The Three Degrees of Feminism
Amsterdam Weekly december 2008 door Rebacca Wilson
Replacing old boys networks with new girls
Roos Wouters a 32 year old political scientist, had never considered herself a feminist. Feminists were man-hating women of her mother’s generation, who wouldn’t rest until they’d gotten their husbands to slave away at the ironing board, while they themselves were off aggressively demanding equal treatment in the workplace. ‘Those feminists of the second wave want to turn men into fifties housewives, and women into men’, she says. Whereas Wouters made a more traditional choice: motherhood was most important to her, so she had her first child before finishing her degree and her second before the age of thirty, which is unusual for a Dutch university-educated woman, who tend to kickstart their career first before starting a family in their thirties. Yet this weekend Wouters is chairing one of three think tanks trying to solve contemporary feminist issues at the second Women Inc Festival. How did she end up in that position?
Women Inc isn’t an organisation or a women’s group, it’s a ‘platform’ produced by De Cultuurfabriek, a company facilitating cultural-societal projects. Their aim is to inspire change by bringing different people together to learn from each other. ‘The energy that these meetings release can be a real catalyst,’ says Meinke de Veer, program coordinator for Women Inc. Women Inc’s first edition in 2005 was conceived as a contemporary take on the woman’s movement. The idea was to celebrate ‘women with guts’ by bringing them together for a weekend of music, debate, workshops and culture. From now on, feminism was to be fun.
Since then, De Cultuurfabriek has continued bringing different kinds of women together to discuss current women’s issues at their popular Women Inc monday evening talkshows at Pakhuis de Zwijger. This weekend, Princess Máxima will officially open the second Women Inc festival that takes place at the Beurs van Berlage.
The two days again feature fun stuff: a black hair workshop, mass dance workout, and an inspirational workshop that teaches visualisation techniques among many more activities. In true platform style, many organisations participate in Women Inc: documentary festival IDFA has a side program, Agnes Jongerius, chairperson of trade union FNV leads a workshop in negotiating your salary. But despite these lighter elements, this edition’s overall theme is more serious: ‘women who stand for change’. Realizing that watching a documentary or learning to write poetry in a book lounge doesn’t do that much for the advancement of womankind, De Cultuurfabriek aimed its own contribution to the festival a little higher. ‘We wanted to organise something that can generate actual results,’ says De Veer, ‘so we came up with the New Girls Networks.’ As an antidote to staid old boys networks, De Cultuurfabriek assembled three groups of people from different fields and backgrounds, who are to form think tanks, meeting for the first time during the festival. Their combined knowledge plus the input from the audience should result in new strategies for achieving three targets deemed most relevant among twenty by Women Inc website visitors.
The first target, chaired by Lilianne Ploumen, the chairperson of the social-democrat party PvdA, is ‘stop violence in the home, start with economic independence of women’. The second network seeks to achieve gender balance in the top layers of business, science and government by the phased introduction of a quotum system. It is chaired by Heleen Mees, a woman who is so outspoken that she’s not just a feminist: she’s a power feminist. The last target, the one Roos Wouters chairs, is called the emancipation of parenthood. She thinks the burden of raising children is an issue of both men and women, and wants to find new ways for society to facilitate this. And she, too, has a new word for her ideas: femanism – signifying the fact that she thinks men need and want to be involved in the movement, rather than seen as the enemy, the way she says feminists do.
