Madonna syndrome: I should have ditched feminism for love, children and baking
Madonna syndrome: I should have ditched feminism for love, children and baking
A playwright who embraced the feminism espoused by her mother and flaunted by Madonna now feels betrayed
I never thought I would be saying this, but being a free woman isn't all it's cracked up to be. Is that the rustle of taffeta I hear as the suffragettes turn in their graves? Possibly. My mother was a hippy who kept a pile of (dusty) books by Germaine Greer and Erica Jong by her bed (like every good feminist, she didn't see why she should do all the cleaning). She imbued me with the great values of choice, equality and sexual liberation. I fought with my older brother and won; at university I beat the rugby lads at drinking games. I was not to be messed with.
Now, nearly 37, those same values leave me feeling cold. I want love and children but they are nowhere to be seen. I feel like a UN inspector sent in to Iraq only to find that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. I was led to believe that women could “have it all” and, more to the point, that we wanted it all. To that end I have spent 20 years ruthlessly pursuing my dreams - to be a successful playwright. I have sacrificed all my womanly duties and laid it all at the altar of a career. And was it worth it? The answer has to be a resounding no.
Ten years ago The Times ran a piece about my play Paradise Syndrome. It was based on my girlfriends in the music business. All we did was party, work and drink. The play sold out and I thought: “This is it! I'm going to have it all: success, power and men are going to adore me for it.” In reality it was the beginning of years of hard slog, rejection letters and living on the breadline. A decade on, I have written the follow-up play Touched for the Very First Time in which Lesley, played by Sadie Frost, is an ordinary 14-year-old from Manchester who falls in love with Madonna in 1984 after hearing the song Like a Virgin. She religiously follows her icon through the years, as Madonna sells her the ultimate dream: “You can do anything - be anything - go girl.” Lesley discovers, along with Madonna, that trying to “have it all” is a huge gamble. I wrote the play because so many of my girlfriends were inspired by this bullish woman who allowed us to be strong and sexy. I still love her and always will, but she has encouraged us to chase a fantasy and it's a huge disappointment.
I may be an extreme case. My views may not represent those of other women of my generation. Perhaps I am just a spoilt middle-class girl who had a career and who has now changed her mind? I don't think so. This month the General Household Survey found that the number of unmarried women under 50 has more than doubled over the past 30 years. And by the age of 30, one in five of these “freemales”, who have chosen independence over husband and family, has gone through a broken cohabitation.
I argue that women's libbers of the Sixties and Seventies put careerism at the forefront, trampling the traditional role of women underneath their Doc Martens. I wish a more balanced view of womanhood had been available to me. I wish that being a housewife or a mother wasn't such a toxic idea to middle-class liberals of yesteryear.
Increasing numbers of my feminist friends are giving up their careers for love and children and baking. I wish I'd had kids ten years ago, when time was on my side, but the problem is not so much time as mentality. I made a conscious decision not to have serious relationships because I thought I had all the time in the world. Many of my friends did the same. It's about understanding what is important in life, and from what I see and feel, loving relationships and children bring more happiness than work ever can.
Natasha Hidvegi, 37, has left her job as a surgeon to look after her son. “I found it impossible to be a good surgeon and a good mother. Though it was a horrendous decision, I don't regret it.”
I thought that men would love independent, strong women, but (in general) they don't appear to. Men are programmed to like their women soft and feminine. It's not their fault - it's in the genes. Holly Kendrick, 34, who holds a high-status job in the theater, agrees: “Men tend to be freaked out if you work as hard as them.” This is why many of my girlfriends are still alone. The truth, though, is not that men haven't accepted women's modernity - the alpha woman who never questions her entitlement to the same jobs, fun and sexual gratification as them - but that women haven't either. I feel a great pressure from other women of my generation, who have partners and kids, to join their club. In their eyes I am not the trailblazer but the failure. My friend Rita Arnold, 36, works in marketing. “It's not men who judge me for being a careerist. It's other women. The claws come out.”
