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Women at Work

March 8th 2017 is the day designated for the International Women’s Strike. One day when, if every women stopped working, the world would undoubtedly collapse. The strike is a possibility but not a probability. Alas.  Lysistrata, in 5thC Athens, had a more emotionally practical idea. She persuaded the women of Greece to strike by withdrawing sexual relations. Which soon got the men off the drug of their Peloponnesian wars and worked a treat. But that was fiction. What on earth would the world do now if for just one day women simply lay back, sipped sherbert, and said that they were not doing anything for twenty-four hours? It might make the move towards some serious changes in equality but the pain inflicted on the nearest and dearest would soon make that sherbert taste sour.

I was thinking about this when I had to dash out last night at around 5.45pm to buy low fat goat’s yoghurt. Yup – I am entirely and absolutely middle class – though I have yet to buy my first clump (or whatever the collective noun might be) of quinoa – largely because I find myself strangely drawn to hitting someone when they ask for it in a restaurant. Not only middle-class then, but also neurotic. But – back to my dashing out and the particular relevance of the time. 5.45pm. Usually I would go on any shopping errand during the day as I am free to choose my time and it’s quieter – but yesterday I had a very full day of stuff and there was no chance to go out until later and I needed that yoghurt.

So here is a microcosm of how the world works with its women. For this particular commodity I have to go to the very large supermarket, which is a short drive away, because here, in sensible Brentford, low fat goat’s yoghurt is not considered vital. So I arrived at the large supermarket at about the time when most people who work away from home are ending their day. And what I noticed was extraordinary. I’m not sure where all these shirkers and loungers and incarcerated women and immigrants living off the fat of our land might be – but they are certainly not living and shopping in this place. What they are doing (because this area of West London has a strong Asian community) is being Asian women – might be immigrants, might have been born here – who have clearly been working all day – and who have now collected their child or children from the minders’ or the after-school club, or their mother’s or somewhere – and headed to the supermarket to find something to give everyone to eat when they get home. I tell you the supermarket was buzzing with mothers whose day – as ever – did not stop when their paid employment stopped. There were very few Asian fathers. They may well have still been working at the coal-face. What they were not doing, along with millions of other fathers and husbands and partners, indigenous or otherwise, was mopping up the domestic duties after a day spent operating in their professional lives. Same old, same old.

When I lived in predominantly white, middle-class Chiswick thirty years ago it was exactly the same scenario only with mostly white middle-class families. Fathers went out to important work and came home late – mothers who worked away from home (and many who didn’t) had to follow the same pattern as their Asian counterparts are still doing now – collect child or children, stop off at the (in this case upmarket) supermarket and find something on which to feed the family when they got home. The mothers at home in this more privileged society still ran a very long day – if fathers got home at 7.30 or 8pm they were doing well. By which time, of course, the children where fed, bathed, snoozy and very acceptable. Father opened the bottle of wine and poured two glasses.

The family structure might be different, the culture might be different, the drink might be non-alcoholic – but the basic result is the same for those women and mothers I saw yesterday. Running a long, long day of keeping the mortar in the bricks of the family and therefore in society. And for that I take my hat off to women the world over.  Most of whom will not strike on March 8th because they are programmed to support rather than to neglect – even in the long march to social and economic equality

I came away from that supermarket with more than just my goat’s yoghurt. I came away wondering when – and if – it would ever be different? Lysistrata had it easy. Giving up sex was harmless (though the groaning deprived, with their massive erections, which Aristophanes put into his stage directions, might argue differently) but giving up those feminine twin virtues of caring and love? Just pop along to any supermarket at 5.45pm and see for yourself… or you may be one of the many women already in there.

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