What Women Want by Nelly Thomas (excerpt)

12 / 07 / 2012

 

Nelly Thomas’ memoir/manifesto What Women Want was published by Random House in April. With her permission, we include this excerpt from the book, which we encourage you to buy! For details, visit Nelly’s website or follow her on Twitter: @msnellythomas

 

One thing I am certain of is that what women want has changed. It has to have. We grew up in a different world to that of our mothers and grandmothers, and the options open to us would be almost unrecognisable to them. I hate to get Dr Phil on you so early, but there’s some dreams you can’t dream for yourself if you can’t even imagine the circumstances under which they’d happen. Put it this way, Anne of Green Gables was a feisty wench, but I doubt she could have aspired to being a feminist social commentator blogger twitter specialist. Although, god knows, I’d follow her if she were.

The generational changes we face are both small and large. The most obvious are technological. When our mums were young women, there were no iPhones, Twitter, Facebook, email or camera phones. There was no internet. Households didn’t have computers and only some had landlines (if you’re under twenty, ask your mum what a landline is). For our nannas, there were no microwaves, fridges, toasters, vacuum cleaners or washing machines. Imagine that: there were NO WASHING MACHINES. A lot of nonsense flies around about how everything was great in the Good Old Days and I have a two-word response to that: washing machines. If you’ve never experienced the agony of handwashing sheets, count yourself lucky and go hug your front-loader immediately.

Depending on their age, most of your mums would also have grown up without a television. Even when I was little in the 1970s we had just one television – it was black-and-white, in the lounge-room and it only played F-Troop and The Sullivans. For recreation, people had sex, played cards and smoked inside.

Childhood homes were structured very traditionally back then – Dad went to work, Mum stayed home (or maybe worked part-time); the kitchen was hers, the shed was his and everything else was fair game. Many of our mothers wouldn’t have been educated beyond early high school, and many of their mothers would have questioned why that was even necessary. How many years at high school do you need to learn to iron a crease down the front of your husband’s jeans? Yes, people used to iron.

Houses cost about five dollars each, cars were about three dollars fifty (not necessarily accurate figures) and Grandma lived with you until she karked it in her seventies. Fashion models were much curvier (Marilyn Monroe famously being a size fourteen-ish), but women were smaller in general. Men were supposed to look, dress and act like men, and women like women. Your mum almost certainly wore dresses and skirts and would have had pubes. Shocking.

 

Nelly Thomas at the launch of What Women Want, an event supported by the Victorian Women’s Trust

Many of our mothers were married in or by their early twenties, and most had two or more children (at least). They were called Craig or Michelle and were spelled properly. If someone got fancy and spelled their kid’s name ‘Stephen’ instead of ‘Steven’, everyone ignored them at the school council meeting. If you’d called your kid Apple or Pixie Lulu Belle, someone would have called DOCS; if you’d hit them, that would have been fine.

Most of our mothers were allowed to vote (except Aboriginal women, who didn’t really start voting until the late 1960s), but very few women could be found in public life. There were queens and other female royalty, but it would have been unthinkable for a woman to be elected Prime Minister, and women leaders in the business sector were extremely rare.

Women who didn’t fit the mainstream had a rough time. Indigenous women were actively oppressed and discriminated against, and lesbian women, until the early 1970s, were still considered medically insane. There were no ‘special needs’ assistants, and the only thing you had a ramp for was your rich uncle’s boat.

Catholics and Protestants hated each other, but it was (wrongly) assumed that everyone was one or the other. War was ever-present for most of our mothers born in the twentieth century, but it was fought between actual countries. One rarely left their own country. ‘Travel’ consisted of hoofing it to your nearest coastal caravan park – only the wealthy travelled overseas, and it took them days to get to Singapore on a barge for cheap electrical goods like milkshake makers and Donkey Kong.

