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Embrace the change

By Jane Caro - posted Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Back in 1963, the prestigious British TV program Panorama commissioned a youthful Michael Apted to look at 14 seven-year-olds from different social backgrounds. The premise of the program was the old Jesuit saying “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”. They wanted to test the truth of this and see if social class really did dictate future. Apted’s report was called 7UP, and was so fascinating, he returned to film most of the original participants every seven years thereafter. He looked at them at 14, 21, 28 and so on. A new film should be out soon: called 49UP.

There are a great many fascinating things about these films, not least to me that his subjects are exactly a year older than I am, so, as I watch their lives unfold, I also watch my own. All of the children have grown into interesting adults, one of the Barnado's boys lives in Australia, one of the middle class boys clearly suffers from a serious mental illness and the farmer's son has become, as he predicted at seven, a highly successful astrophysicist working in the US.

However, the most interesting thing to me is what is revealed by the original choice of participants. Originally Panorama and Apted chose ten boys but only four girls; three working class friends and one from the upper middle class. Why so few? Because in 1963, it was assumed that anything interesting would happen to men, girls would simply grow up to be wives and mothers. After all, this had been the constant way of things for at least 2,000 years. It was so unremarkable as to be assumed to be immutable, unchangeable, something that could be utterly relied upon. Yet 1963 was literally on the threshold of possibly the greatest social revolution in the history of the modern world: the remarkable and rapid change in the status and destiny of women.


For the first time in recorded history, women began to have choices about the kind of life they would live. Indeed, Apted’s four girls, particularly those from working class backgrounds have demonstrated precisely that. One has had a high-powered career and in the last film had chosen to become a single mother; another is a single parent due to divorce and the third, who runs a mobile community library for children, has not had children at all. The upper class girl, after a startling adolescence, has lived a more conventional life, revolving around marriage and full-time motherhood.

Without doubt, the increase in the choices women have about the shape their lives will take has been exhilarating, exciting and not before time. Society, the economy and women themselves have demonstrably benefited from the contribution that women are now able to make. Very few fair-minded people would wish women back to the days when higher education was denied them, or they were asked to resign their jobs on pregnancy and, sometimes, on marriage.

Yet, the increase in women’s life choices has also brought with it deep unease. Society remains fundamentally uncomfortable with the public and private power their ability to make choices has given women, particularly when they become mothers.

Perhaps it is the nature of choice that when one group gains more of it, another group loses some. Once, men had all the choices. It was women who sat by the phone waiting to be asked out, it was women who waited to be asked to marry someone and, once they were, it was women who sublimated their own dreams and ambitions for those of their husbands and, eventually, their children. Women lived through others, they were expected to; it was not questioned, they, literally, had no choice.

Once they gained choice, primarily as a result of gaining control over their own fertility via the contraceptive pill - just coming into common use in 1963 - women started exercising it - and how. It was as if a dam had burst.

In little more than a decade women began limiting the size of their families, they began leaving bad marriages (over 60 per cent of marriages are ended by women), they flooded out of their kitchens and into offices, factories and workplaces in huge numbers, they rejected the double standard that only they remain virgins till marriage, they experimented with their sexuality, examining their own sexual organs and demanding orgasms. They refused to hand over their out-of-wedlock children for adoption by “decent” people or to silently accept abuse, violence and sexual harassment. They began to dress, drive, work, earn, talk, smoke, drink and behave like men.


Of course, there were differences in the degree to which individual women embraced their new choices. Some clung to old certainties, others were right out there waving their “Reclaim the Night” banners. Most made choices about their choices as they travelled through life, being the new ladettes in their 20s, ambitious earners in their 30s, stay-at-home mums (at least for a year or two) when they procreated, then back into the workforce as their children grew and, as happened frequently, as they left their unsatisfactory husbands.

In the face of such rapid and revolutionary change, it is a wonder the backlash against the power that choice has now given women has not been greater. It is also understandable that many men feel as if they have lost choice and power. That they are the new “women” if you like, who have no choice but to trail along in the turbulent wake of their womenfolk. The most vicious battle lines have been drawn over parenthood, particularly in the aftermath of often bitter divorces. Divorced mothers groups face divorced fathers groups squabbling over “dead beat dads”, “manipulative mothers”, child support, access, custody, the whole box and dice.

Yet, by any objective measure (earning power, boardroom positions, numbers in parliament, control of wealth, asset ownership) men still run things. Women have made a splash, a big one. They have clearly asserted that, given the choice, they want to earn their own money and choose their own destiny. Most of them, however, even if they have left a relationship, still want to do so in partnership with men. Of course individual women have made mistakes. Women today, particularly women with jobs, husbands and children, are living life in an entirely new way. They are having to invent their lives from scratch. The luckiest of them are doing so beside men who have made the choice to give as well as take support.

Back in 1963, the only support a man was expected to offer was financial: women were expected to offer the rest. Now, the best relationships are between those who share the joys and delights, the difficulties and responsibilities, the financial, emotional, intellectual and administrative hard work that marriage and parenthood demands.

It is impossible to imagine women choosing to get back into their box, so, I guess it is true, men who want to have loving relationships with them have no choice but to embrace the change and enjoy the ride.

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About the Author

Jane Caro is a Sydney writer with particular interests in women, families and education. She is the convenor of Priority Public. Jane Caro is the co author with Chris Bonnor of The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education, published in August 2007 by UNSW Press.

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