Before quoting some of her thoughts, I'll set the scene. A liberal society takes autonomy to be the highest good. Feminism is liberalism applied to the lives of women. Therefore, feminism will aim to maximise female autonomy.
How can you make women more autonomous? One way is to stretch out for as long as possible an independent single girl lifestyle based on casual relationships, travel, shopping and parties. Another is to make career (in which women became financially independent) more important than marriage and motherhood.
And what about equality? If you believe that you should be self-determining, then you won't want your predetermined gender to matter in what you do. An autonomous woman will want to "match it with the boys" and prove that she can do whatever they can do. There will be an equality of sameness.
Young women get the message that to be free they should put career first; enjoy an independent single girl lifestyle in their twenties and into their thirties; and prove themselves by matching it with the boys.
Is this an adequate base on which to build a life? For many women, the answer will turn out to be no. Zoe Lewis is one of the women who was burnt by the feminist and liberal take on freedom:
I never thought I would be saying this, but being a free woman isn't all it's cracked up to be. Is that the rustle of taffeta I hear as the suffragettes turn in their graves? Possibly. My mother was a hippy who kept a pile of (dusty) books by Germaine Greer and Erica Jong by her bed ... She imbued me with the great values of choice, equality and sexual liberation. I fought with my older brother and won; at university I beat the rugby lads at drinking games. I was not to be messed with.
Now, nearly 37, those same values leave me feeling cold. I want love and children but they are nowhere to be seen. I feel like a UN inspector sent in to Iraq only to find that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. I was led to believe that women could “have it all” and, more to the point, that we wanted it all. To that end I have spent 20 years ruthlessly pursuing my dreams - to be a successful playwright. I have sacrificed all my womanly duties and laid it all at the altar of a career. And was it worth it? The answer has to be a resounding no.
Her career did not bring the power, glamour and life success she thought it would:
Ten years ago The Times ran a piece about my play Paradise Syndrome. It was based on my girlfriends in the music business. All we did was party, work and drink. The play sold out and I thought: “This is it! I'm going to have it all: success, power and men are going to adore me for it.” In reality it was the beginning of years of hard slog, rejection letters and living on the breadline.
She once thought Madonna was a living embodiment of liberal autonomy: of being unimpeded in determining one's life so that it was possible to do anything and be anything:
A decade on, I have written the follow-up play Touched for the Very First Time in which Lesley, played by Sadie Frost, is an ordinary 14-year-old from Manchester who falls in love with Madonna in 1984 after hearing the song Like a Virgin. She religiously follows her icon through the years, as Madonna sells her the ultimate dream: “You can do anything - be anything - go girl.” Lesley discovers, along with Madonna, that trying to “have it all” is a huge gamble. I wrote the play because so many of my girlfriends were inspired by this bullish woman who allowed us to be strong and sexy. I still love her and always will, but she has encouraged us to chase a fantasy and it's a huge disappointment.
Women are missing out on being wives and mothers because these roles were rejected by liberals in favour of female independence:
This month the General Household Survey found that the number of unmarried women under 50 has more than doubled over the past 30 years. And by the age of 30, one in five of these “freemales”, who have chosen independence over husband and family, has gone through a broken cohabitation.
I argue that women's libbers of the Sixties and Seventies put careerism at the forefront, trampling the traditional role of women underneath their Doc Martens. I wish a more balanced view of womanhood had been available to me. I wish that being a housewife or a mother wasn't such a toxic idea to middle-class liberals of yesteryear.
Zoe Lewis is not alone in having a change of heart. But for some it will be too late:
Increasing numbers of my feminist friends are giving up their careers for love and children and baking. I wish I'd had kids ten years ago, when time was on my side, but the problem is not so much time as mentality. I made a conscious decision not to have serious relationships because I thought I had all the time in the world. Many of my friends did the same. It's about understanding what is important in life, and from what I see and feel, loving relationships and children bring more happiness than work ever can.
There are some important points made in the above excerpt. First, what the liberal emphasis on autonomy leaves out is the importance of love and family. Essentially, what Zoe Lewis is arguing is that "freedom" (i.e. autonomy) is not the sole, overriding good after all. There are other important goods in life that can't be overridden, such as love, home, children and family.
Second, note that Zoe Lewis confesses that "I made a conscious decision not to have serious relationships". Unfortunately, this was part of the middle-class, tertiary educated culture of the times. Women thought that family formation could be indefinitely postponed and therefore did not want to settle into a serious relationship.
