Ronny shares the story of her adult life with us and has included some photographs. The last one with Brian, Kiran and herself was taken at Busselton in Western Australia during a family holiday in December 2014.
Like many traditionally-raised girls, I expected to marry a man and have children as soon as possible. In my late teens I was also a good-enough Roman Catholic, at a time when artificial contraception, children and career did not fit together. Women could not have all three in the way men could. Higher education, growing political awareness and an interest in women’s rights led me to critically examine the role of women. I was a student during the women’s liberation struggles of the late 1960’s/early 1970s and remember getting an A grade for an essay I wrote on women’s roles. I became a regular reader of Spare Rib magazine. I had taken for granted the way the world was for women and for men, and there was a lot wrong.
‘First you sink into his arms, and then your arms end up in his sink’ went the saying. I could not be a party to an institution that asked women to ‘honour and obey’ their husbands, where women subsumed their identity by taking their husband’s name, where gender roles were clearly segregated and double standards existed. Like the wearing of wedding rings by women but not men; that men had one title Mr, while women had Mrs or Miss – marital status was a significant marker if you were a woman, but not for a man. Like men getting jobs or promotion if they had children, but women not getting them for the same reason. There had even been a bar to married women being in professions such as the civil service and teaching until 1945, and until 1975 it was legal to ask women at interview about their plans to have children. And it was legal to not appoint them for having or planning to have children. Women were routinely dismissed if they became pregnant whilst in employment, and through such direct discrimination may be illegal now in the UK, a 2008 Guardian article shows that it has not disappeared (1).Even if the division of labour in the home was shared and both partners worked outside the home, once there were children gender roles tended to become more segregated, as caring for children or other dependents was and still is devalued.
During early career years I read about gender roles, how they developed and were reinforced. Margaret Mead’s ‘Male and Female’ had an impact as it showed how much these roles were socially formed rather than biologically. I campaigned for nursery provision in the workplaces that employed me, and joined a number of women’s groups pressing for equal rights and opportunities. At that time, my identity as a woman of colour was not conscious – that awareness came later.
In a radio interview many years ago, I remember Germaine Greer saying that she had been consistent in living her life taking account of the constraints that marriage and children place on women – she lived alone, she was not married and had never had children. She was also completely happy with her life. I really admired her for this, but it wasn’t my way. I had a few partners and lived with one man for five years, but marriage never appealed. Then I met a man with whom I could only see the advantages in being together, and no disadvantages. I would lose nothing by being married to him, so we married after a year.
I kept my father’s family name (though still linked to my male family heritage, it was a start); we shared the domestic work and both worked full-time or studied and worked part-time. It may not seem out of the ordinary these days, but in the 1970s and 1980s if married men and women had different names on a joint bank account people assumed they were not married. If they had separate bank accounts, they were thought to be keeping secrets from each other – or rather, the woman was, as one bank employee expressly told us!
I tried to share non-traditional female tasks such as do-it-yourself and car maintenance. Breaking the years of conditioning is hard, and I was too lazy (or well-conditioned!) to persist with some things, but I did my best. It’s no good expecting men to take an equal share of ‘women’s’ work if ‘men’s’ work is also not shared. However, a recent survey showed that the workload has not yet reached equilibrium – of almost 1000 UK dual working households, it found that women still did 66% of all chores (2).
It was 12 years before we had a child. Life was so good and full up with work and play that there was no room for anyone else. Eventually though we wanted to share our lovely life by having a baby and passing on our good times. After getting married, it was the best thing we ever did.
Remembering how gender roles can become more divided after a couple have children, it was important to have a plan. We wanted parenting to be shared equally. In particular, it was important that the father could take full responsibility for a child when the mother was not there. Circumstances and our planning allowed us to take turns working full-time and the other part-time for the first eight years of our daughter’s life, and we also shared care with a childminder. It was important that our daughter got first hand experience of men in caring roles and women in careers, as well as the benefits of a close relationship with both mother and father. I believe we made it work as our daughter can talk to either of us about most things.
As a child of mixed Indian, Irish and English background, her Indian heritage needed to be reflected in some way. A good friend, who died young of cancer, suggested the name Kiran. Kiran means ‘ray of light’ and you might find it hard to believe that her first word was ‘light’! It was also close enough to Kieran to reflect her Irish heritage too.
We have passed on to her the good and the not-so-good, and she has blended these with her own unique characteristics. We are proud of who she has become – feminist, activist, social worker and a loving, kind, generous and considerate young women with a sharp analytical mind. Her feminism is clearer and stronger than mine was at her age, and her horizons and ambitions wider. Her struggles for equality are different but no less stressful, and I am proud that she feels able to discuss these with me, and with her father.