As a well-educated Dutch woman growing up in the post-feminist 1980s, Wouters always assumed it wouldn’t be difficult to balance a career with family, and expected to find a job in her field that would allow her enough time with her kids. ‘I kept ending up in part-time, low-level jobs,’ she said. ‘In starter positions, employers are looking for people willing to prove themselves and put in those extra hours, not mothers who are less flexible with their time.’ Her partner also faced problems balancing home and the workplace. ‘My partner really wants to help raise our kids,’ said Wouters. ‘That’s a given for men of my generation. But employers and society still don’t facilitate this. He is constantly pressured into putting in more hours at work.’ The intention to break traditional patterns was there, but the circumstances made it difficult. Research from 2005 from the government agency Social Cultural Planning Bureau, shows that women still spend 21 hours per week ‘caring for others’, not much less than the 30 hours per week they spent caring in 1975. This makes it difficult to build up a career as well. Wouters ended up suffering from overexhaustion when she was working at local tv-station AT5. It was during the subsequent couple of months ‘in the sandbox’, prescribed by her doctor, that she got talking to the other parents there and realized that this problem was not just her own. ‘I thought I was a failure,’ Wouters recollects, ‘always wondering how everybody else did it. But when I spoke to so many people who ran into the same problems, I realized I wanted to do something about it.’ She started writing about this in various publications and was invited to speak at a Women Inc Monday talkshow. ‘I was frightened at first. I had that scene pegged as traditional feminist,’ says Wouters, ‘but my femanism was a hit from the start. And now I’m chairing this network, which is daunting as well, but important.’
Wouters, who is now working three days as a public relations professional for the Council for Public Health, and other women like her need to find their own middle ground between two opposing views of modern womanhood. On the one side is the power feminism of Heleen Mees, 39, a columnist for Dutch national broadsheet NRC Handelsblad, economist and legal professional who lives and works in New York as an expert on the European Union. Her much-discussed book, Weg met het deeltijdfeminisme! (Away with Part-Time Feminism!) (Nieuw Amsterdam, april 2007) puts forward the view that: ‘it’s high time that women in the Netherlands de-mother.’ Official government statistics show that less than ten percent of Dutch mothers work full time. ‘Ninety percent of working men work full time, and the arrival of kids doesn’t change that,’ Mees told feminist magazine Opzij in a recent interview. ‘The “one and a half earner model” has become the standard.’ But more women than men attend university and they perform better there, as Mees writes. A waste of talent Dutch society can ill afford because of its aging population and the Asian economies ready to take over. ‘Women need to finally really get to work’. That’s why she targets getting women in higher positions with her New girls network: ‘You’ll have to offer us the prospect of top positions. Because if we’re only going to do the bad jobs we might as well stay home.’ she says.
Staying home was a conscious but unexpected choice for Fleur Jurgens, 36, a freelance journalist and proud mother of soon to be three, who represents the counter-position. When she had he first child she found herself changed beyond recognition. ‘I never thought I’d be this bourgeois,’ says Jurgens, who has a past as a squatter, ‘but when my daughter started school I immediately left my stable job to be able to wait for her at the school gates.’ This influenced her take on the woman’s movement: ‘I think we need to move towards a more womanly feminism, acknowledging that the motherly instinct does exist. Mees only takes economics into consideration, not what women actually want.’ In response to Mees’s book, Jurgens wrote her own, titled Leve de burgertrut!, Long Live the Bourgeois Housewife (Meulenhoff), which is published this week, about ‘the importance of a stable home life, that has been too easily cast aside by sexually liberated second wave feminists.’ Jurgens, one of many children of divorce in her generation, writes that ‘civilisation begins in the home. That’s where you learn to postpone your own needs and be considerate of others. A good society rests on well-functioning families.’
Wouters too feels that feminism has been too derogatory of the importance of the home. ‘I think raising children well is one of the most important jobs in society.’ Saskia Poldervaart (61), who teaches gender studies and political science at the University of Amsterdam, says this view of early feminists is unfair. ‘They did react against always having to care for their husband and children, having to be nice. They rejected servitude. But at the same time, they fought for better child care facilities. They looked for solutions beyond the family in solving the work-child care dilemma: sharing school runs and after school care with other parents. I myself shared the care for my two children with two other divorced women and a couple; we maximized our working hours and the children could play together.’ Fighting for better child care facilities, economic independence for women and more involvement of men in the home life is still the way to go, asserts Poldervaart.
