The Birth of a Movement


The due date for the book is 23 September – it is available for pre-order here! If you want a signed copy – come to local launches in Sevenoaks on 23 September and 10 October, or Calder Bookshop Theatre between 6 and 9 on the evening of 22nd October. There will be wine.

Here is your fifth extract from Liberating Motherhood.

LiberatingMotherhoodIcon (1)


     So what on earth is this ‘Purplestockings’ business? Well, you may have heard of the terms ‘Bluestockings’ to describe a collection of educated, intellectual, women in the eighteenth century; or ‘Redstockings’ to describe women’s liberationists.42 In the tradition of those sisters, I decided on ‘Purplestockings’ to signify a maternal feminism, as a nod to the Suffragette colours, to invoke the nobility of mothering, and because it aptly combines the hue of its two predecessors. We have to know our history as well as what we want in the future: the stockings movement has a worthy heritage to take us forward.

     As former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said at the Feminism in London Conference in 2015, sometimes it’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I had a nightmare”. We must allow ourselves some measure of hope and optimism. We can imagine “better worlds”. We can have a dream. And mine is one in which our children enjoy fruitful and decent humanity, where mutual love and care abound, responsible society and ethical behaviour are the norm. Mothers can be respected for the work they do as mothers, as well as any work they do outside the home. Whether in combination or in a sequence. I can dream, can’t I? It’s not going to happen, is it? Well, if we had the will, it could … and it should. So rather than give up before we’ve begun, shouldn’t we try to do something about it?

     When it comes to women and mothers, we can do something now. Our task, and something which must urgently enter into feminist consciousness, is the attempt to balance and bring justice to the scales of judgement against mothers, to support mothers in the important work they do and to ensure that isolation, poverty and other struggles faced by mothers are alleviated. It is an injustice, cleverly camouflaged, that the work of mothers can be sabotaged by society or blighted by hurdles they face financially and socially, and yet mothers get the blame. It’s a con trick. And women are sick of being the mark.

        When it comes to mainstream feminism and politics, there has been an abject lack of “nerve and imagination” to push for equitable social and workplace conditions or labour and income redistribution. We rightly address the injustices of women losing their jobs or suffering discrimination in their jobs or career during pregnancy or after becoming a mother, but we forget those who want to step out of the workforce to be with their family. We talk about equality, but we forget fairness: equity. We talk about pay gaps, but we no longer talk about “redistribution of wealth”. We talk about full employment, without re-imagining labour rules and workplace structures which respect family life for mothers, fathers and children. Instead of liberation, we have witnessed strands of feminism becoming footsoldiers of capitalism — itself patriarchy’s recent incarnation.

     The problem is, there is no escaping the cold hard reality that, throughout the world, girls and women are at risk of being, or have been, emotionally, physically and/or sexually abused. By men. For me, there is no forgetting some of the horrific cases I saw during criminal practice and, later, as a law reporter. They were the proof I wish I had never seen that we indubitably live in a misogynistic culture.

     This is the context in which a mother seeks to raise her family. This is the context in which a mother seeks to improve her conditions of life, mothering and work, and her status and safety. And that of her children. This is the context that a mother has to stride. This is the context in which she does something explicitly and necessarily female (pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding) or something traditionally connected to women. She is mothering in the midst of misogyny: within a culture that dislikes and distrusts women. To quote the RadFem Collective, “our oppression as females is closely linked to and bound up in our roles as the bearers of new life and male hatred of our female reproductive power”. It is all connected: motherhood and feminism cannot and should not be separated.

     The reality is that we cannot expect feminism to succeed until we embrace all women. And that includes mothers. We cannot treat women as being of value and worthy of respect only where they disavow or sideline matters of motherhood. We cannot exile mothering from feminism. We need a triad of human rights, women’s rights and mother’s rights within a prism of social responsibility. Just so you know, this ain’t no backlash. There were never any good ol’ days: feminism hasn’t “gone too far”. Actually, it didn’t go far enough. Patriarchy has had its own triad of capitalism, technology and male domination for far too long. And within it, there is still little room for women, for mothers, certainly not a room of their own.

