It is easy to have a discussion but impossible to have a debate when everyone has the same opinion, which is why panels incorporating people from many divergent backgrounds have the most success, which is why Socrates and Parmenides were able to debate and so many other people from our past. Today it is normal for panels to be set up on important matters where the subjects are discussed rather than debated, where all are of roughly the same opinion, and where it is a foregone conclusion what is going to come out as a decision at the end of the day. It is also quite normal to have decision-making organs, in government and business, set up where none of those involved, empowered to make decisions, are in any way directly affected by the outcome. A health committee specialising on women’s health, and no female members? Hard to believe, but something called in to being by the government of the United States this year. So, when you write:
I get the feeling that our views differ so much in certain areas that you may end up considering me to be a rather terrible person
then I have to say that our views differ here too: I have no problem with someone holding a different view to mine, based on their own upbringing, their own experiences, their own understanding of a situation. I am also not one to set out on a course of correction, or to try and force anyone to change their opinion simply because it differs from mine: I’ve met those people, and I don’t enjoy talking with them, let alone trying to get a word in edgeways when attempting a debate. There are some who will not let those of a differing opinion talk at all, constantly cut in, interrupt with their own opinion or, just as bad, switch off and then come back with exactly the same arguments again, having not listened to a word which has been said by others. To be able to listen, whether it changes your opinion or not, is a far higher virtue in my mind than anything else: we listen and learn, sometimes we discover an error in our own thinking, sometimes we discover that two sides are far closer than we had thought, and gain not only mutual understanding, but also build and retain mutual respect.
You must remember, however, that my initial points over which we are now debating were confined almost exclusively to a different era, to the Victorian times when the treatment of women in society, in business, in education was poles apart from that which we are lucky enough to experience today. Women were very much confined to their homes in this period, regardless of whether they had maids or servants, nurses and governesses, unless they had permission from their husbands and the friends they sought out were approved. The men, however, had complete freedom of movement and could partake of personal friendships, club evenings and diverse other activities without a second thought for their family home. In the event of a divorce it was the woman who was removed from the house, and divested of all her worldly effects, even when she had brought money into the marriage. Women were also required to have their husband’s permission before opening a bank account, something which was still practiced in Germany as late as 1950. This change was also brought about in the United States, where the International Woman’s Year conference supported an Equal Rights Amendment and voted on what they should be supporting. One of these was also that women should be empowered to have their own bank accounts, under their own names, and be capable legally, of controlling their own finances whether single, married, or divorced. This, however, was in 1977.
There was also a period, which has not necessarily completely ended, where it was expected that women would finish their lower education – that is, an education of a lower standard than that of men – and leave school at fifteen to enter, as soon as possible, into marriage and raise children. The television series I Love Lucy propagated the ideal that women were considerably less capable of doing anything in life, other than serving up food, cleaning and raising children for many years, pushing an attitude which lasted through the Fifties and then began to disappear in the Sixties.
The idea that women are unable to perform many of the jobs men do equally well has long since been disproved. That some types of work are better done by men is obvious, exactly the same as some done by women are in better hands, but a strict separation of what is acceptable for men and what for women makes no sense whatsoever. We have seen two world wars where women simply took over the work of the men, with equal if not better success. We see today many businesses flourishing because women either un them, or are in higher management positions and can direct accordingly.
That the father of a child should be predominantly absent and thereby, whilst earning the family bread, earn the respect of his children is a fallacy long since disproved. A loving, present father figure brings far more to a child, both socially and educationally, as a distant figure who is seldom there. There is no fundamental reason why the male in a relationship should not be responsible for the care of children whilst his wife works, and in many relationships this functions far better than in what we tend to still regard as a normal family. These normal families, it is also worth noting, suffer from up to fifty percent divorce rates, bringing the likelihood of a single parent family more into the ranks of a social normality than two parents living together. Likewise the growth in families where both parents are of the same gender has been shown to work considerably better, socially and otherwise, than the standard man-woman configuration.
Why should a woman be confined at home and be forced to work a fifteen or eighteen hour day? That is, basically, what some demand. The wife rises early to ensure that all have their breakfast and are ready for work or for school, then works through the entire day with cleaning, provisions, preparations for children’s and husband’s return home, makes the evening meal and then cleans up the remains after all have finished. This is akin to what we might term slavery, and abhorrent to many in a normal social setting when it is outside of marriage. These same women are often not given the time to build and expand friendships, whereas the men happy disappear to the bar, out with friends at the weekends and undertake many other activities where women are either excluded, or only included because they are the ones preparing, providing for and cleaning up after the event.
