My brief tenure as a founding member, and contributor to policy development, of the Women’s Equality Party (or WEP) is, I fear, up. As I had feared when the party first came into existence: Some women are indeed more equal than mothers.
Because once you strip away the hoorays, quiet down the ‘you go, sisters’ and whittle down the cash for access subscriptions caste donations system, this new party is less ‘Women’s Equality Party’ and more ‘Women Employees’ Equality Party’ (WEEP).
Today, WEEP – a party essentially formed and dominated by journalists and women of privilege and status – officially launched its policies at Conway Hall in London. Above the stage read the words ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’. Amen, to that. With patient reflection since I became involved in the party from its inception and during the policy development process, I have to be true to myself and own my disappointment at the way the party has, like other mainstream parties, missed a trick.
It risks failing women because it seeks only equality – the poorer sister of women’s liberation – meekly seeking to rock the boat instead of building a new one. In fact, I don’t think I heard the word ‘feminism’ mentioned. Once.
It risks failing women because it seeks only equality rather than justice, fairness and true representation of women.
And it abjectly fails mothers because it fails to acknowledge them except as in the capacity of employee. It fails to explore radical ways to lessen financial hardship for women from across the social spectrum or to reshape the way we value care and those providing care. Rather, the party was alive with youthful enthusiasm, professional and boardroom concerns, and blinkered talk of workplace equality, with no regard to the complexity of peoples’ lives, the diversity of women’s lives and experience and expectations and struggle and desires and strengths and talents. It talks of unfulfilled potential of half the population: conveniently neglecting the wishes of those women. I had had the potential to reach dizzying heights of the legal profession. Did I want to? No – I wanted to stay at home with my children. I am making use of my skills in other ways, no less important.
Women’s equality is only ever going to be a polite nudge, a request within the rules of a previously scripted box which says ‘this is the game: play it or get out’. And my goodness, the WEEP party really is playing the neoliberal, capitalist game.
So how did I even become involved in this WEEP party? After banging on virtual doors since its inception to engage with the party and to invite the party to engage with diverse groups of women, including those which campaign for mothers, single mothers (still the huge majority of lone parents) and women not in professional or elite circles, I was let in. The policy development in the already set brief of ‘equality in parenting’ – which I immediately challenged as blinkered – was coordinated by an employee of the Fatherhood Institute, and contributed to by men and a small number of women one of whom, let’s put it this way, suggested that a mother at home is a ‘complete waste’ and compared ideas to support mothers to be with their children as fascist. Yes. Really. Whilst ostensibly a women’s party, it is so busy apologising for its existence that it has blithely held up mothers and their children as sacrificial lambs.
WEEP is giving every impression that women need liberating from full-time mothering, and that only participation in the workplace can lead to ‘equality’ – a view I cannot share. A mother’s place should be wherever she wants to be.
After suggesting that WEEP might wish to expand the diversity of its working group on the ‘parenting’ issue – although, for a women’s party, surely the word ‘mother’ somewhere, and linked with something positive rather than ‘burden’ and ‘penalty’, wouldn’t go amiss – no mother’s group was brought on board until I insisted that Mothers at Home Matter and Global Women’s Strike were brought in. Both represent a significant number of mothers who want to (but are frustrated financially in realising their wishes) or those who do (by choice but at huge financial sacrifice) care for their children themselves.
We may as well have stayed silent, like the voices of millions of women busy caring for the families, young and old – always ignored, often derided, when not patronised or humoured.
Within WEEP, mothers are seen as a problem to be solved. The debate is still ‘childcare’ and effects on equality in the ‘workplace’ and the ‘pay gap’ of bearing children. Men, women who pursue the career trajectory rather than the family care line (as is their right) and representatives of father’s groups, kept the policy gate on parenting, as though the price to pay for a party seeking to end violence against women is the surrender and trade-off of any ‘privilege of motherhood’ and the denial of the existence and value of maternal care – for mothers and children, and, indeed, society at large.
In effect, the horse-trading at the heart of a party seeking to champion the rights of women is reinforcing the prevailing and insidious mainstream discourse of disrespect, silencing and devaluing of a mother (and there are many) who wishes not to re-enter the workplace while she has dependent children – and is either struggling by financially to do so, or struggling by emotionally in her job while wishing to be at home instead.
WEEP’s premise for its policies on women who are mothers can be inferred thus: her ‘responsibilities’ are decreed to be at home AND in the workplace (irrespective of her family’s wishes, or any wider argument that the work she performs AS a mother, raising and caring for her young children, is itself important work of value); her needs and role are to be subsumed into ‘parenting’; and a gender split 50:50 in matters of the home as though this is something universally desired by every family, every woman, every man, every child – someone tell my children, who, until at least 2 were very often ‘Daddy? Schmaddy. I want my Mummy’.
Democracy in the mainstream parties and, now, from all appearances, the WEEP party, can seem like it is conducted on the basis that the party knows best, that a key vocal and influential elite’s interests are the interests of all, and that any radical, grassroots reorganisation and revaluation is out of the question (although the Labour Party has given the impression of a desire to depart from that model). Even for a party seeking to present itself as radical. What is a wasted opportunity is the WEEP’s failure to address or entertain policies which could actually matter to women, such as:
- Improved maternity services and investment;
- Greater investment in midwifery;
- Greater investment in breastfeeding support;
- Greater financial support for women and carers;
- Greater investment in services to women suffering pregnancy loss;
- Greater investment in the availability of legal aid to women in family disputes;
- Greater investment in women’s refuges so that mothers and children can be protected from violent partners
- Greater investment in maternal mental health services
- Greater investment in community services and projects to support families
- Transferrable tax allowances where one parents cares for the children
- Adjusted pay to reflect time out of the workforce to raise children
- A carer’s income or stipend
- Reinstatement and increase in child benefit
- Funded retraining on re-entry to the workplace
- Four-day working week or obligatory part-time or job share opportunities
You know, the stuff which might actually protect and support women who are also mothers – the vast majority of us.
Despite our efforts, the ‘economic’ and ‘genderless’ agenda pushed through as though we were never there.
Suddenly, the familiar picture of ‘affordable’ and ‘high quality’ childcare and split parental leave took shape as though we had never dared to raise the significant number of families – millions of women – for whom this is not what they would prefer; as though they are an aberration on the image of superficial equality. Sophie Walker, in her speech, quoted a ‘stay at home mother’ who wanted help getting back into the workplace – conveniently failing to quote the thousands of us who were contributing to the policy development through their voice-piece Mothers at Home Matter, or the hundreds who contacted WEEP on email and social media, or the massive number of mothers who, according to statistics, would prefer more time, or exclusive time at home with their children.
It repeated the Labour Party’s trick after it came into power in 1997 when it completely erased mention of data in an important study, which it itself had commissioned, which showed that a significant number of women actually wished to care for their children (a figure remaining as true today as then) – preferring instead to push forward with its version of equality, employment as panacea, and branding women at home just ‘baking cupcakes’. It’s a trick which is well tested – and such a disappointment to see the WEEP party ideologically repeating it, in the name of women.
So, no, sisters. Not in my name.