My recipe for happiness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this article by Liz Hunt in the Telegraph this week, citing women like Jane Brocket and their lifestyles as the root of modern woman’s unhappiness. According to the article, books like The Gentle Art of Domesticity set an impossibly high standard for women and contribute to our general sense of inadequacy. According to Ms. Hunt, the main reason for 60% of women in Britain being unhappy and tired all the time is that ‘women who have done the career bit… target the home and impose impossible standards on the rest of womankind via beautifully illustrated books and websites.’ More criticism for the book also came from Kate Saunders on Radio 4’s woman’s hour and a thoughtful if slightly scathing article entitled ‘It’s fashionable to be a Housewife again’ has appeared in the Times.

There’s been a lot of activity about this in various blogs.

Needled has written a very articulate critique of the book… it’s a negative review but considered and makes some good points while Jeanne Jackson’s Domestic Hiss is very thoughtful. Oxford Kitchen Yarns also makes a good economic point in her blog, pointing out that many of her ‘Domestic’ activities like knitting cashmere socks directly support other self-employed women.

While Liz Hunt and Kate Saunders deride ‘The Gentle Art of Domesticity’ as ‘proselytizing’ in tone and ‘full of pinny porn,’ the support for Yarnstorm is painting a picture of Saunders and Hunt as jealous and insecure women with shriveled imaginations and ‘anger issues.’ Many of the comments left by angry Brocket supporters are far more attacking in their counter-attack than Hunt’s original article is; ‘Liz Dear, you don’t have a clue. You are missing a very BIG point in life,’ ‘Are you one of those women who is climbing the ladder of corporate success on the backs of other, less fortunate women? Someone to clean your house, knit your socks, make your jam? And so smug and feeling modern and empowered. Shame on you,’ etc.

Many people have shouted ‘viva la difference’ in the middle of the crossfire, but it is a sobering reminder of how fragile our individual sense of entitlement to our lifestyles, our pleasures and our choices must be if discussions like this can so easily escalate into personal attacks and counter-attacks.

What freedom is to be gained for us women if we are always looking at the next person’s lot and wondering if we measure up well enough? How much does it rob us of our energy and our joy to be always asking ourselves and each other if we are sensible enough with money, if our house is tidy enough, if our knitting is good enough, if we are thin enough, if we are empowered enough, if we are beautiful enough, if our chocolate cake is good enough, if we are significantly unconcerned about how beautiful we are to qualify as ‘proper’ feminists, if we are dis-empowered because we make our partner a dinner or enjoy a Sunday of jam-making, etc. and so on.

How empowered we are in our lives is not dependent, simplistically, on our life-choices. Taken alone, the single fact of our working in an office or organising a career so that we can work at home, is not descriptive overall of how happy we are, nor how well we are fulfilling the feminist brief. There are enormous and powerful economic arguments, surveys and polls which show that yes, women are still doing the lion’s share of work globally. That we still do more housework than men. That we still don’t get equal pay. That more young women have eating disorders than men because of the pressure that exists to be thin and that women in full-time work with children under the age of 13 are the most stressed group of people globally. Add to this the statistic on Liz Hunt’s article about our unhappiness and tired-all-the-time syndrome and you can see there is still a lot of work to be done to improve life politically and economically for women.

How economics and politics translate into everyday life, however, is a complex process. The only way to make sure the resultant choices are empowered is to be in possession of all the facts, to have your wishes intact, to take your desires in life seriously and to know you are doing for yourself when you are doing in your life. It is not whether or not we choose to enact our wishes through boardroom meetings or the perfecting of our households that establishes or destroys our happiness. It is how convinced we feel of ourselves, how confident we are in our entitlement to the lives we have made for ourselves and how much we believe in what we are doing.

I don’t think any pursuit undertaken in the spirit of woman-realising-her-own-dreams can ever be seen as limiting female potential for the rest of us. I am a fan of Kate Saunders; I think we’d have a great chat over a bottle of wine and I am glad for her literary successes and media presence. And I’m glad for Liz Hunt’s article, even though I disagree with nearly everything she’s written in it, even if only because the opposite end of the spectrum – where every single Newspaper lauds Jane Brocket’s book as a literary triumph – is terrifying in its own way. Imagine a world where there is no contest, no jostling, no competition, no ambition, no success, no disagreement… where everyone nods and says ‘yeah, that’s great. I’m definitely going to bake more cookies now.’

That would be another kind of hell.

But if the common dream is for female happiness, if the concern Liz Hunt exhibits in her article is truly genuine, then the focus for her argument is wrong. It is not the endless books about beauty, the demands of running a family, the media, the workplace and its treatment of women, books about household perfection or any other cultural force which are making us statistically unhappy. We are unhappy because we cannot navigate this overwhelming and contradictory array of choices without being crippled by vicious attacks on the validity of our decisions and because we are never allowed to unthinkingly progress in life with an unquestioned sense of entitlement. Our position is constantly called into question and our choices taken as a statement for all of womankind instead of just being allowed to be our own decisions made for and by ourselves .

I will not be free as long as I feel obliged to prepare a packed lunch for my partner, but neither will I be free as long as I feel guilty every time I willfully choose to do so.

Germaine Greer of course, has put this better than I ever will, so I’ll close with a quote from her that I employed when I wrote an essay on the title ‘Is there a distinctive female essence or sensibility in women’s art?’ Although the quote is about female painters, I think she makes a very good point about how undermining our choices with endless cultural debate ultimately robs us of the very energy we need in order to succeed in fulfilling our dreams. And that is relevant whether you’re a Journalist or a Domestic Goddess.

It is for feminist critics to puzzle their brains about whether or not there is a female imagery or not, to examine in depth the relations between male and female artists…The painter cannot expend her precious energy in polemic and in fact very few artists of importance do.

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