I want it all ...

By Hugh Mackay
June 12, 2004

As a new generation of women find their feet, there are signs of a genuine evolutionary leap in the male of the species, writes Hugh Mackay.

Still wondering whether the women's movement of the 1970s was a hiccup or an authentic social revolution? You obviously haven't been paying attention. If you're not convinced by the upheavals in our patterns of marriage and divorce, or by the growing presence of women in the upper echelons of government, business and the professions, or by the seismic shifts in the political landscape caused by the emergence of "the women's vote", or by the fact that the majority of university students are women, or by the plummeting birthrate, or ... do I really need to go on?

Even if you were not convinced by all that, you'd have to be blind and deaf not to have noticed that the rising generation of Australians inhabits a different planet from that of their parents and grandparents when it comes to gender issues. And, by the way, "issues" is not a word they'd use in this context, any more than the new breed of liberated young women would want to describe themselves as "feminists". For them, the revolution is history: they are about "living" equality, not preaching it. In fact, one of the surest signs that this was a real revolution is that, 35 years on, young women want to distance themselves from the rhetoric of the revolution because such language sounds outmoded to them. Life might be far from perfect in genderland, but the battles are different now and they are sometimes between generations of women.

Today's teens andtwentysomethings are the daughters and granddaughters of the pioneers who went to the barricades in the late '60s and early '70s. Fighting for the right to first-class citizenship, those pioneers encouraged women to develop a sense of their own identity, rather than rely on a second-hand identity borrowed from some man. They fought for reforms in workplaces where women were automatically paid less than men, or automatically restricted to the lower rungs of the promotion ladder, or offered less generous superannuation provisions than men, or obliged to resign from permanent positions when they married.

Yes, we had to have a revolution. Some ageing Australians may hanker after the peace and prosperity of the 1950s, but recollections of fabulous economic growth and zero unemployment can blind us to the ugly realities of a period in our cultural history when women were actually oppressed; when they knew their place was in the home, whether they liked it or not; when many of them tried to take the edge off boredom or sullen resentment through the massive consumption of analgesics such as Bex and Vincents APC powders. In the hothouse of feminist fervour that drove the revolution, it was assumed that women needed economic as well as emotional independence, in order to be truly liberated. That's why paid work became the big symbol of liberation; why Supermum evolved through the '80s, at least as an ideal; why stay-at-home mothers sometimes became the object of opprobrium among their "working" sisters who thought they were letting the side down: "How can you say you're liberated when you're still a dependent wife?"

So how do contemporary young women react to all that? Let's start with "liberation", a word whose meaning has subtly changed in its transition from generation to generation. Thirty-five years ago, liberation meant "free to have it all and preferably all at once". To the rising generation that looks and sounds like a form of self-inflicted cruelty: "My mother said her mother was a slave to her family. There was no way she was going to be like that, but then she ended up becoming a slave to her own liberation. When is she going to get a life?"

"Have it all" is still a popular goal, but "all at once" now seems unrealistic and undesirable. The idea at the core of contemporary liberation is choice. To these young women, liberation is about genuine freedom freedom to choose who I want to be, how I want to look, what I want to do rather than responding to the pressure to be a woman in some particular way. Feisty in their assertion of what "true" liberation means, they are appalled by the suggestion that make-up is a sop to men, or that dressing fashionably is a sign of submissiveness. They are interested in having enjoyable sex, but it will be on their terms. They are prepared to consider the idea of climbing the corporate ladder, but they will want to do that on their own terms, too. And if it all looks too demanding, or simply too silly, they may opt out and decide to do something else entirely.

