MOTHER knows best.
That is a phrase I have uttered more than once in the general direction of my offspring. But no matter how well meaning the words, they have never yet been met with anything more enthusiastic than a shrug.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
It is, of course, a common expression used to imply maternal wisdom and warn of a potential crisis to come (eg. ‘Take your umbrella – it’s going to rain. Mother knows best!’)
And, as anyone with children of a certain age can tell you, it is also an annoyingly catchy song performed by the main antagonist of Disney’s Tangled by way of some not-so-well-meaning advice to a young Rapunzel.
Of course, the veracity of the phrase is largely dependent on the character of the ‘mother’ in question and Mother Gothel turns out to be an utterly unreliable matriarch, involved in such odious deeds as baby-snatching and unlawful imprisonment. A great fictional role model she is not.
Rapunzel, like most teens the world over, learns to ignore the maternal advice foisted upon her. You don’t have to be the daughter of a villain to realise that the idea of mothers being inherently ‘best at knowing’ is utter flapdoodle (my new favourite word).
The same goes for the oft lauded female attribute ‘women’s intuition’. If you consider the gamut of possible characteristics – such gifts as intelligence, endurance, confidence, courage, kindness and sense of humour – then being lumbered with intuition is basically one of the booby prizes. I mean, no one is queuing up to be able to jump to conclusions with insufficient information. Anyone can do that. They might even sometimes be right.
I’m afraid these fallacious phrases are unable to hide the terrible truth: women are not special. They don’t have psychic or supernatural powers. They’re just… well, ordinary humans.
Actually, worse than that. A trawl through some recent news headlines, locally and internationally, shows that perhaps the patriarchy has had a point for the past 12,000 or so years. Women simply cannot be trusted in scarcely any scenario.
Don’t believe me? As Dr Brink would say, let’s ‘follow the evidence’ (although, being a woman, best take her advice with a sprinkling of sodium).
Firstly, women cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies. That includes their natural reproductive capabilities. We know this because, while two of the planet’s richest men spiffed away billions preparing for what amounted to a massive willy-waving contest in space, one of the most famous women in the world was denied the right by a court in America to remove her IUD in order to try for a baby, or escape what she described as the ‘abusive conservatorship’ of her father. Despite being 39 years old, princess of pop Britney Spears is forced to live like a real-life Rapunzel, with no legal control of her own finances, activities or fertility. While these restrictions are attributed to her mental state, it is hard to imagine a male equivalent being treated in quite the same way. Her gender likely plays at least a part in her perceived mental incapacity.
Closer to home, the subject of bodily autonomy and reproductive decisions arose in the recent States debate on the update of Guernsey’s abortion laws. While some sought to allow women more control over their future and that of their foetus, as well as decriminalise them for the heartbreaking choices they might occasionally have to make, two deputies, along with their numerous supporters, endeavoured to throw a shroud of doubt and distrust over the proposals. Their sentiments were clear: a woman cannot be trusted to decide if and when she is ready and able to sacrifice her own life and wellbeing to become a human incubator. After all, surely that is her purpose? We’ve all seen or read The Handmaid’s Tale.
But even if a woman succumbs to her destiny and reproduces, that is not the end of the story. She also faces obstacles when it comes to deciding what is best for her baby. Should she stay at home, breastfeed, perhaps alter her working hours? As our feature last month on Guernsey’s maternity laws showed, local women have little legal support or protection to enable them to make the choices they might want. And that’s not changing any time soon.
Women are also worth less than men. We know this must be true because they have, on the whole, always been paid a lower salary than their male peers – and it is beginning to seem as if they always will. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 estimates that it will take at least 135 years to achieve gender parity worldwide, previous progress having taken a hit from the Covid-19 pandemic. According to PwC’s Channel Islands Women in Work Index, Guernsey’s gender pay gap is among the highest in the OECD. Nonetheless, the States recently voted against implementing equal pay for work of equal value.
Women also do more work for free. The International Labour Organisation in 2018 reported that the 16 billion hours spent each day on unpaid caring would represent almost a tenth of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate. Before the pandemic, women were apparently spending on average three times longer than men on unpaid domestic and caring work. While the pandemic resulted in men upping their unpaid output, research shows that women did too, often taking on the lion’s share of child supervision and home-schooling during lockdown. More fool them, I suppose.
Women also cannot be trusted to decide on their own mental health. We know this because of the reaction in some quarters when Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Games due to mental health concerns. While she was lauded by some for her bravery and honesty, it was inevitable that her actions would attract some criticism. Piers Morgan predictably waded in, tweeting: ‘there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having “fun” – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country.’ Tennis player Naomi Osaka enjoyed similar treatment when she withdrew from the French Open.
Still, at least they were only subjected to criticism and not forced to compete against their will. Others in the past have not been so fortunate. Take Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina, who was pushed to train with a broken leg in the run-up to the 1980 Olympics. Despite voicing concerns, she was forced to attempt the (now banned) Thomas Salto and ended up paralysed from the neck down.
The Olympics does seem to have highlighted the different standards male and female athletes are often held to. For example, US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended after testing positive for marijuana, despite the drug being legal in the state of Oregon. On the other hand, Alen Hadzic, an alternate on the US fencing team, who has faced multiple accusations of sexual assault, was permitted to go to Tokyo, despite six female fencers writing to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee demanding he be banned. Men’s misdeeds just seem easier to forgive.
Women also cannot be trusted to make their own clothing choices. Consider, for example, Norway’s women’s beach handball team, who were recently penalised for having the audacity to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms during a European championship game. While shorts are perfectly acceptable for men, International Handball Federation regulations stipulate that female athletes must not cover more than 10 centimetres of their derrieres. We need not ask why.
The Ukraine Ministry of Defence also had to face off criticism recently over its requirement for female soldiers to march in high heels in an August parade. It is, after all, important for a woman to always emphasise the length of her legs and her feminine gait, even when soldiering.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Despite years of fighting for it, and many substantial successes, women have yet to achieve their goal of total equality. Maybe they’re not trying hard enough. Maybe they’re simply not good enough.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not women who are the problem. Maybe the fault lies with society. Maybe all humans are a mix of good and bad, wise and foolish, generous and selfish, regardless of gender, and we should stop dividing them into groups based on their biological bits.
But what do I know? I’m only a woman.