Feminism and the ‘Mother Problem’ – How Politicians Who Profess to Promote Women’s Rights Must Start Listening to Mummy

This is the concluding piece in my ‘Politics of Mothering’ trilogy featured on Huffington Post.

The year 2015 is going to be a cracker for feminism.

A renewed enthusiasm for women’s rights and even a campaign to remove VAT from sanitary products. An exciting time. But let’s take a moment to think about something which leaves many a feminist – and I count myself as one *punches air* – with a profound sense of unease.

Mater. The mother of dilemmas for women in politics and positions of influence.

I warn you now: in this, the concluding part of my Politics of Mothering trilogy, I will use the words ‘Patriarchy’ and ‘Capitalist’ – so sue me; but for the moment, how about a little ‘herstory’. Not so much Feminism 101 as a peek at the forgotten heritage of the original women’s movement of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. It was not just about economic freedom and the right to vote, to name two issues; it also sought recognition of and support for the work mothers do when they care for their children and families.

That is a right which, in the 21st Century, has yet to be won.

Maternal feminism, radical feminism and other variations are not new (and don’t even get me started on Beyonce’s brand), yet somehow, party political lines and a dominant, stunted, capitalist-liberal school of feminism have dictated that gender equality within the constraints of Patriarchy (read: you are entitled to compete as though a man, with no recognition of your needs or desires as a mother) is more worthy than respect for differences amongst and between individuals.

Successive politicians – including men in slogan T-Shirts (Nick Clegg I am looking at you) – have perpetuated this attitude, fostering a monopoly on the feminist ticket. The resulting roles for mothers? Workplace participant or pariah.

The consequence is that mothers’ rights as mothers have been lost. Understanding of women’s rights and feminism is increasingly restricted, even amongst politically minded women, as starting with De Beauvoir and ending with Friedan, riding the Second Wave. Nothing but the message of disaffected mothers and the drive for fulfilment outside the home is tolerated, out of fear of destabilising gains women have achieved in the workplace. Fear of biological essentialism, increased promotion of gender-neutrality, neo-liberalism and equality of opportunity have silenced the rights of mothers to claim and defend their right to care for their children.

I, and I am not alone, truly understand the fear that many women hold: dare to explore our rights as mothers, and it is back to kitchen sink for everyone with a vagina.

We get it.

But it has gone too far. Mothers who mother full-time, or who yearn to do so, are told: you are nothing unless you are engaged in paid employment; your status as mother is nothing; your rights as mother do not exist; and you are retrograde for even daring to want to provide maternal care.

And so it is that political discourse on families, children and employment has perfected the art of doublespeak. We are expected to say: ‘parents’. We are expected to downplay the precious status of mother. We are expected even to deny the fact that a mother’s care is superior to care from a stranger. The rights and developmental needs of children are a no-go zone. You may well have been reading my blog posts thinking that it has been many years since you have read the word ‘mother’ so many times in one go. I make no apology for that.

In this election year, the political agendas on families and gender equality are predicated on a simple fact: denial of any specific needs of specific groups. Mothers as an entity with diverse wants, needs and desires, are betrayed. Mothers as participants in paid labour are the only mothers respected.

Yes, yes, mothers ‘have always worked’. Of course we have. We still do – much of it still unpaid and unrecognised.

What such critics neglect to do is think beyond Industrialisation – not too far back in our evolutionary history. At no time before the creeping commercialisation and urbanisation of our society has a mother had to leave her family for significant periods of time, in the care of non-familial relations, in order to work. Production was the work performed within the family, the village. But the combination of compelled work outside the home and care of a mother’s children by strangers in the numbers we see today? It is a new thing. Many mothers feel justifiably unhappy leaving their children in the care of others and experience real pain in separation from them (a sentiment echoed often by the children), – something consistently downplayed by policies which promote separation as somehow beneficial or non-consequential.

And now, breathe.

Is it really so controversial to say all this? Is it really so outrageous, in 2015, for a woman to dare: (1) to speak in gender-specific terms; (2) to point to the fact that a specific branch of feminism has dominated debate so successfully since the 1960s that women are forgetting their own heritage of the inclusive and collaborative nature of the original women’s movement, and that feminism has many shades; (3) to recognise that there are many women who wish to relinquish paid employment – or at the very least reduce their hours – during the time of their lives in which they have family responsibilities; (4) to proclaim that there is human, intrinsic value in mothering work and in the raising and nurturing of a family and home life; and hold on to your hats, (5) to say that, consequently, mothering and family work should be supported and rewarded rather than penalised and discouraged.

If we dismiss the accounts of mothers who are living their lives quietly but nevertheless happily and ignore those who yearn to be at home instead of suffering an intolerable double shift of work and family life; and continue only to heed those women who are already on a platform to speak, and who have got there by explicitly and necessarily choosing not to raise their children at home, out of dissatisfaction with mothering, career ambition, or whatever (as is her right) we distort the picture and fail millions of women.

And that is pretty unfeminist, right, Sister?

Follow me on Twitter: Politics & Mothering @VOlorenshaw

https://twitter.com/VOlorenshaw

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