Disclaimer: I am a woman

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At the moment I am writing about women in Switzerland for the book, and trying very hard to be fair. I almost think this chapter needs a disclaimer: I am a woman but the word may not mean the same thing to you as it does to me.

We are all products of our culture and family circumstances, and I have to hold my hands up and say that my background makes it very difficult for me to approach the Swiss situation in a non-judgmental way. I believe that the subjugation of women is the biggest swindle in human history. Nothing in my experience has taught me that women are in any way less important or less capable than men, therefore I cannot and will not accept any arrangement based on this idea.

My family is full of inspiring women, going back more than a century. I grew up in a three-generation household where both my mother and grandmother worked full-time as teachers. My maternal grandmother worked as a cook before she married, and later farmed a smallholding, while bringing up nine children. Her sisters emigrated to America to work. A great-grandmother on the other side was a ‘deserted wife’ who trained as a nurse in England in the 1910s and went on to work as matron of an old people’s home. There’s another great-grandmother who had her own toy shop in Dublin in the 1890s. One thing all these women had in common was that, somewhere along the line, the men in their lives could not be financially relied upon, mostly through no fault of their own. The women learned through experience that having children and doing paid work did not have to be mutually exclusive (disclaimer within a disclaimer: I think looking after children without doing paid work is equally admirable, as long as it’s a choice).

I come from an all-girl family, which meant I never experienced the division of chores on gender lines that happens in some households. I was just as often asked to wash the floor as cut the grass or bring in the coal. The secondary school I attended was also all-girls with a long tradition of fostering female achievement. A woman became president of my country when I was eighteen, not to mention that women got the vote in Ireland at the foundation of the state in 1922 (in Switzerland it was 1971).

By the time I noticed that my version of what it meant to be a woman was not the norm, it was too late. The meaning of the word had set in my mind forever. Forget about ‘Frailty thy name is woman’, I will always believe that women are strong, capable decision-makers. That is why I don’t like the ‘Irish Mammy’ cliché, which portrays Irish mothers as simple-minded old biddies. Funnily enough there is no popular incarnation of the Swiss mother, like the Italian or Jewish mamma or the Irish Mammy. One saving grace at least.

Have you ever thought about what the word woman means to you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

15 thoughts on “Disclaimer: I am a woman

  1. I’m not familiar with the Irish Mammy cliché, but clichés tend to be truth mashed into an easily commodifiable shape, and therefore practically useless for illuminating much. I agree that the subjugation of anyone is reprehensible. As a species, the subjugation of that part of us which can bring forth life is especially reprehensible. And not at all in our best interest!

  2. I was raised in an American family in the 50s-60s and my brother and I were pretty much on our own by the time I was 8, Both my parents worked. My mother could not stand the thought of being a “housewife” so she became a working mother–something waaaay before its time in the USA. Looking back at it, I am sure the neighbors through she was a horrible mother. I could not have chosen a better lady to call “mom!” I, as a result, because exceptionally self-reliant and taught myself how to cook, wash and iron my clothes, clean the house and have dinner on the table at 6:30 each night when my folks arrived home. On the weekends we ALWAYS did things and went places as a family. I never felt left out or neglected. Meanwhile I had a perfectly normal “boyhood” with the exception that I was much more respectful of women’s rights much beyond most of my peers. I married a young lady 48 years ago who trained as a nurse who, at the time, could well have gone on to be a doctor if her family had had the mindset and money to support such a concept. Today she still works. I cook most of the meals in the house including her dinner every night, and am happy and pleased that I can…she, on he other hand, makes a much better apple pie. Meanwhile, Clare, I assume you will be filling us in on the Swiss woman, yes?

    1. Yes, still working on it Marc. Your mother sounds like a formidable woman. I wonder what gave her that drive, whether she was reacting against things she’d grown up with or following in the footsteps of other trailblazers. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. A few weeks ago my sister and I saw “Suffragette.” What a movie! How infuriating it was to see how women were treated such a short time ago!

