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A politics for mothers needs to recognise we exist

The anger of mothers is not being acknowledged or addressed

Artillery Row

“The modern, privileged woman,” wrote Rachel Cusk in 2001’s A Life’s Work, “is a creature for whom the fact of her sex can remain, indefinitely if she chooses, a superficial characteristic”:

What do I understand by the term “female”? A false thing: a repository of the cosmetic, a world of scented boutiques and tissue-wrapped purchases, of fake eyelashes, French unguents, powder and paint [ … ] What it once meant to be a woman, if such a meaning can ever be fixed, it no longer means; and yet in one, great sense, the sense of procreation, it means it still. The biological destiny of women remains standing amidst the ruins of their inequality … 

What Cusk claimed over two decades ago might be said to be more true than ever today. As Mary Harrington has highlighted recently in Feminism Against Progress, sex denialism holds a particular attraction for the most privileged women, at least until the realities of pregnancy, birth and motherhood hit home. Then, the realisation that women’s liberation might not be so simple — that one cannot, as Adrienne Rich noted, avoid the same fate as one’s mother merely by identifying as nothing like her — can come as an enormous shock. It can also be just plain embarrassing. 

I pretended that earlier mothers hadn’t felt the rage I did

Like many new mothers before me and since, I initially resisted admitting I’d got it wrong. Instead, I crossly enquired why “no one” had examined the complexities of sex, gender and motherhood before. I wondered why earlier mothers had, to quote Rich, “accepted, too readily and passively, whatever comes”. I called for a brand new politics of motherhood, one that had never been dreamed of before. Having found motherhood rendered me not so special — that I was female and exploitable, after all — I sought to retain some sense of being not like all the others. I did this by pretending that earlier mothers hadn’t felt the rage I did. They’d sucked it all up or, at best, retreated to a maternal feminism that collapsed into precisely the type of gender essentialism for which I remained far too sophisticated. 

My eldest child is now fifteen, my rage no longer fresh or tinged with shame. The anger of mothers is very much in the news, with politicians — some of them new mothers themselves — seeking to capitalise on it. If this leads to lasting, positive change, then I am delighted. Even so, I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons progress is so slow comes from a lack of foresight. So many of the voices raised today are the voices of women who didn’t see it coming. They would have — we would have — if only we’d been brave enough to see the connections we have with the mothers who went before us. 

Frustration at the cost of childcare, and at flawed solutions proposed from on high, is nothing new. One of the four demands of the first National WLM conference in 1970 was for free 24-hour nurseries. Earlier feminists were conscious of the economic sidelining of women as mothers, and the exclusion of their work from was deemed to matter. “The devaluation of women (by both men and women),” wrote the sociologist Miriam M Johnson, “is not an inevitable reaction formation to women’s prominence in early child care. It is a choice, helped along by the male dominance institutionalized in political and economic structures.”

It is also helped along by a refusal to recognise the importance of female bodies and life cycles, on the basis that such recognition is far too restrictive, exclusionary and uncool. Right now, sex as “superficial characteristic” has never been more popular. By dividing women, and by bolstering the myth that motherhood has nothing in particular to do with femaleness, and vice versa, it sets each generation of women up for a fall. 

Last week, for instance, Oxfam sought to showcase its commitment to ending poverty and inequality by erasing the word “mother” from its literature in favour of the gender-neutral “parent”. This was justified by the argument that “in patriarchal culture, social norms around gender result in designated roles for parents that reflect expectations of that gender”. Almost half a century since Rich painstakingly distinguished between motherhood as experience and as institution, along comes Oxfam to tell us that the exploitation of mothers isn’t down to a failure to differentiate between their specifically female experiences and the low status imposed on them. It’s literally down to their being called “mothers” rather than “parents”

One might find it remarkable that no one thought of this before. Except, of course, feminists such as Rich had already spotted the way in which maternal low status leads to disidentification, noting that “the mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr”. Rich did not, however, propose that the solution to this lay in not having the word “mother”. She was not an actual idiot.

Parents do not experience pregnancy discrimination. Mothers do

It bothers me that so many of today’s maternal warriors — Labour’s Stella Creasy being a prime example have so little to say about this erasure of maternal language. It matters. It is necessary to be specific when talking about the politics of parenthood — especially should one wish to make it a feminist issue. Parents do not experience pregnancy discrimination; parents do not see a fall in relative income upon having their first child; parents do not need specific accommodations for breastfeeding and postpartum care. Mothers do. To point this out is not, as some would like to argue, a way of essentialising the role of women as default carers. It is to describe what is happening, who is exploiting whom, and to start the process of disentangling those roles which are related to reproductive difference and those which are not. 

When women such as Creasy and Anneliese Dodds announce their intentions to do right by mothers, my hope is mixed with rage. For years, ordinary women have been demonised for naming ourselves as mothers, for organising politically as mothers, for arguing that our status should be that of mothers rather than gestators, birthers or chest-feeders. “Keep Mumsnet out of politics!” has been held aloft as a progressive slogan, a righteous railing against those wrong-side-of-history dinosaur mummies whose brains are too addled by years of domestic drudgery to know what a woman even is. 

The likes of Creasy and Dodds have not defended us. Mothers who understand themselves as a group, with distinct interests and boundaries, have been expected to keep quiet. Meanwhile the clever girls — those who still retain the “modern, privileged” woman’s aloofness with regard to sex — treat the politics of motherhood as something to address in a piecemeal manner. They take special care not to offend anyone who finds it bigoted and exclusionary that female parents have anything in common. Mothers matter, yes, but “female” remains “a false thing” when there’s a risk you might get called a TERF. 

 If we want a truly radical political deal for mothers, we need to respect them. We do not respect people whose very right to name themselves is withdrawn. Nor do we allow mothers to recognise the things they share with other women — those who are not yet mothers, those who might never be — when we sever the link between maternity and femaleness. 

“My individual, seemingly private pains as a mother,” wrote Rich, “the individual, seemingly private pains of the mothers around me and before me, whatever our class or color, the regulation of women’s reproductive power by men in every totalitarian system and every socialist revolution, the legal and technical control by men of contraception, fertility, abortion, obstetrics, gynaecology, and extrauterine reproductive experiments — all are essential to the patriarchal system, as is the negative or suspect status of women who are not mothers.”

It is all interconnected. Maternal politics cannot thrive without the naming of mothers, and mothers — even the ones whose rage has grown old — deserve to be heard. 

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