Blog: Reaching out to women voters…of the 1950s?

15 September 2011

Rob Williams writes:

Did you wonder about some of the thinking behind the leaked No10 memo on reaching out to women voters? I was struck by how broadly they defined women’s issues. OK, it makes sense to think about changes to child benefit as having a negative affect on women’s support for the Government. But tuition fees? Do they think that only women care about their children’s education? And International Development?

There were some good ideas amongst the proposals – like the website where women can compare their salaries, and also the focus on promoting women as senior managers. But the memo betrays a confusion about the women the Government is trying to attract. At times it feels like they are talking about the 1950s housewife, staying at home and feeding the family on the housekeeping money handed over by her husband, the breadwinner! In today’s households, women are returning to work in record numbers after their maternity leave, and fathers are doing a lot more caring for their children, including the weekly shop. Despite this, the memo identifies the rising cost of living as being a women’s issue – implying that the Government’s understanding of women’s roles is out of date and may well, itself, be part of the problem.

At points the memo is spot on – for example, the new proposals on parental and paternity leave are good news for women, who find that the current maternity leave rules sideline them from the best opportunities whilst their male colleagues plan for an interrupted career. This seems much more relevant to the modern household and also to the shared parenting agenda. Ideas about parenting skills vouchers should be brought forward as soon as possible, for the sake of mothers, fathers and children. Better though if these vouchers also gave access to relationship support. When times are hard, investing in the resilience of family relationships is a good way to lay down solid foundations for the future.

Attitude surveys, and more in-depth research, show that when attention turns to policies designed to support men and women in their sharing of breadwinning and childcare roles, this is in line with the aspirations of the vast majority of parents, who do not want to organise their household duties along gender lines.

Let’s hope that the parts of the memo which reflect the modern family will feed through into policy over the next few months – and please, everyone, let’s consign the 1950s housewife to where she belongs….the history books.

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