Economic independence is still a long way off for most women, 42% , a percentage measured in 2004, is the number minister for Education, Culture and Science Ronald Plasterk cites in his recent policy statement ‘More chances for women. Emancipation policy 2008-2011’. Plasterk writes that the former government’s objective of achieving economic independence for 60% of women by 2010 is no longer feasible – he now hopes to achieve this by 2016 by focusing his policy on economic participation of women, getting those not working on the job market but mainly upping the hours of those parttimers already out there. Though presently hardly any part time working women are looking to do this, 84% say they would if certain conditions were met. The conditions included ‘if I could work from the home more’, ‘If I got time off when a family members falls ill’, ‘If I could pay someone to take over the housework’ and ‘If I had a nicer job’. Plasterk has initiated a task force, ‘parttimeplus’ to achieve (momentum for) these objectives.
Plasterk’s policy shares Mees’s objective of getting more women in high level jobs, where they are currently underrepresented. According to a 2007 Grant Thornton Business Report, the percentage of women in senior management in the Netherlands is 13% – the global average being 22%. But they don’t seem to mind. To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Joke Smit’s ‘Het onbehagen bij de vrouw’(The Discomfort of Woman), the article that launched Dutch feminism, Opzij magazine and its former rival, Margriet, a ladies journal, asked Dutch women to weigh in on the state of feminism. Two-hundred and forty-five Opzij subscribers, 259 Margriet subscribers, and an additional representative cross-section of 504 women were polled on work, motherhood, housework and other traditional feminist issues.
In answer to the question, ‘Is it important to you to climb up the career ladder in your job?’ only 37 percent of the cross section polled, and 55 percent of the Opzij-readers polled, said Yes. The Opzij poll results divided respondents into four categories: the career woman, the family woman, the woman who had chosen to remain childless and the ‘combination woman’. The first three groups rated their happiness at 7.9 out of 10, but the ‘combination women,’ no doubt facing all those balancing problems, were one tenth less happy.
If these results indicate that most women are happy in low-level part-time jobs, what’s the fuss, asks Jurgens? ‘In my humble opinion, the choice for (part time) motherhood should be seen as a choice for accepting responsibility for others,’ she writes. Yet Mees feels accepting responsibility for others means ensuring there are enough women in powerful positions to help realize change, as she pointed out in an interview with Volkskrant Magazine earlier this year. ‘Only there [ at the top ed.] can we help make decisions and show that we aren’t the second sex.’
Case in point is the fact that Plasterks policy statement at no point suggests men have a part to play in offering women more chances in the paid economy. Instead he writes ‘it is very important for this cabinet that the increasing economic participation of women should not have a negative effect on the care of children.’ ‘I was shocked,’ Roos Wouters says. ‘You’re really putting the whole burden on us women now,’ I thought.’ When Plasterks policy was criticised in parliament by virtually all parties, he explained ‘I chose to push [women ed.] rather than pull [men], causing Mariëtte Hamer, member of parliament for his own party, PvdA, to counter that there’s no point in pushing women if you don’t push men in some direction too – something Roos Wouters found out the hard way. Saskia Poldervaart too finds Plasterks ideas sadly lacking. ‘Why doesn’t he say that the ongoing full time economic participation of men should not affect the care for children?’ she demands. Shared parenting is the way forward, she says, ‘men need to feel more responsible.’
Roos Wouters and her network will have their work cut out for them this weekend. They’ll have to try hard to generate push factors that make it easier for all those well intentioned men out there to put their money where their mouth is. One thing Wouters is planning is a campaign for longer father’s leave. Now, fathers get two days off when their child is born, but the Green Left party is asking for a two week leave. ‘Longer leave means men can get involved with caring for the child right away, whereas now, the mother gets a head start that makes it hard for fathers to catch up,’ says Wouters. If you have any other ideas on pushing men towards being dads, head off to the Beurs van Berlage this weekend and be a new girl in Wouters’ network. Good audience input now can help her to achieve something when she reports back to Women inc next February. Feminism Women inc style is not just fun anymore. If you too stand for change, pick ‘n’mx your own brand of feminism from womanly feminism, powerfeminism or femanism, and make it happen. Just don’t make the same mistake as minister Plasterk, ladies bring the husband.
Women Inc will take place at the Beurs van Berlage on December 1st and 2nd.
Fleur Jurgens’ book Leve de burgertrut! is published November 29th.