Many young women who move sideways in an organisation, or out of the corporate world altogether, have not necessarily done so because they've banged their heads against the legendary glass ceiling; some of them are making a cool assessment of the lives of "successful" men and deciding it's a bad joke: "Why would I want to become a partner in my law firm when I look at what would be expected of me? There's more to life than 80-hour weeks lived on the treadmill of 'billable hours'. No, thanks." Marriage and children? Hey, wait a minute; not so fast. Yes, they'll quite possibly want to have children (one, anyway), but what's the rush? The median age of the mother at the birth of the first child is already over 30 yet another sign of the gender revolution and it will probably climb even higher. This is one reason why women hitting 30 are so keen to tell you that 30 is the new 20: "At 30, my parents were married, had three kids, a mortgage, a full-time career for dad and a part-time job for mum. Over-committed, if you ask me. At 30, I'm about where they were at 20. Come back and ask me when I'm 40." Nevertheless, as the leaders of this new breed of young women move into their thirties, they report that whenever they hear of a woman having a baby, the first thing they want to know is: "How old is she?" Keeping your options open has its limits, and biology is one of them.

New attitudes to marriage are shaped by an inherent sense of liberation and independence. Their automatic response to the idea of marriage is to ask "why?" For many of them, a shared mortgage is more symbolic of a commitment than a marriage certificate particularly when they know that 45 per cent of contemporary marriages will end in divorce, but a mortgage is not so easily abandoned. They might marry for love; they might marry for convenience; they might marry for the sake of their children but at least one-third of them are unlikely to marry at all.

In any case, when they think about marriage, they're thinking about a relationship, not an institution. If their relationship is strong and healthy and they can see a reason to marry (or even if they just like the idea of dressing up and being a star for a day, in their own reality-TV show, video cameras and all), then they'll marry. And if the relationship sours or becomes pointless, they'll split.

Underlying all these attitudes is one, simple, fundamental idea, bred into them by their mothers and teachers from an early age: Girls can do anything. They can't imagine how anyone could ever have thought otherwise. They expect boys to know it, too, and they're impatient with those who don't: "Equality means exactly what it says, OK? Not the same, but absolutely equal. Get it?" (And the boys, in growing numbers, do get it, but we'll come to them in a moment.)

What they are saying is that, in any situation, the significance of a woman's agenda will be absolutely equal to the significance of a man's agenda. This doesn't mean that women will want to do all the same things as men: in fact, that sounds to them like a throwback to the pre-revolutionary proposition that men and women are really the same. It doesn't necessarily mean that, in a partnership, her job will have to be taken as seriously as his job, or that the housework will have to be divided down the middle. It means that each person's agenda will be respected. Given all this, it's easy to understand why young women are outraged when they come across a relic, a dinosaur who doesn't get it. Many young women, born after the revolutionary dust had settled, have proceeded through school in a state of blithe acceptance of their equality with boys, only to encounter older men at university or in the workplace who think they are entitled to patronise them, ridicule them, fondle them or ignore them "What planet do these men come from?" asked a young woman, actually more bewildered than outraged, in one of my recent research projects.

Still, today's young post-revolutionaries love being female and feel more in control of their lives than their mothers did at the same age. They sense that they and their mothers are on the same side. There are still plenty of inter-generational strains, of course arguments over hectic social lives and failure to help with the housework seem to have supplanted the old arguments over sex, alcohol and fashion in the battle for independence: "She thinks that because she's a girl, she can do what she likes, and that means going out with whoever she likes, whenever she likes. It also means not doing any housework I think that's a way of trying to avoid the stereotype. Not that the boys help either."

Teenage quibbles aside, however, the rising generation of young women have truly found their feet. They are bursting with a sense of their own potential: they feel strong, optimistic and confident. They relish their freedom to choose who they'll be, now and later, and they're determined to achieve the balance they believe is missing from their mothers' lives. And are they grateful to the pioneering women who brought them to this magical space? Hello? This is simply the way is should be, the way it should always have been. Any other possibility is unimaginable.

If young women are remaking the revolution in their own image, where does this leave young men? Welcome to the world of the New Bloke. We're beginning to see the long-term effects of the women's movement on the male of the species and, let's be clear, it had to be a women's movement: men were never entitled to a movement of their own; their job was to react to a legitimate revolution wrought by women. Initially, legions of Australian males silently enlisted in the underground resistance movement. They quickly learned how to adopt the camouflage of feminist slogans, but they rarely backed them up with behaviour change. The big test was to see what they could get away with: help with the dishes, maybe, but then spoil it all by bragging about it; look after the kids while your wife went out, but then betray your fundamental lack of understanding by describing this as "babysitting". (What mother ever "babysat" her own kids?) Once men began to realise that marriage itself was at stake, some of them started to concentrate. But even then, it was hard for them to know how to respond, and women were often unhelpful in giving directions: "He should just realise what's expected of him I shouldn't have to spell it out for him."

