Helen Rumbelow asks in an article in the U.K. Times Online: “Does being a modern woman only really work once you have turned 58? Has Harriet [Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party] spent her entire life committed to the feminist cause, only to realise that it is in late middle age, and only then, that a woman can live the feminist dream?”
The headline for this article reads: “Why it’s Harriet Harman and others like her who run the world: It is only post-menopause that a woman can apply herself to a job the way that she did when she was in her twenties.”
Why would the author say such a thing? At the beginning of the article she says that “at the beginning and end of life, gender differences fade away.” I don’t know what she means by the beginning–I’ve observed a marked difference in male and female toddlers, for instance, although it’s true that early on there is no observable difference between a male and a female embryo–but apparently what she means by the end of life is after menopause, when women are not encumbered by the raising of children and presumably by the emotional ups and downs and preoccupations of menstruating, child-bearing-age women.
Many people say that pre-menopausal women are too emotional to hold leadership positions. This idea, although it has been debunked, is amazingly persistent, especially among men. But that’s not what the author is referring to. She points out that the absence of hormonal swings is not the only reason that it’s easier for post-menopausal women to take on positions normally reserved for men. She says that it’s mostly the absence of minor children in the home that makes it possible for women to “act more like men.”
Young people are full of enthusiasm and idealism, but it’s a misconception that they’re the only ones who can make things happen. Older people have the wisdom, yes, but also the time to devote themselves to a cause. All too often people find themselves in their thirties and forties derailed by the concerns of establishing careers and families. And this is especially true for women. Men are expected and given permission to devote themselves to their careers while women are encouraged, even mandated, to focus on their families. It’s only when the nest is empty that the mother bird can finally fly away herself.
Is it a fluke that the only women who have been appointed to the Supreme Court have been post-menopausal? Men don’t experience menopause (or at least not the way that women do); they are presumably always at their peak. But perhaps what really keeps women from cracking the glass ceiling is their familial duties. Women who accomplish a lot during their child-bearing years are either childless or fortunate enough to afford good child care (or have a husband who takes on at least an equal responsibility for the kids). Michelle Obama, the current poster woman for modern working women, didn’t raise her children without outside help.
It seems harsh to say that it is children who keep women from going very far in their careers. Actually, it isn’t the children per se, but their mothers’ dedication to them that makes it hard for a woman to claim her place in a man’s world. Until men are equally dedicated to their child-raising responsibilities (or women have access to quality affordable child care), it will always be that way.