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- Learnings Down the Years
Thursday, 3 August 2017
A Feminist ponders ...
The moment I held Amber Ann in my arms — just minutes after her birth — an unexpected cocktail of emotions nearly floored me; what can best be described as a mixture of unbridled joy mingled with apprehension.
My first grandchild was so perfectly formed, her eyes blinking in the bright hospital lights, her little fingers intertwined with mine. Of course, every baby is an individual miracle — but Amber was something of an actual miracle too, as my daughter-in-law Ewa, who suffered from endometriosis, had never believed she could conceive. Then, suddenly, she’d fallen pregnant, announcing it on my 75th birthday in a West End restaurant. I almost fell off my chair with excitement.
Much as I’d always longed for grandchildren, when I turned 70 I’d almost given up.
Both my son, Elias, a historian, now 52, and daughter, Mina, an editor and photographer, 50, married late in life, and I knew the chances were diminishing. Yet here was Amber Ann, my son’s first child, snuggling into my arms.
Sixties feminist Jeannette Kupferman is terrified of the world her new baby granddaughter is entering (Pictured in 1969, aged 28)
But as she did so, the emotions were more complex and bittersweet than the straightforward joy I’d anticipated. Of course, for now we can hold her safe, nurture her talents and encourage her development — but what will her future hold?
Just that morning another headline had caught my eye about schoolgirls feeling pressured to sleep with boys before they are ready. Not to mention the endless stories about the increasing numbers of teenagers experiencing depression, self-harming, eating disorders, atrocious bullying, sexting and gender uncertainty.
It makes me wonder what happened to the Brave New World we’d envisaged for our daughters and granddaughters. A world of unlimited possibilities, choices and equality for girls to become or do anything?
A world I — like many women — fought for in the Sixties.
Has feminism made life worse, not better, for today’s generation of girls?
Certainly, women have never existed in such a bleak emotional landscape.
The porn culture has virtually taken over every area of life, perhaps born from those Sixties cries for sexual liberation that you should have as much sex as you like, with whoever you like.
Today, even the most intimate acts are lived out onscreen. The ITV2 reality horror show Love Island, mercifully now finished, is just the culmination of years of the drip-drip effect of pornography; it’s bubble-wrapped candy floss with poison at its heart. Those involved might as well have been robots as there was precious little ‘love’ on show.
Meanwhile, traditional roles have become ever more ideologically despised — so much so that last week the very act of being a housewife or mother was banned from advertisements for perpetuating ‘outdated’ gender stereotypes.
For all the efforts of feminism, and the enlargement of women’s opportunities, it seems it’s also made that world more painful, complicated and unrewarding.
Burn your bras and wear miniskirts, we cried. Be free!
'The ITV2 reality horror show Love Island, mercifully now finished, is just the culmination of years of the drip-drip effect of pornography; it’s bubble-wrapped candy floss with poison at its heart' (Pictured with her granddaughter Amber Ann)
But aren’t young girls today just as imprisoned by the drive to bear their flesh as the cliched Victorian wife in crinolines? It’s almost as compulsory for a young woman to take a pouting semi-naked selfie today as it was for a teenager in the Fifties to wear bobby socks.
It’s somehow ironic that the one section of society which still dresses modestly — women in ethnic and religious minorities — say they do so to protect their sacred space as females.
Meanwhile, the majority of other young women brutally expose their bodies, catering to every tawdry male fantasy, as a sign of their ‘freedom’.
Who could have predicted such an obsession with thinness or worship of celebrities for the near-Frankensteinian outrages they inflict on their bodies?
The growing sexualisation of children continues with unsuitable tiny ‘bra’ bikinis and make-up and sex education at an unnecessarily early age. TV and the internet expose children to everything from crude language to sexual practices.
The things I worried about as a mother — failing exams, unwanted pregnancy, drinking too much — seem tame. How I fear for Amber Ann, in this age of endless choice and freedom.
The well-meaning battles we embarked on in idealistic youth have somehow robbed young women of the soul of femininity. We’ve lost something precious, distinctive and unique.