This leaves me sick to the stomach. We are letting each other down but there is a worse betrayal than that. I am a failure in my own eyes. Somewhere inside lurks a woman I cannot control and she is in the kitchen with a baby on her hip and dough in her hand, staring me down. She is saying: “This is happiness, this is what it's all about.” It's an instinct that makes me a woman, an instinct that I can't ignore even if I wanted to.
Felicity Wren, 36, is an actress who has yet to find Mr Right. “I feel the pressure, but only from myself, about how I do not have a conventional life. Most people don't care.”
Had I this understanding of my psyche ten years ago I would have demoted my writing (and hedonism) and pursued a relationship with vigour. There were plenty of men and even a marriage offer, but I wouldn't give up my dreams.
I talked to the girls who were the subject of my play Paradise Syndrome in 1999. Sas Taylor, 38, single and childless, runs her own PR company: “In my twenties I felt I was invincible,” she says. “Now I wish I had done it all differently. I seem to scare men off because I am so capable. I have business success but it doesn't make you happy.” Nicki P, 35 and single, works in the music industry and adds: “It was all a game back then. Now I am panicking. No one told me that having fun is not as fun as I thought.”
As I write this I feel sad, as if the feminist principles that my mother brought me up on are being trashed. Am I betraying womanhood? No, I am revealing a shameful truth. Women are often the worst enemies of feminism because of our genetic make-up. We have only a finite time to be mothers and when that clock starts ticking we abandon our strength and jump into bed with whoever is left, forgetting talk of deadlines and PowerPoint presentations in favor of Mamas & Papas buggies and ovulation diaries. Not all women want children but I challenge any woman to say she doesn't want loving relationships. I wish I'd had the advice that I am giving to my 21-year-old sister: if you find a great guy, don't be afraid to settle down and have kids because there isn't anything to miss out on that you can't do later (apart from having kids).
In the future I hope that there can be a better understanding of women by women. The past 25 years have been confusing and I feel that I've been caught in the crossfire. As women we should accept each other rather than just appreciating “success”. I have always felt a huge pressure to be successful to show men that I am their equal. What a waste of time. Wife and mother should be given parity with the careerist role in the minds of feminists.
My mother had children early and has brilliantly juggled a career as a filmmaker and parent. She was part of the generation that overlapped, that had feminist values but had children early. She hasn't had the job opportunities of my generation, she had to make sacrifices and take lesser jobs to be at parents' evenings. Choice and careers are vital, of course, but they shouldn't be pursued relentlessly. I love being a writer and still have my dream but now I am facing facts. The thing that has made me feel best in life was being in love with my ex-boyfriend and the thing that makes me feel the most centred is being in the country with kids and dogs, and yes, maybe in the kitchen. Touched for the Very First Time opened this week at Trafalgar Studios, London;www.touchedtheplay.com Blonde ambition 1984 Madonna released a video of Like a Virgin, which inspired a generation of teenage girls. 1985 She married Hollywood actor Sean Penn. They divorced four years later. 1986 Madonna released Papa Don't Preach, about a young, unmarried, pregnant girl choosing to keep her baby. 1989 She released Like a Prayer, which scandalised Roman Catholics when the singer challenged taboos with race issues in her video in which a black man is wrongly accused of rape. 1990 Madonna embarked on her controversial Blonde Ambition World Tour, during which, in her performance of Like a Virgin, male dancers caressed her body and she simulated masturbation. 1992 An album called Erotica was released and she published Sex, a book in which she again flaunted her sexual freedom. 1998 Madonna had a child, Lourdes Maria, after a “fling” relationship with a personal trainer. She stood up for single motherdom. 2000 She married Guy Ritchie in a “fairytale wedding” and moved to England, bought a country pile and started writing children books and expounding the virtues of the kabbalah. 2008 Madonna divorces Ritchie and her “perfect family life” with Lourdes Maria, son Rocco and adopted son David Banda ends.