     We need to start thinking about politics, economics and social policy, despite a potential knee-jerk reaction to groan. We have to connect to those fleshy things: our bodies. And those dangerous things: our minds. We need to take in issues of “sameness and difference”; the place of motherhood and whether we all want women’s responsibility for children to be turned over to delegated childcare, or shared care with men; whether caring for children is part of a significant number of women’s actual desire, rather than a social construction or result of conditioning; how to “create a society in which caregiving is not penalised”; and the diversity amongst women. We need to retain that crucial thing: our heart. This is before we even begin to factor in race and class struggle: factors which can bring profound difficulties and raise significant barriers for women.

     As a woman of working-class upbringing, I heard both my grandmothers’ stories of cleaning people’s houses, working to the bone, working in factories and other things which it is not my place to share. I saw my mother struggle with three children, a full-time job and the second shift on top. Consequently, I have long questioned just how far the frustrations of a privileged class of white middle-class educated women can legitimately speak for those women whose struggles in respect of class, race and disability bring a different slant to the issue of motherhood. Their experiences of mothering may well be completely different in terms of social support, satisfaction, and prestige. Betty Friedan’s frustrated, isolated housewives, whom she depicted in The Feminine Mystique, for example, were not those women of colour who had strong support networks from female relatives but who were exploited in market-labour of low status and low pay, or Asian women who retained the culture of close extended family, or working-class women who lived in built-up areas with thriving solidarity amongst women in their terraced houses and low fences but who did double shifts of factory and home. Their struggles were rarely articulated in the movement, so preoccupied with the assumptions that white privileged feminism spoke for all, and that oppression under patriarchy was the principal source of oppression for all women.

     In terms then of priorities for the women’s movement, opportunity, education and the freedom to flourish in the public realm, the arts, the professions and industry, are important. They are crucial aspects of women’s liberation and empowerment. But compelled employment, low-status and low-paid jobs and zero-hour contracts versus impoverishment for unwaged work? No. We need to restructure the workplace and market-work on the one hand and the freedom to care, without penalty, on the other. We need the ‘private realm’ to be liberated from being somehow ‘second class’.

     Within the dominant ideology of twenty-first century Western cultures, it often feels that no one is actually listening to what mothers would prefer. Certainly not our politicians and policymakers anyway. There are clear (and fairly persistent) divisions amongst women as to what they would prefer: some would like to work full-time; others part-time; others to care exclusively for their families. We all have different personalities and inclinations, after all. Yet, when politicians do hear women’s preferences, they have a terrible habit of reformulating the answers to meet their own agenda and suggesting that we all want to combine market-work with care-work or to work full-time. So it is that we face insidious ideological attempts at social engineering and a failure to reflect our true choices.

     The reality is stark: mothers — as a class — are, in gradual steps, losing the rights, freedom and economic ability to raise their own children, within the patriarchal and capitalist project. If current trends in social and economic policy are anything to go by, there will be greater and greater barriers against our ability to care for our own families. And conditions may well become so intolerable owing to lack of money, security, support, respect, freedom and autonomy (or exhausting second shifts) that we, and the next generations of mothers, will struggle; but the blame will be placed on motherhood. Not politics. Not economics. Not patriarchy. Not neoliberal pathological market-driven environmental and social destruction. Not misguided attempts by some feminist camps to eradicate mothering. But becoming a mother. And that script is being written right now with the sanction of women, female politicians, and of course, patriarchal neoliberalism. We may not speak our own line: that being a mother by desire is, for many women, one of the most precious experiences of our lives. When it comes to the popular script that we need liberating from care and children, it comes down to ‘she who shouts loudest wins prizes’.

