'The Laundress', Jean-Baptiste Siméon (1699-1779). Picture Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Much ado about mothers

Mumsnet has been airing the trans lobby’s dirty laundry

Artillery Row

The mother, wrote the political philosopher Martha Albertson Fineman, “embodies dependency at the same time she is trapped by the dependency of others … she is marred by her burdens of obligation and intimacy in an era where personal liberation and individual autonomy are viewed as both mature and essential”.

 In other words, Mummy’s a drudge at a time when everyone else associates drudgery with the ludicrously essentialist idea that bodies and relationships of dependency define us. Poor, stupid, bigoted Mummy. Still, at least she can wash your pants while you ponder the ethics of a disembodied, pant-free future.

I was thinking of Fineman’s quote in relation to the latest outrage over Mumsnet. Yes, it’s that time again, when a band of young “feminist” writers and tweeters competes to come up with the snappiest way of asking “why aren’t these past-it cows wittering on about nappy rash while we mock them for their triviality, instead of pretending to understand politics like they’re still fully rational human beings?” 

Mumsnet, you will recall, is the site where, to those yet unsullied by age and/or pregnancy, women who’ve given birth are supposed to retreat to discuss how to descale the dishwasher, compare high-end strollers and complain about the neighbour’s dog eating their begonias. Alas, in recent years there’s been much panic over the fact that not all such women are staying in their lane. 

This week’s particular outrage is over a webchat with MPs Stella Creasy and Caroline Noakes, in which both women wished to discuss women’s rights without having a meaningful, effectively circumscribed definition of what a woman actually is. 

Many Mumsnetters took issue with this, with some going so far as to suggest that biological sex might not only be real, but politically salient. I know, right? Talk about radicalised! (Or don’t — best stick to rusks and stain removal.) 

Anyhow, to many this is proof positive that Mumsnet is essentially 4chan, only instead of incels you have women who’ve got it into their heads that female people exist and sexism is related to sex (so essentially what everyone else thought up until five minutes ago, whereupon the people who still think it were “radicalised” into still thinking it while everyone else finally accepted we’re no different to clownfish). 

If no one has a clean PE kit, there will be trouble

Full disclosure: I fall into the “radicalised” category. As someone who is both middle-aged and a mother, it’s almost inevitable. Here’s what I also think, though: all this bafflement at the “radicalisation” of women like me is completely fake. All these younger women, “not noticing” sex matters and that there may be serious consequences for women and girls in pretending that it doesn’t? Please. The moment the discussion isn’t, say, male bodies in refuges or prisons, but walking down a dark, unlit street (something even posh young ladies do), everyone can identify the sex of a stranger and know why it’s important.

“I don’t notice a person’s sex” is the political equivalent of “not noticing” the washing up (while still knowing it exists and relying on someone, somewhere, to do something about it). The current feminist hand-wringing over Mumsnet is just another example of how those yet unmarred by “burdens of obligation” treat the women who are. 

It’s as though a particular coterie of young online feminists (supported by older women with high-end “professional” feminist roles) view themselves as feminism’s pampered, genius children, with Mumsnetters taking on the role of the boring service class. 

The kids can adopt whatever superior, mindlessly “inclusive” postures they like, safe in the knowledge that Mummy’s the one who’ll get her hands dirty dealing with all the political crap they can’t stomach themselves. It’s what she’s there for and all she’s good for.

For all the name-calling, for all the accusations of “fear-mongering” thrown at women who dig their heels in about sex-based rights, there is a reliance on these women to hold the line. It’s like taking the piss out of Mummy for not being able to see beyond the washing machine while still expecting a drawer full of clean clothes to magically appear (I write this as someone who has been mocked for her “obsession” with the laundry. I’m not obsessed with the laundry. I’d rather be reading German Romantic literature, but just know that if no one has a clean PE kit, there will be trouble. See also: feminist “obsessions” with penises vis-à-vis sexual violence statistics). 

This particular “reliance-blame” pattern is not new in feminism. I think of my own generation in the nineties, dismissive of older women who questioned raunch feminism, ladette culture, “ironic sexism” and the like. Stupid agency-denying sexphobes, amirite? 

Turns out some part of me was still expecting them to monitor the excesses of the global sex trade and online porn, just so that things didn’t get totally out of hand. I mean, there was nothing to worry about, was there? Not least because the sexphobes would keep everything in check, like the massive bigots they were. The more I think about it, the more I realise I expected the proper feminists to potter along in the background, doing all the uncomfortable, uncool stuff, so that I could explore the complex semiotics of getting my tits out for the lads. After all, I had “agency” (whatever that meant). The older feminists were just … mummies. Flawed, compromised, symbolic mummies.

“Progressive” people resent having  to depend on women

Not all of the women on the Mumsnet feminist boards are actual mums, I suspect, but they all find themselves facing the mummy double bind: you’re mocked for being obsessed with things that will never happen — no one has clean socks, there’s no food in the house, women have lost all sex-based rights and feminism has become practically meaningless — but the only reason they won’t happen is because of your eminently mockable obsessions. 

Obviously if you dropped the ball and the bad things did happen, that would be your fault, too, but that’s beside the point. Should everyone return to accepting sex is indeed politically salient and we’re not all clownfish, this won’t be because of your campaigning; it’ll be proof that you invented the problem to start with. Why should anyone praise you for a clean house — or a clean bill of sex-based rights — when they didn’t see the dirt to start with?

Deep down, I think even the most “progressive” people resent having  to depend on women — especially older women and mothers — to do all the essential stuff with which they have no desire to be associated. Modern feminism has found the perfect way to disidentify from the drudges: dismiss anyone holding a baby or a dishcloth as a Karen-y representative of the boring old heteropatriarchal status quo. 

So much posturing about “radicalisation” and what it really comes down to is this: you don’t want to get your hands dirty — neither literally nor metaphorically — and you find being indebted to your mum a bit cringe. Imagine what feminism could achieve, and the norms that would be shattered, if there were a generation who could just get over that.

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