Sunday 19 January 2020

Fairer sex now better armed for biological clock warfare

Society has created a sticky little dilemma for women in the pursuit of motherhood, writes Julia Molony

Last week, doctors announced they had developed a new blood test that allows women to predict how long they've got until menopause.

This should be welcome news to a generation of ladies beset by fertility anxiety.

Society has created a sticky little dilemma for the fairer sex. No sooner have women ticked off the list of achievements we've been conditioned to aspire to -- higher education, career advancement influence and independence -- than we are hit with the news that our pursuit of those things will most likely be the cause of failure in our personal lives. Motherhood remains the single biggest hurdle to the goal of equal opportunity.

Just when women reach the point where they are getting into the stride of their career, achieving seniority and respect, mother nature holds a gun to their head, and commands, 'procreate now, or miss out forever'.

The media and, by extension, culture, is saturated with dire warnings and cautionary tales. Countless women lamenting the fact that they blithely followed feminism's brave new dream, only to find themselves pushing 40, and desperately regretful that they had never had a child.

Feminism makes a convenient scapegoat. The restraining hand of female biology is often held up as evidence that feminism is at odds with nature's grand plan.

There's a seed of truth in this. Nature is inherently traditionalist. It's also rather indifferent to any given individual's hopes or desires. But who says succumbing to biology has to be pre-ordained?

Whether it be fighting disease, defying gravity or controlling fertility, the lion's share of what we like to call progress has been conducted with the express goal of wrestling nature to the ground. Certainly, the cause of women's lib would be nothing without humanity's successes in trumping biology, with the contraceptive pill stands out as the most high-profile amongst science's service to feminism.

The goal of parity is not, as traditionalists often gripe, about trying to wipe out those things that make men and women different. It's about supporting each equally in the fulfilment of their ambitions, whether it be in parliaments, across industry, or within the home.

Despite what many sceptics seem to think, feminism is neither anti-babies nor anti-family. It would be ridiculous for it to be, since, on the whole, neither are women.

But in the pursuit of almost every sort of achievement we collectively recognise, except in the domestic sphere, women and men are not on a level playing field.

Though small, this new blood test may at least be some way towards a breakthrough. Before the pill, preventing conception was the key to female emancipation. Now that society's emphasis has changed, so has the liberating imperative -- it's all about getting through life's key milestones before one's ovaries pack up; which should, in theory, be a little bit less stressful if you have a rough idea of when exactly that might be.

So far, the best response our culture has come up with to address the concerns of the generation of women who feel trapped between a rock and hard place is a stern bit of finger-wagging -- blaming women for being too selfish, too ambitious, too busy partying to knuckle down and focus on family. No matter how successful the woman, failure to reproduce is still considered a sign of a broader, more profound sort of personal failure. Women who prioritise careers over family are caricatured as either ball-busting or tragic. But this idea of the selfish ladette wanting to have it all, sewing the seeds of her own downfall with her ambition is, like Lady Macbeth, mostly make-believe.

It's much more simple than that. By all other measures -- resourcefulness, intelligence, ingenuity, application -- women are as capable as men. Biologically speaking, however, they draw the short straw.

And while science holds out a great deal of hope, as this blood test proves, the real onus for progress on this issue falls to society. The facts of nature remain, for the moment, pretty intractable. But social values are elastic.

Today young women in their twenties are cautioned out of parenthood before they are economically stable.

Instead, they should be encouraged and supported. What's more, we need to properly overhaul both the culture and the structures that define the way we work, to find some give in the system for women who want to be both mothers and executives. Only then can we hope to finally put an end to this war between our bodies and our brains.

Sunday Independent

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