     It is no stretch of the imagination to see a link between the occupation of the public arena, fought for and won by women as a result of feminism, and the accompanying privilege of having a voice that is heard and respected. However, just because a voice grabs the mic doesn’t mean that it is either right or in the majority: a woman at home raising her family, happily or not, will not have her voice heard. Democracy, eh? She will be conveniently ignored, her silent scream about the lack of recognition of her work will ring in her ears alone. Social media can only go so far: yes, we can blog, we can chat on Facebook. We can even meet other like-minded mothers in real life at baby and toddler groups. But ultimately, there has to be a political, visible, active, in-yer-face movement. We need to move beyond a “feminism of uncertainty”.

    The more voices we raise the better, and we need our sisters to join us: it’s our lives and the lives of our children. What can be more important than that? There is a wealth of skilful research, theory and analysis out there. Do read it. And add your voice. Because it matters. Not just to us as individual women, but to our culture, our species and the quality of human existence.

     Carl Gustav Jung, the father of analytical psychology, famously talked about the “unlived life” of parents. Whatever one’s view of Jung’s attitudes towards mothers (about right, questionable, blaming or pernicious, say), we cannot, nowadays, avoid the suggestions that a “happy mother = happy child” and that we must have our “own lives”. Yes, parents are people, too — we all have loves and interests to explore which have nothing to do with our children. However, the biggest lie, which so many commentators, politicians and policymakers have perpetuated, is that value, self-worth and fulfilment for women can only come from paid employment outside the home, even when their children are young. The message sent and received is that to be raising one’s children is not to be living one’s life, as though the two are discrete, separable and antagonistic. This has fed into another message: that only work performed in exchange for money is worthy of recognition as ‘work’ and that it is practically every mother’s duty to ‘get out to work’. Both of these messages are absolutely wrong. Both contribute to perpetrating unfairness, inequality and vulnerability in mothers. Yet feminism, the liberal and corporate varieties especially, is failing to see this injustice or, if it does, is resisting it. Because mothers are, even in feminism, bottom of the heap, less important than the bottom line.

     It is also important to note at the outset that when I talk about life-creating power, biology and difference, I am not saying that one type of human being is better. It is not a matter of supremacy or dominion over another. That is the whole problem of patriarchal culture: its preoccupation with dichotomy, domination and destruction. I’m talking about humanity: respect for difference, service to others, the cultivation of happiness and wellbeing, and respect for life rather than destruction of it. We have to begin to prioritise humanity. When I speak of difference, I am also talking about differences between individuals within the sexes.

     We are women and we are mothers, yet, at heart we, like all others, are human. And that is where we have to go, in feminism and in our societies. We need to discover humanity and put it at the heart of our society, our relationships and our economies. I will introduce and advocate a progressive, humanist, maternal feminism and politics which puts the interests of human beings first in policy.

     We must push for economic and social change, moving away from neoliberal capitalist inequalities and exploitation and environmental destruction. As Julie Stephens argues, “actively remembering the bodily and emotional aspects of nurture, including the physical demands of birth, lactation and the postnatal experience, will pave the way for more just social policies for women and families”. It is this need for appropriate social policies for mothers and children, extending throughout the family life cycle, which lies at the heart of the Purplestockings Movement. This feminism and politics must value mothers, the life-givers, the creators of human beings, in the unwaged work of family that they have done for generations, while recognising the changing family life cycle and a mother’s individual humanity. It must push for a society in which women are liberated from barriers to full participation in society on our own terms and status as worthy human beings. We face more than “economic exploitation”— our challenge extends to our politics, our society, and our culture.

     In this book, I dare to suggest that we could begin to restructure our societies and revaluate our priorities. We could insist that fathers contribute more to family life, whilst demanding that market-work frees up more time to family life too by restricting how much of our lives are taken over by the machine of economic workplace productivity and exploitation. Joan Williams has some very interesting points to make in Unbending Gender, How Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It. She advocates a “reconstructive feminism” which doesn’t try to fit mothers into a system that is predicated on “ideal workers” (read: men with no caring responsibilities and an abundance of overtime capacity and dedication to the job).

