Shortly after I left work, with my eldest in preschool, my daughter a toddler and my youngest a protuberance under my top, I went to Marks and Spencer to buy some furniture. As is the fate of most children when another’s on its way, ours was being ousted from her cot-bed and into a new big girl model, so that the incoming baby would have a place to sleep.It was all part of a major reorganisation. We had decided to bite the bullet and buy a fair amount of furniture, on interest-free credit, while it was on offer.
So I stood, for hours, completing the paperwork, resting No2 and my stomach on the counter, as we filled in form after form after form. I don’t know if it’s the aching weariness that makes me remember it so vividly, but I can still recall the jolt that came from completing the “status” bit. I wasn’t a solicitor any more. I was, for the purposes of the finance company, unoccupied. Having spent such a long time being unhappy with the ramifications of my job, dreaming of the day when I could “just” concentrate on my family, I was surprised to mind so much that I had to tick the only box which applied to me, though I didn’t recognise myself in it.
A few years on, I still struggle with not knowing what to call myself. “Homemaker” gives a frankly misleading impression of the state of my interior decor, let alone my skirting boards. “Full time mum” is insulting to those who work outside of the home. “Stay at home mum’? I wish I did. Since I can’t decide what I want to be called, I’m not really bothered that no-one else can either. I’ll tick the box left over when all the other options are ruled out, and get back to the reality of my day-to-day. It doesn’t matter much.
In fact, it only matters at all because, for right or wrong, there are times when we need to define people by what they primarily do. If I had a proper career or occupation alongside what I do at home, I’d be happy to be referred to by that. I would expect to be, in fact; the status of “mother” or “housewife” or whichever variant is used is only publicly relevant in that I currently have no other face to present (and, even then, it’s arguable whether it is at all). When I did, work, though, I would have taken exception to having a footnote against my professional status to the effect that I am a woman and a mother. I would have been outraged to be introduced to a client or colleague, overtly or otherwise, as such. When I was at work, as a solicitor, I was a solicitor, not a bit of everything that makes me who I am. I did not bring another facet to the negotiation of a contract for carriage of goods by virtue of once having carried children. I did not draft more persuasively because I had that morning succeeded in bribing my children out of the house in time for nursery. I did not advise board members on issues which affected the business with an eye to the impact on the female constituents of it.
Regardless of the personalities, I could never not welcome the presence of more women in Government. Not because, as political commentators relating today’s Cabinet reshuffle have implied, they will somehow speak for me, or that they share my concerns as mothers or that they bring a unique perspective simply by dint of their physical makeup. But because I dream of a day when women are allowed to participate equally, when their political credentials can be examined – and, yes, savaged – as are those of their male counterparts, rather than as a sideline to what should be peripherals: gender, motherhood or otherwise, appearance. When the fact that a woman becomes a minister is not, in itself, worthy of news, and when the reports of her promotion don’t refer to her as a “working mum” or “surrounded by flashbulbs”.
Somehow, the fact of whether male politicians have children never seems to be mentioned, nor what they’re wearing when they get the tidings of a new job. I am not going to write about the merits of all-women shortlists, or the mechanics of how we get more women into positions of power. How to achieve equality of platform is beyond me. Alongside all such developments, though, must be a parity of language and treatment in the media. Continuing to emphasise that women are a background, added colour, some kind of token human touch does nothing to further their promotion and everything to reinforce the prejudice of those who see support of women as unwonted and unmerited positive discrimination. Whether I like them or not, the women who have been promoted today are career politicians. And that aspect of them, really, is all we need to hear – and talk – about.