EQUALITY IN THE BOARDROOM: RACHEL CUSK SHOWS HOW COMPLEX WOMEN’S CHOICES CAN BE…

There was some proposals, highlighted recently on International Women’s Day, that more women should be promoted onto the boards of public companies.

The European Commissioner, Viviane Reding had suggested previously that there should be a voluntary agreement that, by 2015, about a third of boardroom members should be women. She is now revising this view, and tending to favour a statutory directive: it could soon be compulsory for boardrooms to be 30 per cent female.

Perhaps there are many women who are clamoring to sit on boards and run committees – and if that is so, they should be given a fair wind and every opportunity. But let us take choice and temperament into consideration too. And let us be honest and admit that many other women would rather be reading a good book or spending the afternoon at an art gallery than sitting in a boardroom.

They might even prefer to be spending the time with their children. The novelist Rachel Cusk has shocked the feminist establishment with her latest personal disclosure in, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, in which she rejects the “masculine” life she led as a person dedicated to her career, reclaiming a “feminine” role with her children.

Rachel Cusk had what seemed to be the perfect set-up: her husband (whom she never names) quit his job in a law firm to stay at home with the children, becoming a househusband so that she might be free her to pursue her work as a full-time writer.

But when the marriage broke up, a decade on, far from being grateful for her partner’s supportive approach to domesticity, she resented it. She came to feel that equality had “masculinised” her, depriving her of her true calling as a woman.

She felt a primitive surge of possession for her two daughters, and refused to share custody with her husband, their father. On the principle of equality, her husband said he wanted half of everything, including the children.

“They should be with me half the time,” he said.
“No,” she told him. “They’re my children. They belong to me.” She came to disparage the lesser role that a father plays in the procreative process – lesser in that he does not experience the pregnancy, childbirth and suckling stage within his own body.

She also came to feel that her parents had cheated her by bringing her up with “male values”. Her father had been a successful professional man, her mother a housewife: but both parents urged their daughters to strive for “male values” and “male achievements”.

This meant working for high academic grades, to get into Oxford, to have a successful career: she now likens herself and her sister to “cross-dressing transvestites” – pretenders to a male world in which they do not belong. Or, she sees women in this male world as being like immigrants, aping the values of the host culture, trying to blend into “the new country of sexual equality [by] assimilation”.

But the primitive part of her psyche now reared up. She resented the fact that she “gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children”. There is a female “need to control children” which those men who profess equality in the home are not entitled to share.

She was also furious when the divorce lawyer suggested that she should support her ex-husband financially, since he had sacrificed his work to be a child-carer. Again, she affirmed, “the children belong to me.” And anyway, he knew what he was doing.

Small wonder feminists have been uncomfortable with this confessional autobiography. It is no advertisement for the advancement of women in public life, if, supported by a co-operative male partner to free them to work, a woman suddenly throws it all up, saying she feels “unwomanned” by taking the masculine role in domestic arrangements.

Behind the discussion about having more women on boards, and the greater promotion of women in public life, and in employment, there always lurks the darker question: are women themselves the greatest enemies of equality? Are some women indifferent to, or even hostile to, the advancement of females in work, politics, and the public sphere?

Not necessarily: but it’s complicated. And the people who often complicate matters are mothers. Rachel Cusk’s evidence is devastating: here is a brilliant, high-achieving, intelligent and successful woman, now aged 45, throwing the whole project of equality back in society’s face.

Her ex-husband has kept his silence. A friend had told her that while she admired Rachel’s ex-husband for being a househusband, she, the friend, couldn’t “respect” a man who did that.

Do those archaic feelings ever really go away?

Yet Rachel Cusk has done us a favour in confessing, so openly, what she feels. She knows that her feelings are “primitive” and “primal”: they come from the deepest sphere of instinct and feeling, not from the logical brain. And feeling as she does – that she just wants to take possession of her children and be a mother to them, and a woman to herself – no, she’s not in the best position to be appointed to the board of the Financial Times.

Human beings are not robots. Men and women are, genuinely, different. They certainly should have equal respect, equal opportunities, and equal pay where the work is the same. But no European directive, voluntary or compulsory, is going to change what people feel, what people wish to do with their own lives, and what priorities they may wish give to work, family, friends, and even hobbies. Humans have human feelings. Fortunately. ENDS . March 2012. I.I. Mag

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