Opening remarks for Res Publica post-liberal feminism webinar

The Motherhood Blind Spot

The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:

Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.

Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.

Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.

All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.

Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.

The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.

The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.

This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.

It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.

But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.

If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.

Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.

In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.

Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.

So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.

The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.

But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.

If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.

It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.

That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.

To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.

My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.

Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.

Censoring motherhood in the name of feminism

The Guardian reports on the first advertisements to fall foul of June’s Advertising Standards Authority rule change on ‘sexist stereotypes’ in advertising. One ad was banned because it depicted a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram. The advertiser claimed that the ad was about ‘adaptation’, and that adjusting to the arrival of a newborn baby is a situation where people must adjust. It was no use. The ASA “concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm”.

Depictions of motherhood, then, are harmful to women, because they are sexist. Really? Hold on a minute. It is also polite received opinion, among the same class of our Progressive Betters who spend their time complaining about sexism in advertising, that mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed. And in this, our Progressive Betters are not thinking their position through. Because unless a mother is willing to spend hours a day hooked up to a milking machine, breastfeeding obliges her to be near her baby. How else are we to be present, boob at the ready, when our infant is hungry?

How are we to make sense of this muddled message? The only reasonable interpretation is that, in truth, our Progressive Betters do want mothers to breastfeed, to be available to our babies. But they want us to do it brim-full of miserable ambivalence. We are to breastfeed while editing science journals, answering emails from the CEO, or possibly skydiving or in space. We are to keep no more than one foot in motherhood at any time, and feed our babies knowing that this can never be a source of pride. Because to commit fully to motherhood as an occupation (even for a few short years) is to show – at best – a lack of imagination and ambition, if not a fully-fledged identification with patriarchal oppression and concomitant hatred of the rest of our sex.

The notion that depictions of motherhood are ‘harmful stereotypes’ is a rejection of the reality that a majority of mothers want to care for their children, generally a great deal more than they want to spend all day staring at spreadsheets, trading stocks or cleaning offices. But it is worse than that: by depicting motherhood as a ‘harmful’ stereotype, this value system encodes in the public sphere the notion that motherhood is a kind of failure.

In these rulings, in the name of social progress, the ASA has institutionalised contempt for traditionally feminine values. Women, it is implied, only throw off our oppression to the extent that we succeed in dissociating ourselves from any of the qualities traditionally (that is to say stereotypically) associated with motherhood. Values such as kindness, patience, empathy, self-sacrifice, placing others’ interests before our own. These values are ‘harmful’ and could (in the words of the ASA) result in women ‘limiting how [they] see themselves and how others see them and the life decisions they take’.

Instead, we should embrace stereotypically masculine virtues: courage, activity, adventurousness, leadership. Never mind that most women want to play the lead role in caring for their children, and that kindness, patience and a willingness to put others first are considerably more useful when dealing with a howling preschooler than two doctorates or experience leading a blue-chip corporation. Or is that just my identification with my own oppression?

Most women do a solid job of combining work interests and caring for children. More power to every single one of us, however we make it work. But it really does not help to be told that half of our useful skill set – which we know perfectly well is useful – is in fact ‘harmful’ and encouraging us to limit ourselves. Has the ASA and the rest of our Progressive Betters considered that those of us who are mothers, and who do not prioritise work above all else, just have a different idea of what constitutes ‘limitation’, and what constitutes success?

Perhaps our Progressive Betters should step back from their attempts at social engineering and think about the message they are actually conveying. Perhaps they might consider that using institutional power to enforce public valorisation only of women performing stereotypically ‘masculine’ activities, and censoring any association of women with stereotypically ‘feminine’ ones, in truth does real women with real children no favours. That they are in fact liberating women from nothing but our confidence that the skills we use in caring for our children are valuable, and that caring is itself valuable. Perhaps then they might see that their efforts to censor any public representation of motherhood, or valorisation of the traits that help mothers succeed, represents not feminist progress but a profound hatred of motherhood: the deepest and most vindictive misogyny of the lot.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman

Who cares? A response to Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser writes in Unherd today about how the worldview that extols ‘social mobility’ and ‘free movement of people’ also cuts off at the knees the ability of families to care for their youngest and oldest, encouraging everyone instead to see themselves as free, wage-earning individuals and arse wiping as the responsibility of each individual or failing that the state. He asks: whose responsibility should it be to care for those who can’t wipe their own?

