How feminism betrayed childless women

A home pregnancy test, and its instructions. (PA)

Listening to the item about IVF infertility treatments yesterday morning on Radio 4 and then watching the Panorama programme, Inside Britain’s Fertility Business. last night, I am reminded of the suffering of women who long for children and the very expensive, invasive (and often unproven) procedures they are prepared to undergo to achieve their wish – often without success.

Julia Leigh, an Australian novelist, describes in graphic detail all the times her hopes for pregnancy were raised, followed by all the times these hopes were subsequently dashed, in her book Avalanche: A Love Story .

The title seems right: Leigh felt overwhelmed by the constant pressure to agree to every procedure possible to become pregnant; and by the end of her book, sadly conceding that she will never have children, she also recognises that she must hold on to “a commitment to love widely and intensely… to unshackle my love from the great love I wanted to give my own child”.

Leigh’s experience reflects that of thousands of women, born in an age of feminism, whose careers and love affairs dominated their 20s and 30s, only for them to realise, as their fertility waned, that they wanted to be mothers and raise families after all.

It made me reflect that, for all the obvious benefits that (western) women enjoy today in terms of careers and financial independence, feminism has also let them down. Earlier generations of women, for whom the freedom of stimulating work, unshackled by the Pill from unwanted domesticity, was not available and who thus led more traditional lives alongside more modest ambitions, perhaps suffered less.

It is hard to argue this point of view today in our brave feminist world, but it is still the case that when your choices are necessarily limited, life is less riddled with anxiety.

These thoughts are confirmed by a book that a friend, knowing I had been to boarding school, has kindly given me: Ysenda Maxtone’s Graham’s Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939-1979.

Admittedly, it concerns that relatively small group whose parents could afford private schooling; nonetheless the author’s interviewees, raised to think of marriage and children as central to their future lives, spoke for most women before the modern age made it clear to them that wanting to be wives and mothers revealed a serious lack of drive and ambition.

The interviewees, now in their 50s and upwards, showed humour, wisdom and contentment (although lamenting their lack of education). This is missing from Julia Leigh’s Avalanche, with her saga of sexual liberation (including two abortions early on), her exciting career (which strained her marriage to breaking point) – and her underlying sadness.