose Hill primary school at the same time as the Milibands – walk to school from the age of seven. ‘Putting up with children was almost a shared thing with neighbours. When your children ran away from home, which mine were always doing, the neighbours would bring them back.’
‘I don’t see so much box and cox: you look after my kid, and I’ll look after yours,’ reflects Shirley Hughes, 83, who has three children and seven grandchildren. Hughes still lives in the large Victorian house in Holland Park, west London, overlooking leafy communal gardens where her children used to play with neighbours’ children.
What was once a bohemian area is now a bankers’ paradise. ‘The difference is that everybody is now so affluent. They’ve all got nannies and they go off to boarding-school and have incredibly expensive holidays – summer comes and they’re never here.’
Hughes resisted getting a full-time nanny and made do with girls who worked a few hours a day. As an illustrator, she was able to work in short bursts, in her living-room. ‘It’s no good having a studio and shutting the door and saying go away because people hammer on the door. I learnt to just concentrate for 20 minutes, half an hour, an hour if I could.’ It’s a working pattern that her daughter, Clara, a mother of two teenagers and a children’s illustrator and author in her own right, has followed.
Although Hughes never based any of her celebrated characters such as Alfie and Annie-Rose and the children in Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister series directly on her own family, they provided valuable source material for her sketchbook. ‘What I was doing as a mother was feeding my imagination. Having children was what gave me all the ideas.’
Yet it also meant that she worked harder to prove herself. ‘You don’t want anyone to say, “She’s got kids, she’s so unreliable.” I was always a fortnight ahead of the deadline in case the worst happened and anyone got measles or chicken pox.’
In the early years, the family relied on the steady income of her late husband, the architect John Vulliamy. ‘I couldn’t possibly have kept a family on what I earned for about 10, 20 years,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t feel I was a “Compleat Woman” particularly.’
It is a view echoed by all the women I speak to. Despite their numerous achievements, all are sanguine in their advice to the young about balancing family and career. As Valerie Grove found back in 1987, there is no consensus about the right way to have it all, no magic pill. Who’s to say even that combining a long marriage, a career and motherhood is what makes a woman complete?
‘I would say have your babies early, get it out of the way, all the sex and the emotion, get all that settled,’ counsels Fay Weldon. Five minutes later she’s on another tack completely: ‘Babies for educated, intelligent people are a terrible burden, mothercare is awful, the home is boring. Where’s the fun?’
For Barbara Mills, organisation is key. ‘You’ve got to know what you’re letting yourself in for and you’ve got to be realistic about it. I think you need to have a partner who really supports you and understands if you have a bad day.’
‘It’s a tremendous endeavour to try to have it all, heavens,’ says Shirley Hughes, who wonders if we should all live together in extended families, as is common in India. ‘Then you’ve got a permanent babysitter in the form of some old granny’.
Perhaps the most surprising comment comes from Mary Warnock. ‘Don’t feel you’ve got to be ambitious. If everybody else all around you is cutting one another’s throats to get to the top why not opt out, just do the job you enjoy doing?
‘Somehow you drop into having to have two cars, having to have all these extra things for your children and so on, and then of course you need the salary, so you need to go on aiming for the top, but actually I don’t think it’s conducive to happiness exactly. I think many women are happier enjoying their job, their life at home, without aiming for these power perks.’
Warnock, who has just published yet another insightful work, Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics, has hardly opted out. A case of do as I say not as I do? She smiles. ‘I have to say I advise marrying a high-earning husband.’