The father of economics lived with his mother. She took care of him for his entire life.  Yet he never thought to value her work to clean the house, cook his food or care for him.

In 1776, Adam Smith wrote the words that shaped our modern understanding of economics in his book ‘The Wealth of Nations’.  Yet he completely overlooked all the effort and support that created the space for him to study, theorise and publish; ignoring the washing, cooking, cleaning and general caring that his mother was providing. 

Two hundred years later, whilst I was growing up, the UN finally started to call for housework to be included in GDP.  Would all the love, care and attention my mother was providing in our home finally be recognised and rewarded, making her feel that she was a valuable member of society and not a dependent; no longer having to ask for money or account for how it was spent?  Sadly, the answer was no, and in truth nothing really changed.  GDP continued to exclude domestic duties despite being valued at the equivalent of some 50% of the economy.  Women got to work and joy of joys, do the housework as well; the latter without any extra pay or benefits, or any time off[1].

Life changing global events have challenged the paradigm before.  In WWI and WWII women entered the workforce in their thousands in order to free men up to fight.  But when peace arrived they were to return to their domestic duties and tend to the children and the home.  After all how would a man have the time or the energy to fulfil his stereotypical role as the breadwinner and head of his family if he didn’t have a submissive support worker to keep him free from domestic drudgery?  At least this situation contributed to the heightened awareness of gender inequality with many more women aware of their true contribution, their potential, and the need for change[2].

Will the Covid19 pandemic finally enable us to recognise the true benefits and also costs of care in its broadest sense? The need for everyone in the household to work together has never been greater — especially now. Without the extra help that might normally be received from grandparents, neighbours, nannies or cleaners, will people fully recognise all contributions to household well-being? So far it seems that it’s women that are picking up the slack yet again.[3]

Gender norms are hard to shake. But if there was ever a time to re-examine the assumption that women can simply do it all, without recognition of the value of that work, it is now.




Taken for Granted

According to Freud, women invented weaving from their need to plait pubic hair to hide their lack of penis[1].  Is this why textile art still languishes at the bottom of the art world hierarchy?[2]

When I started to learn basketry, my oldest friend took great glee in sending me an article on Freud in which he expounded that ‘women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization’ grudgingly allowing that perhaps we may have devised plaiting and weaving but that was only out of shame (you know who you are MK).

Before the industrial revolution, all wool, thread, and cloth were made by hand and it took a great deal of skill and time to gather fibres from plants or animals to make anything useful let alone beautiful.  The finest cloth was used to display wealth and status; hung on walls and adorning royalty with myths abounding such as the tales of Athena, Arachne or the Golden Fleece.  Spinners and weavers were lauded and acclaimed for their skills and economic contribution by the granting of a charter and the creation of the Weavers’ Guild in the twelfth century[3].

Along comes the spinning jenny and suddenly, textiles could be produced quickly and cheaply; so sewing, weaving, embroidery and quilting became crafts associated with domesticity and were mainly allocated to women.  What was regarded as a high art form practiced by both men and women since ancient times was demoted to a “feminine craft” that was at best a characteristic of an attractive and thrifty wife.  Now it’s sunk even further with clothing and bedding seen as cheap throwaway items with some eleven million items ending up in landfill each week.

Fortunately for me we live in more enlightened times, with knitting making a comeback and the art world starting to showcase a wide range of textile and fibre art[4].  It’s not just for grandmas anymore.





Pretty Useless

Why is fragility so valued in women?  Is it simply that helpless dependence makes men feel stronger and more powerful, reinforcing their role as leaders and providers in society? 

We learn what is expected of us from toys, books, games and television, what we see in the media, and every social interaction.  In the tale of the princess and the pea, I was encouraged to believe that the prince is wise in insisting on a woman who is so sensitive that she bruises through innumerable mattresses.  Am I really supposed to cultivate shyness, reserve or a display of fear and incompetence to make myself more acceptable to society[1]?

Simone de Beauvoir wrote that women have the capacity to be ‘free to reject male stereotypes of beauty and sexual attractiveness, and to become more equal as a result’.  I wish it was that easy.  My experience is that women who call out acts of micro-aggression are told they are over sensitive or are accused of being angry with no sense of humour when they stand up for themselves.  Take the case of Anita Sarkeesian who received death threats simply because she raised funds to support a cultural analysis of sexism in video games[2].

I was lucky in that I found a boss who once told me that he ‘hired me because I was frank, bossy and opinionated’.  Thank goodness for male allies who are not threatened by a strong, independent woman. 



Hidden Connections

In the days of yore, before lockdown, when we didn’t realise just how lucky we were to be able to meet up and go for a long walk, I was wandering through the woods with my cousin.  Over the course of our rambles he shared snippets of his wisdom about trees and how they work together to synchronise abundant and lean years so that the squirrels leave at least some fruits to form saplings. 

In fact, rather than fighting each other for light and water, trees are communal.  The fine root tips of trees join together with tiny fungal filaments to form the basic links of an economic network[1].  The trees give the fungi sugar, and the fungi give back mineral nutrients as well as carry messages and even transmit sugar from one tree to another to help them survive. 

It’s a bit like city life during Corona virus lockdown.  In normal times we push our way onto the tubes and buses, compete for jobs and school places without even talking to our neighbours or fellow travellers.  Yet behind this independent, competitive façade there are times when we come together to help those in need; bringing food, medicine or companionship to those that are isolated and showing we’re not all ruthless, selfish loners in a Darwinian economic soup[2]




Burnt at the Stake

Recently I read that in the late 19th century, the suffragette Matilda Gage suggested that the persecution of witches had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect and influence of women.  Considering the origin of the word witch comes from Wica, meaning wise, it makes perfect sense.  Women were hounded by hysterical mobs and then burnt for challenging the boundaries of society, just for being skilled, opinionated or having valuable knowledge such as mid-wifery or herbal cures.