And last but not least, few of our mothers expected to change the world. In fact the very thought wouldn’t have occurred to most of them. Sure, there have always been women who’ve agitated for change, but generally speaking, women couldn’t even get a bank loan without their husband, how were they supposed to Shake Shit Up en masse? The dreams and aspirations of my mother and grandmothers were shaped by their time and context. My maternal grandmother, my nan, had twelve children (ten survived), and then her husband died leaving her to raise them on her own. Even if she’d wanted a career, I doubt she could have found the time to squeeze in an MBA. Until the widespread availability of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, women were almost certainly destined to be mothers – willingly or not – and young ones at that. There were social conventions that restricted other choices too, but even if you were prepared to buck the trend, your biology would determine your choices one way or another. Theoretically, you could choose not to have sex – but women were hornbags, even in the Olden Days.

Needless to say, the world we find ourselves in today is very different. Some of it is better, some of it is worse, and we seem a bit confused about what we want from it. I’m confused about what I want from it. Do I want to be a career woman, a family woman, a superwoman? Are they the only choices? One thing I know for sure is that I want work-life balance – and everyone is telling me I should have it – but I literally don’t know anyone with it so it doesn’t seem a very useful concept in reality. I do know that if, in some imaginary universe, I could find ten minutes to myself during the day, I wouldn’t waste it learning a language or doing yoga. I’d do a poo. On my own, in peace, and without a child watching or someone knocking at the door.

Life feels hard. Some things are hard, some just feel it. There’s always a gaggling chorus of fuddy duddies wanting to wind back the clock to when a smoke was a smoke, and groovin’ was groovin’, but most remember that those days, especially for women, weren’t all sunshine and roses. Unless you had access to Valium, in which case they were both – some shit doesn’t change.

But equally, the promise of progress – some of it feminist, some of it from other sources – doesn’t seem to have been fulfilled. In addition to my normal comedic duties (gigs in pubs and clubs and at festivals and so on) I do a lot of work with young women in high schools, mostly around sexual health and ethics. I created a number of comedy sexual-health shows and resource materials with the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, and while I’ll explain more about that work later in the book, suffice to say at this juncture that I am so well-known for it these days that I was recently introduced at a gig as ‘that comedian who does sex shows with kids’. Yes, it was awkward. But my point is that I’m often in schools talking to young women about sex and other issues, and I take an interest in the research and public discourse in the area, so I have a reasonable sense of how things are for the current crop. In some respects they are light-years beyond where my friends and I were at their age, but in others, they’re just the same. There’s still good girls (girlfriends/wives) and bad girls (sluts), and everyone is still on a diet. There’s still bullies and cliques and predators and best friends, and jocks and nerds and Barbie dolls. There’s still girls ashamed of being smart and ambitious, and others whose sole aspiration is to be ‘someone’s missus’. There’s girls who confuse powerful things (like sex) with power itself; who don’t realise that rooting the footy captain or boss isn’t the same as being the footy captain or boss. Many of them are left wondering why they feel like shit a lot of the time.

They’re still wondering, and so am I. I am a self-employed working other. I am autonomous, my own boss, financially independent – everything women of my generation were supposed to be – but I’m tired. I’m so tired I’m actually writing this book in my sleep (which is tough – the grammar alone is giving me nightmares). So many modern women, myself included, seem to feel under pressure rather than free. Some of us are experiencing all this choice, all these options, as a burden. At its most ridiculous level, we’ve all felt that paralysis at the supermarket when confronted with seven hundred and thirty-eight varieties of deodorant: What is the difference between the deodorants? Will it harm me? Can I afford it? Do I even need it? There’s a metaphor writ large for an entire generation: we’ve got a lot of options, but how the hell do we choose? What the hell do we want?

Read more by purchasing Nelly’s book at all major bookstores, or visit her website.


Any feedback on Sheilas articles and content is always welcome. Please direct all feedback to Sheilas editor Sarah Capper at sarah@vwt.org.au.

FacebookTwitter