The idea that women should bring children into the world and raise them has long since run out of steam. We are, in many parts of the world, over populated and have massive logistic problems ensuring that all mankind has food and water. Why the desperate need to increase numbers when we are incapable of handling what’s here now? This idea goes back to a time when nations were more often at war with one another, the men disappeared into battle and did not return. The women – single parent families here – were expected to raise more boys and men to send off to fight. Female children were a burden – and are often still seen as such in societies such as the Chinese, where the female child is often abandoned as useless. There is no longer a need to increase the size of a nation through increasing the population with more and more children. What nations need today are people who are trained to handle what we have and to ensure that society functions as it should. We have had, and will continue to have – in Europe at least – a period of peace, where stocking up on suitable cannon fodder is no longer necessary.
My own comments were to the effect that women were oppressed – as some still are –and not treated as humans. Times have changed, fortunately, but there is still a long way to go. This is not an idealistic vision, it is a fact of life: society changes with the times. An idealistic vision would be, from the man’s point of view, where everything is done for him and he can come back from a relaxing day’s work in the office, at his bank, in the club, settle in the easy chair by the fire and pout his feet up, confident that he will be served and serviced as his tastes demand. The idealistic point of view for the female is where she is able to use her education, as one example; where she is able to make friends in the same manner and with the same freedom as men do; where a career is not cut out from under her feet and a less well trained and less experienced person promoted over her simply because he wears a suit and has dangling bits between his legs.
There are considerably more single parent families in the United States than ever before, and the majority of them are fully functional regardless of whether the parent present is male or female. Not all children of single parent families end up incarcerated, nor do they slide into poverty. Many are more than capable of taking a full and complete role in society, and prove themselves to be better members of that society than those who have been coddled and wrapped in cotton wool all their lives. Again, this is not an idealistic society, it is the society that we have now. If that were not so, the prison population would be half the population of the United States or higher.
There are many economic factors involved in all of these changes, and mostly ones which the more conservative economists do not care to acknowledge. For one generation it would be difficult for the welfare state to support pensioners, as those paying in to pension funds would be lesser, and those drawing out would be greater. This is hardly a problem for the United States, where pensions are handled in a completely different fashion, and more for Europe where a state pension is guaranteed. The problem is, however, easy to get around with care and forethought. Likewise health care, which functions in Europe as a mixture of worker’s payments and employer’s payments benefitting all.
In the end it makes little difference what anyone sitting around a debating table may wish or claim: the individuals who make up our society decide what they wish to do, and ordering them to do otherwise is doomed to failure. China again, with its one child policy: had it been a success the population would have halved in one generation; it did not. The individuals who make up society decided for themselves whether they wanted to have children or not, and how many; the one child policy has been abandoned.
I come into a debate in a completely different fashion to many people I know. I have an opinion and believe I can back up my opinion with facts and figures as well as experience. I have no doubt that those on the other side of the table are of the same opinion when it comes to their side of the argument. However, unlike other people, I am not interested in convincing someone else that they are wrong, merely in presenting my own views and letting them, if they are prepared to listen and consider, make their own decisions. There is nothing worse than forcing your opinion in another person who you have not listened to first, who may have a completely different way of life, a different outlook, and who may be more than capable of being a resounding success through their own means and methods than we are with ours.
There can be no overall balance in the world, no matter how hard we may try to find, create or maintain it. The reasoning behind this, for me: we are all individuals and have our own vision of what balance is or should be. In the business world that balance is separated by our position: those who wish to further their business and its profits; those who wish to climb the ladder to a higher position; those who wish to work at their chosen career quietly and earn enough to live comfortably on. It is impossible to balance these together, since one or another is climbing over the bodies of colleagues to gain, or using the workforce to gain, or allowing themselves to be exploited because they have all they believe they need. Each takes advantage of each move by the other sectors to their own advantage, at the cost of the others, thus preventing any balance which might have been attainable.
On a personal level, outside of the rivalries of business, balance is possible according to the choices we make for our lives: balancing time with family, friends and work being one example. It also depends a great deal of the groups to which we feel ourselves drawn, and to which interests we believe ourselves to be most suited: a certain group of people will bring advantages and security to one person, but not to another, something which I am sure you see almost every day. But it only takes one small step in the wrong direction, a word out of place, and the balance achieved can be broken or simply upset and we are forced to begin from the beginning once again.
There are those who say that action is the only way forward, that the time for words is past. I think this depends on the situation; eventually we are going to have to get up and do something, but it is always good to know what, and also to know exactly what a group is up against if they wish to achieve some target. There is too much ignoring of reality: too much claiming that we need not listen to the other side because they are opposed to us; too much demanding of our own Rights and Freedoms at the cost of those same Rights and Freedoms for other people. Sometimes it is good to talk, but it is always good to listen, to learn.
There are many excellent points in your letter which I have not addressed here, but which I am sure we will be able to come back to, discuss, debate or whatever, over time. I enclose a small something by way of supporting my own argument: women fire fighters, just as capable of fighting fires as men are capable of boiling eggs. Although, to be honest, the uniforms suit the men better.