    I grew up in 1950s America, a time when girls wore skirts to school every day and sports teams were only for boys. I was a cheerleader and a lover of beautiful dresses. None of that kept me from getting top grades in “boy’s subjects,” but my expectations about a future career were limited to jobs the culture considered suitable for women. On the other hand, I saw examples of strong women all around me, and I didn’t have to think twice about whether or not I would go to college.

    I’m with Marc. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about Swiss women.

    1. I haven’t seen Suffragette yet – looking forward to it. I interviewed a 98-year-old Swiss sufragette the other day. Will be quoting her in the book. Her only comment about today’s women is that we have a lot of freedoms and should make wise choices.

  4. As someone fortunate enough to benefit from the suffragette movement as well as the fight for equality later on, the word “woman” means privilege to me! I too think of women as strong and capable decision-makers, and it was made eminently clear to me from a young age that I have to make my own personal, financial and professional decisions as well as live with the consequences of them. Not a bad thing at all considering the fate of some of our forbearers!

    1. I agree we’ve come a long way, and every small step of progress was hard won. It is a privilege to live in a society where women’s rights are recognised and protected. A pity it’s only a minority of countries who have made it that far.

  5. I never thought anything of gender equality until I hit puberty and noticed the differences in attitudes. The way that boys were tolerated and girls were subdued. The word ‘woman’ means ‘human’ to me. It means ‘the ability to choose’. It has multiple meanings, because a woman should be whatever she wants to be.

  6. To the person who posted an anonymous and lengthy comment yesterday using an empty wordpress profile, I don’t think this is the right forum for your debate. I considered refuting your argument line by line, in your style, but I’m afraid this would be too time consuming and futile. Nothing I could possibly say will change your mind about women. And vice versa. We’ll have to live with that.

  7. I totally agree with all you say here, Clare. I too attended an all girls school (grammar in my case) and I firmly believe it helped empower me as a woman and gave me the space and ‘permission’ to believe I could achieve whatever I set my mind on. Unfortunately, the sexism and double standards in the workplace later brought home the sad realities of functioning as a woman in society. I’m not sure, but I have a theory that all the good work achieved by feminism up to and shortly after the Second World War, was kicked in the face as advertising and commercialism started to shape our world and promote images of women (as either perfect housewife or mini-skirted, high-heeled hotty) which, alas, too many women bought into. You only have to look at ‘women’s’ mags and the way toys are marketed to girls for key examples. Aargh, going off for a scream …

    1. Well I might not be able to keep Barbie out of the house but I will win against women’s magazines. I think my job is to counteract all those crappy messages about women’s appearance, not deliver them. Couldn’t believe my (slim) nine year old saying the other day that her thighs were too fat and she needed to eat less! This from a girl with a great appetite and equally fast metabolism who has never heard me mention the word diet. Talk about all pervasive. My turn to scream!

      1. I hate to say it, but one of the biggest problems for me was kind aunties buying pink books about princesses, aka ‘find a man and live happily ever after’ stories. We can but do our best to balance it all. My 7 year-old and I saw our first Taylor Swift videos in a cafe the other day – Jesus wept! I’m afraid I turned into Germaine Greer and critiqued them for their anti-feminist vibes. We preferred Adele, but it was still all about losing your man and becoming unhinged as a result …

  8. One of the things I get very agitated about is when I hear men ranting on about discrimination. They get on their high horse, complaining about racist discrimination with never a thought for the discrimination they practice against 50% of the population, all colours included. Equality is for everyone, not just the menfolk. Encouraging little boys to behave like hoodlums and forcing little girls to sit for four hours at the hairdressers getting their tresses woven in, is encouraging people to live in the dark ages. Sexual discrimination is more prevalent, goes much deeper, and is harder to eradicate than any other form of discrimination. Maybe because we don’t hear enough men shouting about it.

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