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Friday, March 11, 2011

The land that feminism forgot

'Being a mum is more important to me than a job. There is not a culture of nannies here'
They wouldn't dream of working full-time, spend three hours a day drinking coffee and their men pay for everything - have Dutch women found the secret to happiness?
Have you wondered what life would be like if feminism had never happened? If we were all housewives? If we were not required to live on our wits and our adrenaline, and were able to take up a hobby? If men were happy to step up to the mark and look after us?
Am I talking about travelling back in time to see what life was like in the Fifties? No, it is much simpler than that. I am catching a flight to Amsterdam.
A recent report reveals that fewer than ten per cent of Dutch women work full-time, and they face one of the highest wage gaps in Europe. But the surprise is it’s not just mums with young families who work only two or three days a week, or older women who care for elderly relatives: it is child-free women in their 20s and 30s, too.
And, it seems, it makes them incredibly happy. A new book, Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed, explains that the reason they don’t is because the majority work part-time. They earn less and have less. Many live off their partner. But they don’t care. They want to relax, read a book, see their friends.
Studies show that Dutch women don’t want to spend more time at work: they refuse extended hours at their jobs, even if they don’t have children. And they are horrified by British women’s lack of free time.
I have travelled to Holland to find out why women here don’t want equality, professional fulfilment, independence and autonomy and power and . . . lovely things!
Are they not bored, and worried about having no identity? Where is their ambition?
I meet Maaike Voorhoeve, 30, and we compare notes. I tell her I work 75 hours a week, haven’t had a day off since Christmas, and that to me my job is my identity. When I was features editor on a daily paper, I had lunch away from my desk once in five years
Consequently, I have very few friends, and I’m exhausted. I’ve only seen my mum once this year, and my new boyfriend complains that even out for a romantic dinner, I’m always sending emails. I might have nice things, but I don’t have time to enjoy them.
Maaike tells me about her life. I am soon jealous. She is studying for her Phd in law, has a boyfriend, but no children. I ask how many hours a week she works. ‘Well,’ she says. ‘I am very sensitive to stress, and as soon as I start feeling tense I come to this cafe.’
How many hours a day does she spend here, drinking coffee and talking? ‘Oh, three hours a day. I like to do some form of sport, too. I run three times a week.’
Another woman in the cafe interrupts. She tells me she is 32, childless, and works four hours a week. ‘Dutch women meet friends for lunch, we visit family, we exercise, we work on who we are.
‘We sometimes feel sorry for the men who are stuck in the office all day, but not that often.’ What does she do all day? ‘I garden!’
I’m aghast. These women are obviously intelligent. But, they see enjoying life as more important than having a career. Can we learn something from them?
The Dutch divorce rate is, after all, one of the lowest in Europe, but are couples forced to put up with each other, given the woman’s greater financial dependence?
Yes, of course in Holland there are many women who work full-time, at low-paid, unfulfilling jobs: immigrant workers in the catering trade, for example. It is the middle-class Dutch woman who has chosen to turn her back on the corporate world.
Even Dutch high-fliers don’t see a career as the most important thing in their life. A female newspaper editor was quoted in the Press recently as saying: ‘We look at the world of management — and it is a man’s world — and we think: “Oh, I could do that if I wanted. But I’d rather enjoy my life.” ’
I speak to yet another graduate: Margje van Haeften, 35, teaches children with behavioural problems three days a week. She lives with her boyfriend, who works full-time.

‘I was struggling, working five days. I would do the same thing every day, I was tired, and I had no energy for my social life. I knew I didn’t want to feel like that for my whole life.
‘But then I studied life coaching, and became more self-confident, and decided to cut down my hours. I was nervous telling my boss at first, but he told me not to worry.’
I ask how this affects the dynamic between her and her boyfriend. ‘I do more housework than he does, but I don’t feel I have to always make dinner for him. I have more time for him.’
But does he respect you? Isn’t this set-up a little old-fashioned? ‘No, it’s more modern. Our relationship is better. I take photos, I go to the gym. We can manage financially. I’m much happier.’
The main difference I can find between Dutch women and their British counterparts is that they are much less concerned with material things.
Debby Nobel, the 34-year-old deputy editor of Dutch Grazia, does work five days a week, but tells me that: ‘Dutch women would rather live in a small house, and only eat out occasionally, than work all the time.
‘All my friends say they want to work to live, not live to work. There is no credit card culture here. But men do tend to pay for stuff, and they don’t seem to mind. That is they way they were brought up.’
I ask if she resents the part-timers. ‘On a Friday afternoon, this building is deserted,’ she says. ‘If you are a mum, fine, but if you are a normal girl, why? Not a lot of Dutch women like to be called feminists. They won’t work longer hours. They leave university, and go into a part-time job. They say it’s about self-development, they want to write a book…’
I sympathise. I wouldn’t dream of employing someone whose sole ambition was to sit in a cafe for three hours a day. But Yvonne van Nielen, a 34-year-old with a young son, who works four days a week as a designer on Grazia, disagrees. She believes part-timers work more intensively than full-timers.
‘We pack the work of five days into four. But, yes, being a mum is more important to me than a job. There is not a culture of nannies here.’
I get a cab to the suburbs to meet Lisa Zwaaneveldt, a young mum. Her apartment is immaculate: all polished floors, mid-20th-century furniture, toys stored neatly. It’s all so different from the homes of my super busy friends who are mums.
I once went back for dinner with a female TV newsreader, and when we got to her £3 million home I looked at her hallway, strewn with detritus, and said: ‘Oh my god, you’ve been burgled!’ ‘Nah,’ she said, throwing her coat on a pile. ‘This is normal.’
Lisa is 33, and has an 18-month-old son, Dave. Her husband works full-time as a chef. When I ask what she does for a living, she replies: ‘Full-time housewife,’ without a hint of an apology. ‘I used to work as a PA, and the men expected their wives to stay home,’ she says. ‘There is pressure to be a good wife, to be a good cook, to keep the home nice.’
Would she call herself a feminist? ‘No.’ Do she feel vulnerable? ‘I used to earn a lot of money, so I know I could again. I am training to be a beauty therapist, so I will work one day, just not full-time.’
I’m starting to wonder how men in the Netherlands feel. It turns out they don’t go Dutch at all: they tend to pay for everything.
But then I meet a young man heading home at Schipol train station, arms full of tulips. ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Does she work full-time?’ ‘Are you kidding? No, it is my job to worship her, to make her happy and fulfilled.’
Maybe the Dutch women have got the right idea, after all.

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