My own life — one where loss, hardship and struggle has always played a part — has taught me that simple pleasures matter just as much. And that’s the message I want to now share with my granddaughter’s generation. We’re in danger of losing the essence of womanhood in this brutal landscape.
A war baby, I was born while my mother, Eva, was an evacuee, and only returned to a grim post-war East London after my father, Nat, who eventually became a clothes manufacturer, was demobbed.
Though we had little money, I went to an exceptional primary school where a few inspirational teachers made all the difference, encouraging me to believe it was only education that would make for a better future.
'A war baby, I was born while my mother, Eva, was an evacuee, and only returned to a grim post-war East London after my father, Nat, who eventually became a clothes manufacturer, was demobbed' (Jeannette as a six-week-old baby with her mother and father in May 1941)
Later, I walked miles alone every day to my grammar school, and had a freedom few young girls today have as they are pressured into extra-curricular activities or hooked on phones: freedom to think, imagine — just be.
Those school years weren’t only about doing well in exams. It was about enabling yourself to reach your full potential regardless of the job you would end up doing.
When boyfriends came along (aged about 14), via the youth club and jiving competitions, there was no compulsion to have sex. We wouldn’t have dreamed of anything more than kissing in the cinema, and sending passionate love letters.
Virginity was still expected until an engagement was announced or some commitment made, and I had the sort of father who would stand waiting for me on the pavement after a date. A boy had to make some effort at courtship even to get that first kiss.
Contrast this with the recent scenes in EastEnders where a teenager agonises over whether to strip off in reply to her new boyfriend’s ‘sexting’ and is given conflicting advice by friends, as if it would be the most normal thing for a young girl to do.
Would I want my granddaughter to think this was normal — even desirable? I feel so sad for young girls who will never receive a beautiful love letter or go on a romantic date with no strings attached.
I didn’t receive any sex education at school, apart from basic biology. I had the rather awkward talk from my mother, but we picked up most of it from our friends and forbidden books.
What we did know was that — whatever the urge — you did not go ‘all the way’ as a pre-Pill unwanted pregnancy was not only a disaster for the girl, but a tragedy for everyone involved.
'After studying social anthropology at the London School of Economics, I became a dancer and a model for a while, escaped to New York and briefly worked as a research librarian. Then I made my parents very happy by marrying my late husband, Jacques, a painter, finally returning to London and having two children by the age of 24' (Pictured in with her mother, Eva Holding, and her baby son Elias, in 1965)
This attitude appears inhuman now, but I’m not sure it hasn’t gone too far the other way, making for uncaring short-lived relationships with teen girls often the victims.
I suppose the main difference is we had boundaries. We knew what was expected of us, even if we kicked against it. I meet so many young women who don’t and they grow up feeling confused and unhappy. We argued with our parents — often bitterly — but we still listened to them. We threatened to leave home, but mainly didn’t, even if, like myself, you were a rebel.
I annoyed my father with my black eyeliner, long fringe and tendency to associate with ‘unsuitable’ poets and jazz musicians. But throughout, I wanted to please my parents.
There was no ‘diet industry’. Three square meals were put on the table daily, including thick soups, meat, potatoes and two veg, puddings with custard — and jam sandwiches to keep you going in-between.
We ate every bit and, amazingly, kept our tiny waists and figures without gyms or starvation, probably because we walked miles every day, danced a lot and junk food was unknown.
In my childhood, chubby babies were admired and even plump teens were reassured it was ‘only puppy-fat’ (which it usually was).
Back in the era before liposuction, women weren’t made to feel insecure about their figures. Obesity was unknown. How ironic that in our era of juice diets, toxins, and superfoods, women are fatter and unhappier with their bodies than ever.
After studying social anthropology at the London School of Economics, I became a dancer and a model for a while, escaped to New York and briefly worked as a research librarian.Then I made my parents very happy by marrying my late husband, Jacques, a painter, finally returning to London and having two children by the age of 24.
