“When I say I’m a feminist, what do I mean?” Ann Oakley asks near the end of Taking It Like a Woman. “I mean that I believe that women are an oppressed social group, a group of people sharing a common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions (and being over-represented in others). The oppression, she argues, is that of being “subject to the awful soul-destroying tyranny of being told the meaning of their lives by others in terms which are not theirs.” In part, Taking It Like a Woman is an account of the various interpretations of the meaning of her own life that Oakley encountered in the first forty years of her life.
Oakley’s childhood and youth were heavily influenced by the success of her father, Richard Titmuss, who played a large role in the shaping of the British welfare state and the policies of the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with the example of her mother, a social worker, he defined for his daughter a life model involving competition, intellectual rigor, and dedication to society — in other words, one little open to anything that might smack of selfishness. To a young woman full of the natural doubts and uncertainties that any teenager might experience, it was, while never harsh or cruel, as relentless as the rigidity of sworn Fundamentalist parents.
Ironically, while Oakley found a very forward-looking husband, who was open to sharing household chores and comfortable with her playing the more dominant role as a bread-winner, and managed to find time and space to raise children as well (which she described in Becoming a Mother (1980)), she still struggled to find a fully satisfactory life model for herself. Indeed, I found it rather odd that she devoted such a significant portion of Taking It Like a Woman to what she refers to on her website as “fictionalised narratives about a love affair.” Nine of the book’s twenty-five chapters, in fact. In them, a woman (Oakley, I assumed, until I read the statement on her website) and a man, a sophisticated jet-setting academic from a far-off country (India? Indonesia? Japan? I couldn’t tell), meet in different hotels and resorts and share their souls — and amazing sex. After some years, he breaks it off, and she suffers a terrible crisis, only to decide that, “In the end, no one else was a reason for living: faith had to come from within, but within was no faith. So she finally took responsibility for her own life in a way that she always knew she would — being in the end just another woman.”
It’s hard to accept that these passages are purely fictional, in light of a remark Oakley makes at the start of the book: “I have persevered in this task precisely because I know I am living and writing about something which is recognizable to others.” Really? Yes, growing up, marriage, children, making a career, running a household, dealing with the death of a parent, recovering from cancer — all of which Oakley describes — are things recognizable, even familiar to others. But an extended affair with a handsome, intelligent, exotic man in good hotels all over Europe? Maybe not so much.
Oakley ends with more questions than answers: “There is no certainty in anything,” she says to her daughter, as they walk along a seaside. Yet she does establish at least one fact that she has seen in her own life and the lives of the women she has studied and worked with: “The tension between the interests of the family and the interests of women as individuals has been rising for some two centuries. It is not possible for these interests to be reconciled.” She foresees more battles over this issue to be fought, and if she finds any hope, it is in the growing willingness of other women to “look at the circumstances of their lives.” For me, her own example was intellectually intriguing but not inspiring. I wasn’t convinced that Oakley provided any clues for how other women could overcome their “common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions.”