‘Feminism makes no sense!’ Pfff. Am I hearing this right, and is it really coming out of the mouth of my 15-year-old? Yes, I am hearing him right. He goes on: ‘Well, look, in the past you had the “Mad Mina” movement. And the Mad Minas certainly did a lot for equal opportunities for women at a time when that was needed. But today’s feminists are not real feminists like they were then. They’re spoiled. They claim equal rights and complain about receiving less pay than men for the same work. How important is that really? And you know, Mum, I think they’d rather drink tea and go and drink wine in town with their friends than work for their money.’ Huh, pardon? He stands holding forth with his arms folded, leaning against the worktop. Where is this sudden social criticism coming from, I wonder? And what does he know about women’s issues? After a busy day at work, I am chopping up onions, peppers and courgettes. I frown a bit at this spontaneous display of engagement. Is this a result of the way I raised him?
‘Yeah, ha ha,’ my son continues as if he can hear my thoughts, laughing a bit thinly now. He is wearing a press-studded jacket with a name badge. The uniform of a shelf stacker at the country’s largest grocery store. Just home after his third shift in his first job. His defined two-hour task this time was to fill the refrigerator shelves behind transparent flap doors. First with meat, then with fish. ‘Well, I don’t really know if that’s how it is, Mum. What I really think is that it’s useful if you accept that everyone is equal. Then you don’t need feminism at all. Because if you want to be a feminist, then you think that as a woman you are disadvantaged compared with a man. That’s easy. That’s whining and complaining. If you really think that, then I think it’s better to go and do something to eliminate that disadvantage. Go and do some real work in politics or something!’
Go into politics! Suddenly I’m back at high school in a middle-of-the-road provincial town, in gardening trousers with a lumberjack shirt and goat wool socks, voting for Ria Beckers of the PPR. Inspired by the “Counterparty”, by Van Es and Jacobse, who remembers them, those characters so aptly played by van Kooten and de Bie, we schoolchildren organised alternative parliamentary elections. Ria Beckers! Who remembers her? That sturdy politician with short curly hair and a sympathetic face that so characteristically featured a prominent wart. There was no botox or photoshopping back then, and female politicians wore the same kind of clothes as my aunt Joukje. A checked tweed skirt, ending just above the knee, with a turtleneck and brown leather jacket, plus brown leather boots with a modest platform heel. Smooth.
Were those really better times? I venture to doubt it. Listening to good old Neelie Kroes, it was absolutely not a good time for women. Although things have of course changed for the better since her own start as a working woman, and a young mother to boot. She never experienced a glass ceiling, but she sends out a warning. As a guest on Pauw, she takes Prime Minister Rutte to task over the small number of women his VVD party selects to sit in his third cabinet. A cabinet without enough qualified women is no use to anyone, according to Neelie. Her bright red lipstick leaves a clear print behind on the glass she puts back on the table. Nails beautifully painted and fingers generously be-ringed, the skin of her hands and neck betrays her advanced years. Did she fight all those years for nothing? I felt sympathy for her, a well-preserved old lady fretting over this public message for her party leader. Seemed slightly painful and artificial. She could have made it easier on herself. How? By staying home and calling Rutte and telling him in person, rather than going to sit in a TV studio so late in the evening. Or is that silly of me? And deep in my heart I find it downright shameful that there she is, in her old age, a lonely advocate for future generations of women at work.
Back to the reality of my kitchen. The pasta in the pan is starting to soften. I take a sip of my drink and in my mind say a toast to Ria, to Neelie, to aunt Joukje and to my mother. Thank you, ladies!
My son keeps talking, unaware that my thoughts are drifting elsewhere. Now my daughter joins in the conversation, telling her brother: ‘Hey, behave yourself! Surely you can be what you want to be and take a job that you like, one that pays well!’ When I ask what sort of job, she says she might want to be a doctor. Although pleased to hear this input and this option, I wisely keep it to myself.
Son completely ignores daughter and brings a twist to his own story: ‘the opposite is true as well, though. If you accept inequality, you don’t have to pretend you’re striving for equality, because inequality is always there. So it’s not something you can easily eliminate.’ Silence. Son pauses for breath and goes on: ‘Ah, you know Mum, there is always someone in the world or some group or other that thinks they’re being treated unfairly. Just stop comparing yourself to others and don’t hide behind big words like feminism or emancipation. Because that makes you unhappy as a human being. You just need to make your own life beautiful.’
That’s his final word. He’s done. And so is the pasta. I drain the water. Now we can sit down to dinner. Or nearly, just a few extras to add for a tasty sauce.
With the women’s issue, it’s like when I was pregnant. Suddenly I saw a world full of rounded bellies. Now I see evidence everywhere that emancipation gives people a voice.
Giel Beelen has no problem with the fact that Veronica only has white men as DJs. ‘Apart from that crap about my salary, I’m also pleased to be free from that politically correct rubbish about diversity on the radio. It’s about having the best artists in the right places. When you’re making radio for middle-aged men, a team like ours seems to be to be a great idea.’ I catch a response on Twitter: ‘If only you had the Pope as an audience, Giel Beelen! Even then it still matters that it’s not just white men whose voices get heard and so shape the context.’ Not to put too fine a point on it!
Is emancipation a good thing? Asking around my girlfriends, in the prime of life, seems to confirm this. One of them has just started work in an organisation that mainly employs men. As proof of her place in this world, I receive a copy of her listing in the top 10 women in Dutch government. I experience a vicarious pride. I am also proud of Gloria Wekker, an emeritus professor of anthropology who was recently awarded the Joke Smit prize for her life-long work highlighting the disadvantages suffered by black women. Gloria is a little more distant, I don’t know her. Never heard of her, in fact. She sits at a table with Eva Jinek and launches into a tirade against the white Dutch person’s attitude to racial discrimination, based on her book White Innocence. The identity politics she advocates appear to be broadly of the same order as the stamp of quality that Giel Beelen gives to his white men in broadcasting. White men, white words, black women, black words?
In Gloria’s eyes I am white and certainly not innocent. I have trouble with her approach while chuckling at what Giel writes. Pshaw. What the fresh perspective of a new generation can bring! If I am anything, I am a human being. Like those of Giel and Gloria, my words are coloured by perspective, social context and zeitgeist. Far from satisfied with reflection, my belly now growls mainly for food. Cheerfully I grind the mill, pepper drops into the sauce. I’m hungry for that multicoloured pasta.