My unease at the consequences of the search for equality started to bubble to the surface in 1979, when I wrote my first book, The MsTaken Body. Many of its predictions have come true.
My unease at the consequences of the search for equality started to bubble to the surface in 1979, when I wrote my first book, The MsTaken Body. Many of its predictions have come true
Inspired by my own teacher, the great anthropologist Mary Douglas, with whom I studied at University College London, I could already see that the women banging the drum for equality were going too far.
The spiritual joys and physical pleasures of womanhood had become ‘mechanised’ as I put it then; things that needed rectifying with political schemes to make us more like men, or medical treatment to quell our hormones and control our childbirth pangs.
Even birth has become too dominated by ‘choice’, overly technologised in the extreme.
Once a midwife came to your home to help you through birth. Now, the quest for equality — and medicalisation and male involvement in this once female domain — means many women have lost confidence in their capable bodies.
Although it’s seen as a great advance to involve fathers more in pregnancy and labour, and to have surgical teams on standby to assist in any birth, in some ways this has eroded women’s belief that she can do it alone.
Can it then be any coincidence that a growing number of women are terrified by what was once the natural way of things, and are having induced and difficult labours?
What was once a woman’s space has vanished. I felt so strongly about this that I trained as a National Childbirth Trust teacher and breastfeeding counsellor, teaching at Hammersmith hospital for a time, to try to help women rediscover the joys of this most natural, female act. It was an uphill battle.
I have learned, over the years, that the ‘stereotypical’ roles of femininity can give a sense of identity and security unmatched by anything in the corporate or professional world.
Having babies and showing domestic prowess doesn’t mean you have to be limited or stifled. On the contrary. And not having children — either through choice or circumstance — is no barrier to these nurturing, feminine roles.
The spiritual joys and physical pleasures of womanhood had become ‘mechanised’ as I put it then; things that needed rectifying with political schemes to make us more like men, or medical treatment to quell our hormones and control our childbirth pangs
After having my children, I got two further degrees, taught briefly and then built up a career as a writer and broadcaster.
Simultaneously, I tried to run a traditional household, cooking, entertaining and finger-painting with my toddlers. I often worked through the night and sometimes succumbed to the strain.
But I was there for my children. The overarching lesson of my life is that the people in it matter, and my ability to be there for them — as a woman, wife and mother, in all the many and varied expressions of both those roles — is vital.
I learned that life turns on a sixpence, and sadly you can lose ones you love. I was widowed young, aged 44, when Jacques died of cancer at 61. As a mother, I did overload my daughter with activities at times, encouraging her to aim high, perhaps placing a bit too much emphasis on work. But that was all part of the ‘Superwoman’ having-it-all ethic, which we now know isn’t true.
I’ve long been happy and secure enough in myself that I will don a pinny, scrub a floor and make jam, not seeing it as a threat to the other professional and public roles I have.
We’ve forgotten that even everyday tasks can nourish the soul — and you can find contentment in the boring certainties
Indeed, I find it relaxing, almost spiritual in a way, to express myself as a woman in these traditional ways.
We’ve forgotten that even everyday tasks can nourish the soul — and you can find contentment in the boring certainties.
I hope my little Amber Ann discovers this, too. Whatever she becomes, she can create a good home-cooked meal, sit quietly in the garden with a book, or enjoy a day at the seaside with her own children.
I hope she has the faculty to be excited by some wonderful music, or transported by a ballet or painting.
I want her to feel euphoria because of the rare richness and uniqueness of life, and because of pride in her own innate womanhood — not be sozzled with booze or worse, ending up destroying body and soul in some demeaning, meaningless sexual encounter.
A rich and rewarding life isn’t one necessarily filled with endless choices. I hope she will have the luxury of more time than most girls today, to have a stillness and peace that will encourage creativity and daydreaming.
I want her not to be imprisoned by all those supposedly ‘equal’ choices out there, but to be loyal to her true self.
As a loving grandmother, my wish for her is not only to be kind, resilient and resourceful, but above all, confident as a woman in every single sense of the word.