A witch simply meant someone that transgressed the norms of female power that the mainstream found acceptable.  If they punished rather than valued her, it protected their own power base and made others afraid to follow in her footsteps and more easily controlled.  Perhaps that’s why we see so much trolling of women who dare to speak up; whether as journalists, MPs or from any other position of authority.  Apparently as women who show ambition, we are abominations who must be shamed or threatened to keep our perfidy from infecting others.

Back in 1977, when I was a little girl, a national newspaper published a series of articles about ‘moral choices in contemporary society’[1].  In it, the professor argued that the role of culture is to establish limits to acceptable human behaviour.  He explained that ‘a culture only survives as far as the members learn to narrow their choices otherwise open to them’. 

I don’t want to be part of a culture that is frozen in the past.  I want to be part of a developing world, in which we can all thrive.  Clinging to outdated ideas, or the status quo will only hinder all our progress.

[1] The Telegraph, 1977, Courses By Newspaper: The Nature Of Morality—I. – Page 6

Ugly Duckling

I am utterly obsessed with machine knitting.  For me it’s the perfect combination of mechanical engineering and artistic creativity.  But why, oh why can’t I be satisfied with making things out of wool?  Instead, I can’t stop myself trying to use wire which snaps, tangles, breaks and generally jams before my work falls in a heap for the umpteenth time.  Maybe I should have been more realistic given that the Gladstone rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for success.

Imagine my joy when finally I found the tension and technique to produce something lovely.  A phoenix from the ashes of despair.  An ugly duckling that became a swan.  What was initially unappealing and unpromising had the potential to become beautiful and admirable in maturity.  There is hope for us all.

She Persisted

 ‘We women persist. Isn’t that our job? Throughout history, we have persisted in our quest for respect, for justice, for equal rights, for suffrage, for education, for enfranchisement, for recognition, for making our voices heard. In the face of violence, of opposition, of ridicule, of belittlement, even of jail time, nevertheless, we have persisted.’

Valerie Schultz

On my way to the British Library I noticed a small gallery dedicated to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson tucked into the corner of the UNISON headquarters.  Stepping in for a quick nose about; I discovered a shelf of books about pioneering women and social reformers[1].  Flicking through pages at random I found a trove of delicious snippets of information about disobedient women who fail to conform to their role in society or pander to the desires of the males in authority.  What a treat for a rainy afternoon.

Fortunately for me, one of my managers early in my career held rather a different view.  He once told me that he had hired me because ‘I was bossy and opinionated’.  Finally, someone who valued my strengths.  But why is it that women who display traditional “masculine” qualities such as assertiveness, forcefulness, and ambition are labelled as “bitchy”, unfeminine and aggressive when their male counterparts are praised for natural leadership ability and promoted for exactly the same behaviours?

Research shows that women who want to succeed are told that they need to consciously monitor themselves to balance assertion with enough caring/nurturing behaviours so they don’t upset the way in which others are used to seeing the world working.  How much longer do we need to hide our strength behind a soft outer shell to be accepted and recognised for what we can contribute? I say stop pandering to outdated views and allow capability to be recognised whatever package it comes in.


Mountain Stream

….soothing confusing thoughts that come my way; easing all stress, so my spirit is resigned; to watching its water ripple, swirl, glide and wind; and giving a soft contentment to my day.

Extract from the Singing River by Ernestine Northover

I spend a lot of my time outside; hiking through woods, over hills, along coastal paths or canals whenever I can.   Ideally in sunshine but quite often in mud or rain.  My mind is on idle, my worries seem less important, my desire for cake can be indulged.  Some of the best walks I’ve done have been along gorges with rushing streams creating tempting, swirling swimming pools for an icy dip. 

I’ve always loved water.  I have childhood memories of outdoor unheated pools and my long suffering father forced to accompany me to keep me safe.  Recollections of rushing into the Irish Sea every day on holiday and emerging blue, shivering and covered in goose bumps to then hide behind a windbreak and chafe heat back into my limbs. 

For me, wild swimming has an exhilarating quality quite unlike that of mindlessly ploughing up and down the lanes of an indoor pool.  Looks, speed and skill: none of these matter.  Just the bracing chill making me feel utterly alive in that moment, aware of everything around me, reconnecting with my zest for life.

So much more to give

Cut your hair short and get the right handbag or you won’t be successful.  How can it still be true in the 21st century that I can’t be taken seriously, whatever my looks and figure?  I’d hoped for more from a Women in Asian Business conference than discussions of the best handbag to get ahead[1].   

Sadly it seems that encouraging children to read doesn’t make society any better for women either.  A study of children’s literature over the whole of the 20th century showed that stories were twice as likely to be about boys as girls.  With adult women rarely mentioned as being anything other than a mother, queen or witch[2].  What are we doing in reading Rapunzel to our sons and daughters?  A girl who was so conditioned to focus on her looks that she fails to realise that she could use her own hair to abseil down the tower and escape to freedom.  So much for realistic life expectations and good role models. 



Asking for it?

Stay on the path and don’t talk to strangers is the advice from little Red Riding Hood’s mother as she sends her off on another elder care errand, a little basket of cakes dangling from her arm.  Written many centuries ago, you’d hope that times have moved on, with women able to walk unaccompanied in safety, without experiencing harassment or worse.   Sadly it’s still the case in the UK that 66% of girls aged 14 to 21, have experienced unwanted sexual attention in a public place. Nor does it stop there, even women in their eighties are being pestered.  To stay safe, women have to think carefully about if, when, and where they go.


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