This had significant consequences. It meant that women no longer favoured family men. Men were rewarded for being unsuitable in some way. So the attitude of men changed as well. Some adapted to the culture of casual relationships by becoming players. Some withdrew from the whole dating game and adapted to a lifetime of bachelorhood. Some looked elsewhere for women. The result was that when some of these middle class women did finally start to look for husbands they met men who were no longer as keen to commit.
Zoe Lewis makes another notable admission:
I thought that men would love independent, strong women, but (in general) they don't appear to. Men are programmed to like their women soft and feminine. It's not their fault - it's in the genes.
This too is significant. Zoe Lewis now recognises that it's not possible to make gender not matter. When it comes to heterosexuality, opposites attract. Men are hardwired to find the feminine qualities of women appealing.
However, it's not just that men don't go for masculine women. Zoe Lewis cannot deny her own feminine instincts:
Somewhere inside lurks a woman I cannot control and she is in the kitchen with a baby on her hip and dough in her hand, staring me down. She is saying: “This is happiness, this is what it's all about.” It's an instinct that makes me a woman, an instinct that I can't ignore even if I wanted to.
Again, Zoe Lewis in practice was not able to live by the credo of making her gender not matter. She couldn't ignore her hardwired nature (her instincts), even if for political reasons she tried to. As a single woman in her late 30s, these instincts appear to be asserting themselves in the strongest terms, perhaps more so than for a woman who had married and had children earlier in life.
Zoe Lewis now wishes she had taken relationships more seriously in her twenties:
Had I this understanding of my psyche ten years ago I would have demoted my writing (and hedonism) and pursued a relationship with vigour. There were plenty of men and even a marriage offer, but I wouldn't give up my dreams.
I talked to the girls who were the subject of my play Paradise Syndrome in 1999. Sas Taylor, 38, single and childless, runs her own PR company: “In my twenties I felt I was invincible,” she says. “Now I wish I had done it all differently. I seem to scare men off because I am so capable. I have business success but it doesn't make you happy.” Nicki P, 35 and single, works in the music industry and adds: “It was all a game back then. Now I am panicking. No one told me that having fun is not as fun as I thought.”
Women in their twenties are in a strong position. They are at the height of their desirability to men. The danger, perhaps, is that this makes them feel "invincible". They may not realise that their advantage won't last forever and that it's most sensible to find a partner when the going is at its best.
Why else doesn't the autonomy principle work well in real life? It's not just that men prefer feminine women, but the biological reality of a woman's ticking clock:
Women are often the worst enemies of feminism because of our genetic make-up. We have only a finite time to be mothers and when that clock starts ticking we abandon our strength and jump into bed with whoever is left, forgetting talk of deadlines and PowerPoint presentations in favour of Mamas & Papas buggies and ovulation diaries. Not all women want children but I challenge any woman to say she doesn't want loving relationships. I wish I'd had the advice that I am giving to my 21-year-old sister: if you find a great guy, don't be afraid to settle down and have kids because there isn't anything to miss out on that you can't do later (apart from having kids).
We can't determine everything through our own will. A woman still has to consider the reality of her biological clock. It's genetic and hard-wired. Furthermore women want, as part of their nature, loving relationships. Again, this is not something that can be changed according to individual will.
Therefore, Zoe Lewis does something that shows character. She cannot now change her mistakes, but she can try to steer younger women away from her own fate. So she encourages younger women not to reject good men and leave things too late.
Nor does Zoe Lewis take the easy option of blaming men or a patriarchy. She does not believe that it was men who prevented her achieving the right kind of balance in life. It was the feminism held amongst women:
In the future I hope that there can be a better understanding of women by women. The past 25 years have been confusing and I feel that I've been caught in the crossfire. As women we should accept each other rather than just appreciating “success”. I have always felt a huge pressure to be successful to show men that I am their equal. What a waste of time. Wife and mother should be given parity with the careerist role in the minds of feminists.
She now feels it was a waste of time to pursue "equality as sameness". She recognises that a woman who sets out to do this won't ever give parity to the role of wife and mother.
Finally, she again makes the point that autonomy, whilst important, isn't the sole, overriding good to be chased relentlessly at the expense of everything else:
Choice and careers are vital, of course, but they shouldn't be pursued relentlessly. I love being a writer and still have my dream but now I am facing facts. The thing that has made me feel best in life was being in love with my ex-boyfriend and the thing that makes me feel the most centred is being in the country with kids and dogs, and yes, maybe in the kitchen.
She feels that she has missed out on the things that have turned out to be most important to her. She is yet more proof that liberalism is especially unsuitable when it comes to relationships.