First, let me answer the question. Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.
Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.

Now this is all very well and cuts to the heart of the question that more than any other makes me want to wrangle with feminism: the question of who cares. Not as in who gives a stuff, but who wipes the arses of those who can’t wipe their own? Somehow, still, the implicit answer still always seems to be ‘it should be women’. Fraser’s reference to ‘the daughter of the elderly gentlement’ is a reference to an anecdote but I think it goes beyond that: Fraser genuinely thinks that daughters should be wiping their parents’ arses.

I agree with Giles’ assessment insofar as it’s plain to me that the liberal vision of society has some shortcomings on this front. When the vision of the good life says that each of us is (or should be) an individual free of social expectations and obligations, when freedom is seen as a liberation from social obligations (such as arse wiping) that may be boring or unpleasant, then we are left with no happy answers to the question ‘who cares?’.

A feminism that holds this vision of autonomy above all else must necessarily skirt around motherhood and the elderly, because to focus on motherhood and the elderly would be to raise the question of who is wiping those arses, now that we’re all emancipated from domestic drudgery. For wealthier emancipated women, the answer today in practice is: less wealthy women. But who wipes the arses of children and elderly parents for those women who are paid to wipe arses by women who don’t want to wipe arses?

Clearly the blind spot in this discussion is that 50% of the population that Giles also omits to mention in his discussion of our lost bonds of reciprocal caring. Men. The emancipation of (some) women from caring obligations has not been swiftly followed by a stampede of men keen to pick up the shortfall. Men are not clamouring to stay home and look after elderly, incontinent parents. Rather, the assumption seems to be that liberation, liberal-style, means that no-one need wipe arses now unless they’re being paid for it. It’s paid carers all the way down, getting cheaper and more uncaring the further down the economic scale you go, until finally you’re back at women doing it unpaid.

Lost in all of this pass-the-hot-potato attitude to arse wiping is the notion that far from being an infra dig imposition on free individuals, reciprocal caring actually matters – indeed is the glue that binds any functioning society together. So as I wrestle with the question of how we square the evidently painful loss in our society of a valuable set of reciprocal, mutual caretaking obligation with my wish, as a woman, to have at least SOME hours of activity outside domestic drudgery, the only conclusion I can come to is that we – all of us that is, not just women – need to revalorise caring. And that goes for all of us. Those feminists who seem not to want to talk about arse wiping, preferring to focus on workplace sexual mores or female representation in elite career positions or traduce anyone who asks about caring as a fifth columnist for those (presumably closet Nazi) reactionaries who would see us return to the rigidly defined sex-based social roles of days gone by:

E A G E R@ElephantEager

God hates you Giles.

Sarah Ditum

@sarahditum

kinder küche kirche

See Sarah Ditum’s other Tweets

It also goes for Fraser, and everyone like him who wishes we could be more communitarian but seems to assume without a moment’s reflection that he can sign women back up for the role they held 50 years ago, without any kind of discussion about maybe improving on those working conditions or asking men to step up as well. It also goes for the rest of us, every time we take a decision that increases our autonomy at the expense of our ability to care. Regardless of our sex.

Motherhood blew up my feminism 1: the shadows of equality

I hope to write a few pieces on this theme. I’m not an academic feminist, or even an academic. But I’ve always considered myself strongly in favour of women’s rights, and have found myself rethinking a great deal of what I thought that meant since becoming a mother. 

Before I had a baby, I was a pretty standard second-wave feminist, with some third-wave gender woo thrown in. People couldn’t really change sex but their identification mattered more; equal representation in business and public life was the key thing for women.

