Drop whatever you’re doing, girls . . . your husband is on the way home
Judith Woodstakes issue with the new ‘Stepford Wife’ culture taking hold
Right, ladies, hang up that teleconference call immediately. Hold it there, Missy, the NASDAQ can wait!
What's that you say? You're immersed in a radical programme of infrastructural investment in order to plug the nation's multi-billion-euro public-sector pension deficit?
Yes, yes, but your husband is due home any moment, and I have it on the highest authority that unless you change into a nice frock, cook his supper and rustle up a plate of homemade petit fours, You Are A Complete Failure And He Will Leave You. Worse, he won't mend that glitch on your laptop because everyone (okay, Kirstie Allsopp) says that chaps are more contented on a nice full tummy. And what greater index of success could there be than a contented chap?
Maybe it's down to Mad Men withdrawal — the next series isn't due to be aired here until next year — but, in recent days, it's been hard to escape the unnerving feeling that we are being metaphorically shoehorned into wasp-waisted dresses and chivvied back to the twin tub.
Not by men, they're far less judgmental, and I would aver, not nearly so competitive, but by The Sisterhood, who have taken to sternly admonishing us that all this emancipation silliness has gone quite far enough.
First there was the uberhomemaker Kirstie Allsopp telling us that women should put their partners first as a matter of principle. Then came Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery wistfully lamenting the death of oldfashioned chivalry, which was rapidly rebutted by UK newsreader Emily Maitlis, who claimed that gallantry was alive and well and that men may no longer open doors, but they are swift to assist damsels in distress sobbing over an HTTP Error 500 message flashing on their computer screen.
For her part, ex-Strictly siren Nancy Dell'Olio has happily spouted on about being a modern-day geisha, which is less of a surprise than how in Berlusconi's name she ever managed to become a lawyer. But the last word (thus far) must go to British Conservative MP, bestselling chick-lit novelist and mother Louise Mensch (40), who has been gushing about how she dresses up for her rock-band manager husband, Peter.
“I think it's an act of love for a husband and wife who have committed to each other to keep themselves looking as good as they can,” she told an interviewer. “I love him and I dress up for him.”
That sounds really rather sweet, especially after three children. Except they aren't his children.
He is her second husband, she is his second wife (he, too, has three children from first time around), and they only married in June. It's still the honeymoon period. So Mensch's melodramatic advocacy of commitment and her toe-curling disclosure that her “palms sweat with adrenalin” every time her spouse walks in the room is neither as enviable nor as admirable as it pretends to be.
But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this slew of high-profile role models urging a return to the oldfashioned “f ” word — no, not that one, it's much worse: femininity — is the timing.
These calls for Dita Von Teese lippie and heels at teatime come amid fresh evidence that girls are outstripping boys at school, young women being in the majority at university and, in their twenties, earning more than their male colleagues. “We have got a gap in educational performance here that goes all the way through our schools and universities,” was the verdict of David Willetts, the British Universities Minister, as he revealed that four-in-10 men now attend university, compared to five-in-10 women.
“I want to see an improvement in educational opportunities for men and women because it does look as if the challenge we particularly face in our society at the moment is that the boys are lagging behind.”
Hurrah! Wasn't that what we always dreamed of ? Isn't that enough? But no. It seems the often selfimposed pressure to Have It All is, if anything, even more intense. In this instance, it's the love-work balance that we're supposed to be agonising over.
“It's a very complicated issue,” says Paula Nicolson, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of London. “Men are used to having access to power and money and status, and set about achieving their goals in organisations that were created by men for men. “Women are confused about how to behave because in the workplace they may feel they have to slam the desk and be a ballbreaker to get results, but that doesn't work for long, so then they might try to hide their intelligence in order to disarm others.”
Whether Allsopp's public avowal to put her partner first equates to concealing her intelligence is a moot point. For some years now, experts have suggested that women who adopt bullish attitudes with colleagues have a tendency to emasculate their partners by being too dominant at home, so perhaps it is not entirely unexpected that there should be a renaissance in feminine wiles.
But, Prof Nicolson stresses, being softer in manner isn't the same as being submissive; it can be quietly effective. Not to say manipulative.
“Looking after everyone and seeing their needs are being met holds everything together, and that's a very powerful thing.”
Plus ça change. Jerry Hall was once mocked for her Southern Belle aphorism that in order to maintain a strong marriage a woman should be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom. In these hectic days that doesn't even begin to qualify as multitasking.
The 21st-Century job description extends to being a bitch in the boardroom, a hottie on the school run, a tigress at the school gates and still find time to bottle your own fruit (vengefully drowning your work BlackBerry in a glass of Chianti doesn't count), shave your legs and crochet dinky plum-pudding decorations for your Christmas tree so Everyone Can See You Are Perfect And The Best.
One recurrent theory is that if women's dominance continues to grow, and women start to earn more at every level, it will lead to increasing numbers of house-husbands taking on conventionally female roles.
The question is, will they bossily urge each other to dress up to greet their wives' return? Make pointed sideswipes about staying in shape to keep themselves alluring? Try to outdo each other with sweaty palms, handcrafted knick-knacks and elaborate baked goods for the school fair?
I think we all know the answer to that one. Some years ago, I did try to put my husband first in all things. My aim was to transform my marriage by being a Surrendered Wife for a week. I lasted two hours before my husband begged me to “stop being so creepy”.
Does that make me an unfeminine termagant? I have no idea. But let me state for the record that if my husband ever does change his shirt in preparation for my homecoming or crochet a plum-pudding tree decoration to show me how much he cares, I will pour custard on top and eat it for Christmas lunch.