It’s International Women’s Day today. Apparently. I didn’t even know until I got up and turned on the radio. BBC 6 music are certainly celebrating with a host of women DJs, women’s music and women in music production. I know I should be celebrating, but somehow I am finding it difficult. I feel a bit bad as I am a long in the tooth feminist after all.
I should be proud of my achievements. Mother of 2 beautiful gorgeous grown up girls who are savvy, clever, kind, beautiful and socially responsible. Why do I fear for them? As a woman who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s I feel I was lucky. I had free education. I was able to be human and screw things up a bit, have fun and be a bit delinquent. This didn't make me bad, mad or lazy - just human. It seems to me that these days its not possible for young women to be just young women having fun. My experience with my girls is that they have had to be serious, applied, successful and know what career they wanted by the time they were about 16! Is it just me or does that sound warning bells about anxiety, self-consciousness and fear of failure? How can you know all this? I was constantly being badgered by their teachers about defining their future. I never even had to think of such things – I just ‘was’. I still just ‘am’. A ‘me’ who has become confident and comfortable in my own skin. But let’s think about the opportunities I had that I just don’t see young women today having. All of my education was free. When I screwed up my ‘A’ Levels jobs were plentiful and I just went and got one in a bank. I had three 0 levels (GCSEs as they are now called). These days you would need a degree, or possibly more to do the same job! When I was 25 I decided I was ready for an education. I did a part time access course at City of London University and then applied to do a degree at a London Polytechnic. It was all free! Not only that but I had a cost of living grant which meant I didn’t need to work while I was doing it. I did work part time however, in residential homes and in youth work, preparing for my future as a social worker. Now everything costs – it seems only the very rich can afford to screw up their education. There are so few real jobs – and its quite difficult to actually earn liveable money for working in the days of internships, volunteers and zero hours contracts. This is bad for both young women and men. But because women command much less of the very mean spirited job economy they are likely to come off worse. It’s also making more of our people – women, men and children we should care about – quite ill. Something that could be avoided by ensuring people are paid properly instead of prioritising corporation profits and making young people feel they have to be grateful to have a job at all. For me a job was an entitlement and it benefitted the country. Actually, it still benefits the country, so in this sense it is still a right and an entitlement to be paid decently, equally and to be treated well.
The countries investment in me paid off! I’ve had a rewarding career as a social worker and now as an academic. I’ve more than put back what I may have appeared to take out. But I think the days of Educating Rita may be long gone. This is such a waste of talent, skills and worst of all risks the mental health of our future generations. I am from a working class background and the opportunities I had were golden, not just for me but for the economy I live in. I’ve had a great career and I’ve won a scholarship to do a PhD in an Australian University at the age 57. How wonderful for me. I have a lot to celebrate. But now I wonder how possible this kind of thing is for the new generation of women who like I did then, sit on the margins. They have to find ways to pay instead of being simply offered the freedom of opportunity if they want a late education, or even an early one. In Finland and other Nordic and Scandinavian countries higher education continues to be free up to first degree level. In this country we instead give false loans to students and pass the anxiety of money worries on to them. This causes pressure and mental ill health problems that are totally unnecessary. I believe much of this money will not be retrieved by the Government. They have not invested genuinely in their young people, but disingenuously, and it will show up in the health and welfare bill – which is not counted in money but in human suffering. I shouldn’t even get started on false opportunities for real work, inequalities for women when they are in the workplace, lack of good affordable child care so they can continue their careers, and the true opportunities to rely on themselves economically if that is what they want to do.
We’ve come a long way. Well, women who are rich or who have made it big in the music/media industry may have. But most of us are ordinary. I am just an ordinary woman who wants a decent equal wage for the work I do. To be able to do something rewarding that fulfils me in my day time, and allows me a bit of leisure in my down time. Even as a married career woman it has been difficult to achieve that. If I’d had to bring up my kids in different circumstances, say as a single mother, or without my qualifications, without sharing costs and responsibilities with a partner etc., things would have been very very different. I would have earned less, or possibly nothing, I wouldn’t have been able to share caring roles with my partner, or afford to buy a house – thinking about the possibilities are scary. Yet I know that this is the reality for far too many ordinary women. Here also I am only referring to myself as a white woman with the privileges of having been brought up in the West. My International PhD has given me the opportunity to travel and meet women for whom the struggles are profound and which has humbled me enormously. I work with a social work PhD group who are mainly from the African continent. Supporting women in these countries to equality of education and economic wealth is a huge priority and where the benefits for minimising poverty by doing so have been demonstrated.
I try to maintain optimism. But I can’t help thinking that I am one of the lucky women and that it now more likely that the women of the future will not be properly recognised for her labour and commitment to the country’s wealth generation. The sooner that our contribution is seen as such the quicker we can move on to a different agenda, that of true equality, sustainability and the eradication of poverty. Yes - lets be Bold for Change!