Having a baby blew a lot of that out of the water for me. I never really understood the permanent sense of being spread too thin that is so weakly implied by the hackneyed phrase ‘balancing work and family life’. I’d always imagined I’d go briskly back to work and childcare would be an easy solution. Then, when my daughter did arrive, it turned out that there wasn’t really anything I wanted to do so much out in the world that it overrode the visceral desire to stay close to her and prioritise caring for her. I was working freelance when I got pregnant so was never really on the ‘return to work’ conveyor belt and just haven’t felt at all inspired to claw my way back onto it. So, nearly 20 months later, I’m still not back at work. For the most part I’m happy with that choice, and I’m fortunate that my husband earns enough for me to have had the choice to care for our daughter beyond the initial 12 months maternity leave permitted in UK law, without needing to return to work part- or full-time.

Two aspects of this have blown up much of what I took as axiomatic in feminism prior to this. One, that women simply and unambiguously have more choices now than they did 50 years ago, and two, that the earnings gap between men and women was certainly down to prejudice.

On the matter of choice and motherhood, then. I’ve found myself saying often to people in recent months: ‘I’m lucky to have the choice to stay home with my daughter’. Thinking on this, it struck me that within the phrase ‘balancing work and family life’ is a whole story about the shadow side of second-wave feminism, specifically of women’s push into the workplace on equal terms to men. Very understandably, educated women burned to free themselves from the stifling expectation that they would be wives and mothers, and no more. My mother’s generation were still expected to quit work when they got married. But as that changed, and more women stayed in work, negotiated maternity pay etc, over the second half of the twentieth century the arrival of women in the workplace contributed along with de-industrialisation, the rise of the knowledge economy and a host of other things to a gradual adjustment of the economy via inflation, salary levels, housing costs and the like. And the consequence of this adjustment is that where it was once possible for even modest earners to keep a family on one salary, now – because women work as well – it takes both incomes to keep body and soul together.

That’s all very well for families where both parents have careers that are as rewarding as raising one’s children, but for parents (and yes, especially for mothers) who have jobs rather than careers it forces many back into work whether they might well prefer to stay home with children. After all, in most cases people actually like spending time with their children. It’s not all snot and shitwork. So while it’s certainly true that on paper I have a lot more choice than my mother did, partly that’s because my husband earns more than average. I’m not sure how much the feminist revolution really has increased choice for working- and lower-middle-class women at all, as much as it has widened the scope of life for women in the cognitive elite.

Though I don’t have the figures to prove it, my hunch as well is that assortative mating – the tendency of people of similar social and economic status to marry and reproduce with one another – has created a multiplier on the gap between richer and poorer families. Put more simply, lawyers, doctors and bankers tend to marry one another and combine their six-figure salaries, which in turn means that aggregate family incomes are far more widely distributed than would be the case in a society where most families had a single parent earning income. Thus top-end house prices skyrocket; independent school fees rise; and people who would have had a traditionally middle-class lifestyle 30 years ago such as journalists and academics find themselves priced out of their native cultural territory.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you are overly concerned about income disparities. (Though the people most concerned about possible increases in the gap between rich and poor are usually also strongly supportive of the right of both men and women to work on equal terms, so it is maybe unsurprising that this unintended consequence is not often discussed.) I note it because I like to follow thoughts where logic dictates they must go; not because I think things should go back to the way they were in 1965. But I’ve found myself concluding that the entry of women to the workplace has probably contributed to the gradual widening of the gap between rich and poor; and that it has forced substantial numbers of mothers – who do not particularly love their jobs – to spend more time working and less time with their children than they would otherwise choose.

Of course it wasn’t that long ago that most women had very little choice about not going out to work, whether they wanted to stay home with children or not. And now it seems to me the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it is limiting women’s choices in the opposite way.

So in summary I’m no longer sure that the sex pay gap is unambiguously the result of a downward pressure exerted by reactionary forces of chauvinism on an otherwise driven and capable female workforce. And nor am I convinced that women precisely have more choice than before, say, the 1960s. Those choices have changed, but so have the social and economic pressures and I’m not convinced that has been wholly for the better. To be clear, this isn’t to say that feminism is redundant. Quite the opposite, But I do think we could do with looking a little more clear-sightedly at where we are, at what that looks like for women who have jobs rather than careers, and what exactly we think the work of motherhood is worth today.