     Rather, a reconstructive feminism would seek changes to the structure of market-work. Because the fact is that the modern set-up in Western economies requires mothers work as though without family responsibility (or are penalised for having caring responsibilities which are presumed to be solely theirs) and that mothers face tremendous strain doing it all, never mind having it all; or mothers are expected to care for their families without financial support or recognition. And when something goes awry, we get the blame. As things stand in Western capitalist patriarchy, mothers are held accountable on the one hand yet ignored and devalued on the other. Our work as mothers is deemed unimportant and delegable to the market; yet it is elevated to the crucible in which our children’s happiness and wellbeing are forged.

     We are in a double bind. We are hostage to unrealistic expectations; to a punitive economy; to unattainable standards; tied to the modern stake of moral judgement or, worse, decisions of (mostly secretive) family courts which are failing to do justice by women. So we need to demand it ourselves. Not quietly. Or politely. But loudly and with grit. We are mothers. We have it in us.

     I have felt frustration, hopelessness, resignation, powerlessness and anger about the situation that mothers face. I know that many women share these feelings: ordinary mothers at home or in jobs they resent, not just campaigners and activists. But then, as mothers, our feelings rarely get top priority, do they? The question is: how can we harness this anger and this need for change with the positive traits of motherhood? How might this spark a storm? This is the aim of Liberating Motherhood. We need to put on those purple stockings and release our thunder.

LiberatingMotherhoodIcon (1)


Liberating Motherhood, Birthing the Purplestockings Movement: Due Date 23 September 2016.

Available for pre-order here:

Image credit:


4 thoughts on “The Birth of a Movement

  1. I’ve just come across your book today thanks to the fantastic review in the Cork Examiner which a friend shared on facebook. Well done on writing a much needed and beautifully articulated manifesto of the wonderful work a woman does in raising her own children at home! I have just read the extract above. It’s brilliant. The ONLY disagreement I would have is your pinning all the lack of support for women who don’t work on patriarchy and misogyny as exemplified by this quote: “She is mothering in the midst of misogyny: within a culture that dislikes and distrusts women. To quote the RadFem Collective, “our oppression as females is closely linked to and bound up in our roles as the bearers of new life and male hatred of our female reproductive power”. “. First, personally, I have never felt any hatred from the men in my life towards our female reproductive power. Secondly I would suggest that feminism, at least a certain brand of feminism, has shown at least as much “hatred for our reproductive power” as any men can be blamed of. The situation we find ourselves in today, of lack of regard for the role of mothers, is at least as much the fault of this brand of radical feminism as the “patriarcy” of which we are all supposedly the victims!


    1. Thank you so much Anna – I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      It’s interesting what you say about patriarchy, it is certainly uncomfortable issue – I haven’t left feminism off the hook lots more on that in the book! I agree with you that feminism has been as much a force over recent decades to make mothers’ choices harder, and have expressed unacceptable disdain for birth, breastfeeding and mothering, for example – there are some terrible examples which I discuss in the book of barely concealed disgust and contempt of what mothers do when we do the things we do! ..

      I hope you enjoy the book further discussions about the patriarchy issue, capitalism issue and feminism thing – mothering is a minefield and we have so many hazards from so many quarters before us in seeking to live our lives according to our own values.

      Do keep in touch, one of the most wonderful elements of my project has been the messages from women about their personal experiences and their own outlook about what is happening to mothers in our culture.


      1. Lovely to hear back from you! Yes the connections built must be very gratifying! I am looking forward to reading the whole book. All the very best.


  2. Very well done x There´s of course many other concerns and ways you can read motherhood – black motherhood, trans, etc. – and of course father-centered households. I don´t know if you cover it in your book (or have the scope/interest to do to). But within the context that you´re speaking of, I found this very solid and evocative and have shared it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s