The most absurd of the early male responses was the SNAG (the so-called "sensitive New Age guy"). This was a pathetic creature homo flaccidus created by feminists and almost immediately despised by them. "I wish I could be pregnant so I'd know what it really feels like" was not the radical response liberated women were hoping for, and the SNAG was soon written off as being too limp for words. The metrosexual, similarly, came and went in a cloud of aftershave. Largely a figment of the imagination of a New York advertising executive (female, as it happens), the metrosexual was supposed to be a more enlightened, more masculine response to feminism than the SNAG, but there have only been about six confirmed sightings of Australian metrosexuals.

What women have been waiting for is robust engagement with gender issues by men who are both comfortable with their own masculinity and serious about the idea of equality with women. Rather than either a cave-in or a caveman, what women wanted all along was the New Bloke and, 35 years after the revolution began, he's just beginning to arrive on the scene in serious numbers (though it's still safe to describe him as a sub-species).

The New Bloke is no wimp but he is no male chauvinist either, though he gets a laugh out of pretending to be: mock chauvinism is one of his party tricks and he enjoys satirising his unenlightened comrades. He's typically in his twenties, relaxed and confident about his masculinity, attractively blokey in style. To borrow the key word from the women's movement, the New Bloke is liberated. Try to get him talking about politics and he'll steer the conversation to girls, jobs, girls, sport, girls, the internet, girls, movies and drugs (of the legal and illegal variety). He is as interested in having a good time as any bloke ever was, but the big difference is that he knows women are equal. He accepts that a serious relationship with a woman involves taking her identity and her needs seriously, and that the woman's agenda is just as important as the man's. (Some of his best mates are women, by the way.)

The New Bloke despises "old" blokes who pretend to be in love so they can get a woman to sleep with them. The New Bloke is explicit about the difference between uncommitted and committed sex, and he knows plenty of girls who are equally clear about that distinction. Often posing as a traditional larrikin, he wouldn't want you to know he's reshaping the world, but that's his agenda: he wants us all to have more fun, to lighten up, to accept that the pathway to good relationships between the sexes lies in an acceptance of genuine equality. Any other way of operating strikes him as being unfair, unsustainable and just plain silly.

Hearing all this, his grandmother beams with pride. And his girlfriends? Many of them are still not entirely sure the New Bloke exists. They wonder whether the larrikin style and the sexist jokes are a clever smokescreen for some vestiges of old-style male chauvinism. They're waiting to be convinced that when it comes to the crunch, the alleged New Bloke really will give the woman's agenda equal weight.

But the signs are certainly promising and the women who believe they've found a genuine specimen are ready to celebrate this evolutionary leap. For him, there's also a lingering doubt. While he's all for equality, he sometimes wonders whether the current crop of young women are secretly (or not-so-secretly) convinced they are actually superior to him; many of them seem to assume that their agenda will prevail in rather the way a man's used to. "Are we still paying for our fathers' and grandfathers' sins?" asks the New Bloke, ruefully.

Perhaps that helps to explain why so many New Blokes are gung-ho for fatherhood, but still wary of marriage. The popular folklore that suggests women are having trouble finding men who will commit to fatherhood might be missing the mark. The way New Blokes tell it, it's not fatherhood they're scared of so much as young women who are so assertive, so independent and so feisty that even a fully authentic New Bloke will sometimes blanch at the prospect of being committed to them. "I'd love to be a dad, but some of these women, mate, I dunno."

Like every revolution, this one has had its share of over-corrections. The New Bloke is a promising sign but he, too, is a pioneer: just like his feminist grandmother 35 years ago, he'll have to serve his time. That means his fate is to be mistrusted and misunderstood for a while yet.

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author.