Feminism, Choice and the Glass Ceiling: A Response

By Maheema Chanrai

This weekend, controversy ensued over comments reported in the Telegraph by leading headteacher Vivienne Durham, in which she critiqued the notion that women can ‘have it all’. She came under particular criticism for appearing to suggest that girls should choose between motherhood and a career, claims that she has since strongly refuted (incidentally, a copy of her interview with Absolute Education remains conspicuously absent online). However, amidst the furore, some of her other comments about women and the workplace have slipped under the radar, unchecked and unrepudiated, and it is these that I wish to address here. In particular, I would like to focus on the following statement: “I’m sorry, I’m not a feminist. I believe there is a glass ceiling — if we tell them there isn’t one, we are telling them a lie.”

Before I respond, I ought to mention that I am a former pupil of Durham’s at Francis Holland School. She was my headteacher for four years — incidentally, at exactly the stage of my life that she says young women must make these decisions. I admit this connection out of honesty; my disappointment and disgust do not come from any personal relationship. My issue is with Durham’s supposed comments, what they indicate about the wider perceptions of women in the workforce and how such antiquated beliefs still pervade modern minds.

A feminist, last time I checked, is someone who believes in full gender equality. Feminism is a broad and multifaceted ideology with several theories and approaches, and to disregard this complexity seems disingenuous. As the headteacher of an all-girls’ school — a supposed strong female role model and educator of young women — rejecting feminism so outwardly is quite frankly a dangerous and disempowering view to propagate. Worse still is the implication that feminism ignores the so-called ‘glass ceiling’, because it is precisely this that the feminist movement has fought so fervently to remove. In one sentence, she effectively dismisses the long and relentless history of struggle for equality by feminist activists that continues to this day, when in fact we should be educating more young people — men and women — about it.

Equally concerning is Durham’s reasoning behind the apparent choice that women have between their career and children. As she phrased it, “women still have to plan for a biological fact — motherhood.” The problem, however, is not biology. It is patriarchy, and the irrefutable fact that women face structural discrimination within the workforce. It is that decisions continue to be made about the working rights of women from a predominantly male and heteronormative perspective which ensures that we are systematically forced to confront this dilemma. Society should not be teaching young women to accept this choice as fact — that they can settle for half — but instead that their dreams, hopes and ambitions are just as valid as those of men.

I don’t disagree with everything Durham said. The question about whether women can ‘have it all’ is an important and legitimate one, about which society needs to have a frank and honest discussion.* Women often do need to think about their decision to have a family — just as men do. Society needs to talk about improving support systems for working parents, provision of childcare, maternity and paternity leave. We then need to enact these changes and abolish the ludicrous one-sided notion that this is a woman’s decision alone.

Durham also asserted that ‘society needed to be less judgmental on women who went down “the road less taken”’. I completely agree. A woman’s right to do whatsoever she chooses with her life is absolute, and no one should judge her on this. However, it is only through the imposition of deep-seated social change — such as truly universal welfare or a citizen’s income — that this choice might actually become available to every woman.

Fundamentally, Durham’s comments seem to exemplify the immense privilege from which she speaks. The choice not to have a career — for motherhood to be the only option — is one that most women in this country can quite simply not afford, often literally. It is the luxury of a privileged elite entirely unrepresentative of modern British women — and I say this as someone of a similarly privileged background. This is particularly evident if we consider working women through an intersectional lens. This false dichotomy reflects the most outmoded and outdated aspects of society in assuming the predetermined roles of man-as-provider and woman-as-mother that we really ought to have disposed of by now.

This brings me back to the crucial aspect of the glass ceiling that Durham apparently fails to understand. Of course it exists. The fight for equality is still not over. Centuries of patriarchal decision-making and entrenched misogyny mean that women are still structurally discriminated against for choices they might never make. What is implicit in her comments, however, is a belief that this glass ceiling — this symbol of invisible oppression — is an immovable object, weighing heavy on women’s heads and that we are too weak to do anything about it. We must not deny women this agency that we have worked so hard to win. We should instead be telling young women about these barriers, this oppression, this glass ceiling. Most feminists are. We’re also teaching them to smash it.

* The same Telegraph article references a report by Jo Swinson, former Minister for Women and Equalities, which stated that ‘girls cannot “have it all” and are unable to combine a successful career, motherhood and beauty’ (my emphasis). The inclusion of beauty — an entirely subjective opinion and no doubt one reflecting imposed, normative social constructs — is demeaning, insulting and has absolutely no place in this conversation.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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