A hundred years since the first suffragettes marched in the streets of London asking for the right to vote, the public opinion still appears very confused when it comes to women.
I almost fell off my chair yesterday when I read that a photograph of the Australian prime minister in the act of knitting had sparked a huge debate on feminism.
Julia Gillard, pictured above as she appears on Women’s Weekly’s cover, said she was knitting a toy kangaroo for the Duchess of Cambridge’s baby, due in a few weeks.
The Australian press went nuts. Columnist Andrew Bolt – I read on The Guardian – said Gillard was “giving encouragement to young female politicians by plying a hobby now synonymous with mad old aunts” (Dear Mr. Bolt, I am a knitter too and far from being a mad old aunt. Knitting is back in vogue since some time now). Other even less nice comments followed and the international press started taking interest in the subject.
They pointed out how Gillard never showed any interest for housework (so what? Can’t a man collect stamps and at the same time be unable to cook an egg? What’s with judging hobbies now??) and how her press office asked specifically for this kind of picture in order to market a new image of Australia’s iron lady. (In case you didn’t hear about it before, last autumn Ms. Gillard became world famous and a feminist icon when she publicly accused of misogyny the opposition’s leader, Tony Abbott. You can watch the video here).
It’s clear that no one really cares about Ms. Gillard knitting skills or the honesty of those pictures. The point is that every single time a woman successful in a typical men’s job decides to show her feminine side, a large part of the public opinion rises up to stigmatize her.
In these past decades, powerful women have been implicitly requested to play along with men’s rules. All the female editors, politicians, lawyers, business executives I have met in my life showed the same personal traits: determination, pride, courage, inflexible discipline and the strength of character you need to rise up in a men’s world. They don’t always look happy despite their remarkable accomplishments, but they certainly are inspiring.
For my mother’s generation, success wasn’t only a goal. It was a symbol of freedom. I remember her telling me when I was a child that she wasn’t often home because she was building her career and that for a woman it was of utter importance to be financially independent and socially recognized as an individual, not only as someone’s wife or mother. I frankly didn’t like the implications of her pep talk: I was raised by not always nice carers and I never saw her handing me a slice of cake at teatime but I respect her choices.
I understand that for someone born in the 40s modernity was irresistible and that feminism in those early days needed a total commitment of those believing in its assumptions.
Things have changed, though. To say it with Charlotte York, “feminism is about freedom of choice” and I truly believe it is. If men are now discussing their career choices, their quality of life and their right to family and personal time, why do we still expect women to work twice as hard and to renounce to femininity? Maybe because we still assume, as thirty years ago, that a career woman would disqualify herself if caught baking cupcakes? That in order to validate her brain she should abstain from any stereotypical female activity? Why are we still so insecure?
Less than ten years ago an extremely successful fashion designer called Phoebe Philo announced she was leaving the artistic direction of the french brand Chloé, citing among other reasons the desire to spend more time with her family. I still remember the press reaction then. None could understand how someone would leave such a promising job to go home, change nappies and cook pudding. Ms. Philo, luckily, knew better. She did her thing, came back a couple of years later, went on to design clothes for Céline and totally rocked.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In goes in the same direction. It’s outdated in my opinion. Some women will lean in, some others will lean back for a period of time and then in again, some others will just stay off the front line. The point is that in 2013 any woman should be able to choose her destiny, to time her choices and to play according to her own rules. Which don’t include being ashamed of knitting in public.