Sunday, 30 May 2010

Yvette Cooper is right to be angry

Yvette Cooper is quite rightly angry. She has been accused of undermining the fight for women's equality by not standing for the Labour leadership and supporting her husband Ed Balls instead. Her reasons are not political, they are personal. She wants more time to spend with her young children. Nor is she withdrawing from politics. She will continue in the demanding role of shadow work and pensions secretary. Despite this Johann Hari suggests her actions are a throw back to 'a 1950s world of brilliant women stepping aside for their less impressive husbands'.

I find this kind of judgemental attitude very patronising.

As a woman who has to juggle politics with being a mother, I know only too well how exacting political commitment can be on family life. I also know how undervalued a mother's role is, despite all the political rhetoric about the family being the corner stone of society. You can be sure that if Ed Balls had withdrawn from the Labour leadership contest to spend more time raising his children he would have been praised for his actions. Yet when a women acts in such a manner she suffers the double whammy of being portrayed as weak and undermining the cause of women's advancement!

Feminism for me is not about making the same choices as men. It's about having any barriers removed that would prevent us from exercising those choices, if we want too. One indicator of real advancement in gender equality is not the extent to which women have proven themselves to be able to adapt to, and 'succeed' in, 'male dominated' professions, but the extent to which these institutions have adapted to reflect the needs of women. And should we decide we want to spend some or all of our time raising children, that should be recognised as valuable a contribution to society as if we were to follow professional careers. Women should not be limited by 'traditionalists' who would deny us our contribution to society or 'progressives' who would devalue our contribution to family.

Hopefully one day a woman who refuses to bow to the expectations of others, and is unafraid to put caring for her children ahead of a leadership challenge, may even persuade people that such choices illustrate exactly the strength of character and the kind of humane qualities that would help make a good leader.