Growing up I never really thought about the differences between boys and girls. Of course I knew there were many, especially when it came to puberty – I wasn’t the only teenage girl envious of boys who didn’t have to go through the trauma of starting their periods, the nightmare of communal school showers, the fear that your bulky pad (this was the seventies) might be somehow visible or, in a nightmare scenario, not hold up to the task in hand and leak.
Like many of my friends, I thought boys had it easy. They didn’t have to worry about becoming pregnant; boys were never left holding the baby. In my case, ‘worried’ isn’t a strong enough word: I was terrified. Not only did I not want to be lumbered with a baby that would seriously impact what I wanted to do with my life (as if I had any idea what that was) I didn’t want to have the emotional and financial responsibility for a child. I still don’t.
Older, I still envied men sometimes and, as a middle-aged woman, I’m not alone in celebrating the end of monthly periods whilst mumbling and grumbling about the other aspects of menopause and how men just don’t get it. I’m also aware that any woman with a partner doesn’t walk alone through the forest of physical changes and emotional upheaval this chapter of life brings. Many men, including my own husband, probably deserve a medal for not taking the easy path and buggering off, instead sticking with their spouse through these challenges. As a friend said: If I have no idea why I’m laughing one minute and crying/yelling/angry the next, how on earth would he? We’ve all seen that look in our husbands’ eyes as we bounce or crawl out of bed, the wariness as they wonder which wife they will get today.
Despite the issues I’ve faced over my life simply through the lottery of being born a woman, there are things I took for granted. For instance, I never questioned whether I would get the same education as a male. In woodwork class I made a fruit bowl, which I still have; in metalwork I stuck a rod of metal into a red-hot furnace – something I’m sure wouldn’t be allowed for either sex today – and twisted it into a toasting fork (which, in a house with radiators, would never be used); in plastics I heated resin, melting it to form a paperweight. No one ever told me I couldn’t do any of these because I was a girl, neither did they tell me I was prohibited from continuing my education for as long as I wanted to.
When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t due to the options being limited by my gender. There were some signs of the times – no one was surprised to see the section on job application forms asking, if you were a woman, whether you suffered from any ‘incapacity’ at all during your period and for how many days per month. I was lucky enough to be able to answer ‘no’, but neither I nor any of my friends questioned why on earth it was any of their business. Early this century a young colleague was left open-mouthed-stunned-into-silence when we older ladies reminisced about such times. It was the only time I’d known her lost for words.
I’m grateful I have always lived in a first world country where, although there is still room for improvement, in many respects women are treated no differently than men. I’ve never lived under a patriarchal thumb that denies me an education, or the right to justice if I have been wronged. I know if I am sexually abused that the law is on my side and I will not be the one held responsible or punished for the crime. I learned to drive as a teenager and the thought I would not be allowed to do so horrifies me. I’m no fashion plate but since I was a pre-teen I’ve picked my own clothes and worn as few or as many of them as I want to.
My grandmother was the only person to comment on how short my skirt was, or how much flesh I was baring (which, I might say, is a lot less than is generally bared now). It was always a gentle remonstration (as was anything she did) and always ended with a sigh and: But I suppose that’s what people do nowadays. Even a lady born in an era when revealing an ankle was frowned upon accepted that, although she didn’t like it much, the earth revolves and time moves on, changing as it does.
Or does it? A few months ago women around the world reacted with horror when time seemed to turn backwards, when girls raised to expect an education and to be able to decide their own life paths were suddenly thrust into a terrifying new normal of restrictions and controls by zealots. In an astounding coincidence, on BBC news, the article reporting this was alongside one reporting of a law change in a US state that meant women would face restrictions on what they could do with their bodies. Was this really happening?
The latest news from the world’s largest democracy (a statement that, in itself, raises questions) is more frightening. It’s hard to believe that lawmakers in the twenty-first century, including some of my own gender, can even contemplate dragging the cause of women back to the dark ages and denying them autonomy over their own bodies. Their reasoning, that there is no mention of abortion rights in The Constitution, is mirth-inducing, as though the group of old white men that wrote said document hundreds of years ago would ever think of the rights of a woman or a person who doesn’t look exactly like them.
I can shout and yell as much as I like but I can do nothing about any of these events because those making the decisions won’t listen to anything that the rest of us think sounds like reason. Their way is the only way and they will hear no argument. All I can do is be grateful that I don’t live in a country where I can be treated so and, worse, where I can do absolutely nothing about it.