Argus article : Women still held back by care role
Two weeks ago, the Office for National Statistics reported that women in their 40s earn 20% less per hour than their male counterparts. Subsequently, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee reflected with concern on how the drive for women’s equality has foundered.
She wrote “….Most poverty would be solved if the jobs women do were equally valued. But the old attitudes remain: women are “natural” carers, cooks and cleaners.”
She added: “The motherhood penalty starts in pregnancy, when 30,000 women lose their jobs, never mind what the law says….70% of recruitment agencies are told by clients to avoid hiring women of child-bearing age….”.
If a career is often damaged by motherhood, caring for elderly parents will often deliver a knock-out blow. Research has shown that almost 60% of such carers are middle aged women.
A report by the National Institute of Social Work (1994) about the care of confused older people reported that 27% of carers were depressed. As well a woman might be if, after years of rearing her children she finds her hopes of self-fulfilment or career development dashed because she has to take on a new set of unpaid caring responsibilities.
And yet, things are better than they once were. I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I met with a group of older women in Brighton and listened to their accounts of what they called the “sacrifice of daughters”. Acknowledging the emotional and social pressure that still drives daughters to care for parents in their old age, they recalled a time when in large families one daughter at least was expected to remain unmarried in order to care for parents.
One woman said “I know of one daughter whose father was a martinet. She was told “You can’t marry because you have to look after us”. She desperately wanted to have children, but she couldn’t. She did eventually marry and it was a long and happy marriage, but she was in her fifties and so never did have children.” The group fell silent, the women’s thoughtful faces expressing more forcibly than words could have done a sense of choices denied and opportunities missed.
This story reminded me forcibly of one of my own great aunts. Her history was to have a profound effect upon me, influencing me more than anyone – apart from my mother – to become a feminist.
Auntie Martha was my grandfather’s sister. They were the eldest children in a large family of 10 children. Like her brother, she was intelligent and forceful. However, it was he who was sent away to boarding school – at least until his father’s business ran into difficulties – and she who stayed at home caring for the little ones. In adulthood she was expected to care for her parents.
My grandfather became a successful businessman, a councillor and a magistrate. He married and he and his family lived well. She remained at her mother’s side and after her mother’s death lived in poverty. She never married. My mother said “There was someone once, but I think he died or her mother ended it.” It’s a shame because she would have been a good mother. She loved children and was very kind to me.
When I was a child I heard a rumour that she had had a fine voice. Certainly, she was musical. I remember her telling me once, without a shred of self-pity, that my grandfather, of whom she was very fond, had broken her violin. He had apparently lost his temper and hit her with it. I don’t think she ever had another.
I loved Auntie Martha. She was old by the time I knew her, little, wizened and wrinkled like a dried berry, with a flaming circle of bright, red rouge on each cheek. Skinny, flat-chested, appallingly dressed and with her toes turned out in cheap plastic “flatties” , she looked nothing like her deeply respectable brothers and sisters. She didn’t behave like them either. Every day of her old age was steeped in rebellion.
She’d laugh and say of her siblings “I bloody know what they think when they look at me…They think, “Poor old Martha”. I wiped their bottoms. Now they look down on me”. I was fascinated. I knew no other old women who wore rouge and swore. “Bugger it” she’d say as she yanked on her sagging and laddered stockings.
My mother and I would visit her in the crumbling Victorian block in which she lived. The lower floors were shabbily respectable, but higher up the building it was dark and forbidding.
I felt nervous as my mother and I walked along cavernous sunless corridors to her single room. On the right hand side of the corridor as we approached there were heavy doors, each presumably leading to a small room like my aunt’s. On the left was a wall and dirty windows looking down into a paved yard. Despite visiting many times I do not recall ever seeing another living soul. I looked forward to seeing Auntie Martha but was glad to leave the building. I would have been frightened to live there,
Her plain, lined face would light up when she saw us. Her eyes would sparkle as she planted a kiss on my cheek. “Hello Jeannie” she’d say “Come and sit by me on the bed”.
She slept on a tiny camp bed under thin sheets and blankets. There were one or two hard backed chairs, but no arm chair. She had a tiny 2 ring table-top stove and a fridge which never seemed to work. The window was too high to open and there was no fresh air so the room smelled of old food, bad milk and dust. I’d try not to breathe, but I couldn’t quite manage it.
Auntie Martha scandalised the family by betting on horses, though she rarely won. She chose the numbers by reference to spirits with whom she claimed to be able to communicate. She once pointed them out to me, saying they were visible on the ceiling, but try as I might I couldn’t see them.
The family arranged for meals on wheels, but she threw the dinners into the courtyard and ate cold porridge instead. Most scandalous of all in white South Africa, she had an African man friend. I never met him, but I think he worked in the building. From what she said, they squabbled and fought, and she hurled insults at him, but he kept her company and laid her bets for her, no doubt taking a healthy commission. The aunts and uncles twittered and tutted, implying risk to honour, but she refused to reject her friend – or to move to the old people’s home they offered her.
I don’t know quite what happened next. One day I heard worried whispers that Martha had accused someone of raping her. Nobody seemed to believe her – it was suggested that elderly spinsters had “fantasies” – but my mother thought it probably true. Apparently, Martha had given intimate details about the assailant – a middle aged white man – which supported her account. I don’t think the police even bothered to look for the man. Martha was never the same again.
I visited her just once in the old people’s home. She lay on a white hospital bed under a white blanket in a clean white room. She didn’t kiss me, or swear or laugh, but lay still, apparently waiting for death. It did not take long.
After she died they found a note saying she wanted me to have her rings. My mother wouldn’t let me have them because she said it would cause trouble in the family. Instead someone gave me her little National Panasonic radio. Scarcely bigger than the palm of a woman’s hand, and impossible to tune, it was the only radio she had. I have it still.
My aunt was clever and she was capable, but belonged to a generation of women that had few choices and little freedom. While my grandfather lived a happy and fulfilled life, hers was tragically wasted.
It is true that those of us who have achieved greater freedoms stand on the shoulders of women such as Martha. But, looking about me, I have no confidence that the days of wasted lives are truly gone.
Too many women still sacrifice their lives on the altar of duty. Too many men are happy to let them do so.