At school, we are taught about the past to make sense of contemporary gender expectations. The Suffragettes fought for our votes. The Land Girls were proof we can labour. The contraceptive pill ‘gave’ us sexual freedom (!) How will I explain the 2020s to my daughter when she reaches adulthood? A baby now, it won’t be long before she looks to me – her past – to figure out her present. She will ask me, no doubt, about being a woman in 2021. Pithy narratives, polished and reduced, do nothing to gloss over the reality that my experiences are not good enough for her.
Because here we are; sexual assault and predation an ahistorical and acultural reminder that our physical spaces are dangerously scaffolded by sexist cultures and institutions; increases in domestic violence and murder during lockdown a reminder of the corporeal tyranny that has threatened us within our homesteads for time immemorial; the silence that met I May Destroy You at the Golden Globe awards, a reminder that such recognisable representations of abuse, rape, harassment and their counterpoint – empowerment – still don’t fit mainstream perceptions of women’s lives; teenage girls’ testimonies about rape culture in schools a reminder that even the nominally safest of places are ridden with iterations on male power play; discrimination against, and the belittling of furloughed, caring and parenting women a reminder that the pandemic’s long-term career, employment and financial repercussions are undeniably gendered across class and culture. We presume that societies progress and that the future will be better, but when the present is dismal those presumptions are hard to uphold.
Edith Summerskill, Labour Party MP and feminist, wrote a series of letters to her daughter, Shirley, that ended in 1956 with the following endorsement: The shades of the women who blazed the trail that you and I might be free to fulfil ourselves seemed to sit with me on the green benches of Westminster last night. I feel now that you in your turn will go forward to destroy finally those monstrous customs and prejudices which have haunted the lives of generations of women. I want to write to my daughter with similar hopes, but I lack Summerskill’s optimism. Is this a 2021 feeling I wonder, as yet another day of depressing news hits my newborn-baby-fatigued face? How many other women share this gloom? I sense that a slowing down in tangible change is obscured by insta-story-simulacrums – they are inspo not inspiration, released rather than realised. The status quo is repeatedly upcycled in policy reviews, contract clauses, and tweaked legislation, to seem appealingly forward-thinking while rarely shifting those hardy metaphorical goal posts.
Indeed, some of Summerskill’s statements sound so modern that progress feels even more distant:
I have been the only woman present at official dinners in all parts of the world, have served as the only woman on countless committees, and been the only woman on Parliamentary delegations so often that I am familiar with the official attitude, namely, that by adding one woman’s name to a list which has been compiled for some purpose or other one can appear unprejudiced in the face of increasingly critical female public opinion.
To the gender pay gap:
… you will be glad to know that a start has been made this year to remove the long-standing grievance of women employed by the Government. A formula has been devised which will ensure that women teachers and civil servants will enjoy equal pay with men in a few years’ time – a rather churlish end to a long and exasperating struggle.
To the mental load:
Everybody loses – the children, the husband, and the country – from keeping an intelligent, industrious, energetic woman chained to the sink.
Summerskill was one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in the UK, graduating from King’s College and Charing Cross Hospital in 1924, she went on to assist the creation of the NHS in Clement Atlee’s post-war government, she didn’t take her husband’s surname and neither did her children. Summerskill described herself as ‘feminist’ in the 1950s, a decade in which the word ‘housewife’ was having a renaissance. We can’t see Shirley’s replies, but her mother’s visionary tone gives us the impression that they both believed that the cultural, social, economic and political standing of women would only improve.
You can’t blame Summerskill for her hope in future generations of women – she was writing when seemingly the times were shifting and women were being brought increasingly and conscientiously into public life, voicing their needs and defending their rights. Reading her letters, I am reminded that history is not teleological, not linear, not progressive, not inherently and automatically advancing. It is understandable that amidst improvements to marriage and divorce laws, electoral rights, civil liberties, gender pay, employment policy and childcare, Summerskill could hope. Not to mention the fact that her white middle class, Oxbridge educated background contextualised hopefulness full-stop. But here am I, a white middle class, educated mother with very little hope to put in a letter to my daughter. As much as I’d like to be completely convinced that her and her peers’ futures will be better than mine, I cannot. The interminable news cycle, the mechanics of maternity leave, the long-term impact of career breaks and career moves, the permanent physical danger, the overwhelming social norm that is body obsession and body shame, it all depresses me.
While her gentle, warm and intelligent tone is admirable, Summerskill’s enthusiasm is impossible to emulate: we live in different times. In the twenty first century, I’ll need to be more honest with my daughter than I’d like. I will need to acknowledge how sad some statistics are, how outrageous some behaviour is, how archaic some institutions are. I will need to commiserate and apologise. I used to believe that a positive attitude supports positivechange, but it is naïve to think that in a world moving backwards as much as it heads forwards, positivity alone will impel transformation.
Sadly, Summerskill’s letters have aged well (despite her matronly and clipped post-war tone) because much of the injustice that she railed against remains in place today. Whether or not she felt justice in her own life, Summerskill sensed betterment across society in the time it took to become a mother. Based on my experiences so far, I can’t pretend that my daughter’s life will be contextualised by true equality. Knowing that though – being sad about it – is just as feminist as cheerfulness. My letters to my daughter will be bold, brutal and somewhat bitter, but no less feminist in motivation.