Women without children such as Jennifer Aniston are perceived to have incomplete lives. Photo: Getty
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Our culture dehumanises women by reducing them all to breeders and non-breeders

Women are held back by a culture which groups us crudely into mummy and non-mummy camps; we must not fall into this trap of dehumanising ourselves.

Recently my mother told me about an encounter she’d had with one of my former primary school teachers. As is often the case with her, it involved an inordinate amount of boasting:

"I told him about all your degrees and your job and he said 'ooh, I always knew she was clever', but I told him it was alright because you’d still had children and were normal."

At the time it made me laugh. God forbid a woman having too many degrees to be “normal”! All the same, I knew exactly what she meant and why she had said it. She needed to reassure people that I hadn’t turned into one of “those” women; I hadn’t let university go to my head and forgotten my essential function. I can laugh all I want, but part of me knows that this matters. Like it or not, I am judged on my reproductive worth and I have not been found wanting.

In that respect, even though I lack the money, fame and status, I have one over on the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Kylie Minogue. Poor them! All of that success and yet they forgot the basics! Aniston can protest all she likes – claiming to have “birthed” and “mothered” many other projects – but she will still be looked upon as having “failed”. As the Observer’s Barbara Ellen writes in response to Aniston’s recent defence of her child-free status, “childless women, particularly as they mature past childbearing age, find themselves dismissed as redundant, withering, lacking”. As a mother, I can of course choose to feel smug, seeing it as payback for all those sleepless nights and dirty nappies; for once, I win! Yet if I’m honest, such a victory is illusory. In a culture that reduces all women to breeders and non-breeders, how could any of us win?

It’s tempting to pitch this as a tension between mothers and women who have not had children. I think, however, we need to put this in a broader context: that of all women still being judged by their reproductive role, regardless of whether or not they ever bear children. The story of Jennifer Aniston’s “failure” sits alongside countless others in which a woman’s worth is measured by the contents of her womb: the high-achieving executive described only in the press as a “mother of three”; the rape victim denied an abortion because her humanity cannot compete with the potential life inside her; the millions of post-menopausal women who become invisible while their male counterparts grow in stature. We are all judged on our childbearing capacities and whatever we do in practice – whether we have children or not – the fact that we are judged in this way diminishes us.

Radical feminists would argue that patriarchy seeks to control women’s reproductive labour. To many this sounds far-fetched; one might picture women literally being lined up to breed like livestock, something which clearly isn’t happening (although forced marriages and mass rapes could be seen to serve a similar function). In more liberal countries the availability of birth control, coupled with the often dubious claim that abortion is freely available, has been used to argue that women are no longer trapped by their biology. The control of women’s reproductive labour might once have been an issue but now, we are told, it is a thing of the past. Like many, I grew up believing that even if motherhood was limiting, at least a woman could opt out. But as responses to women such as Aniston and Minogue show, you can't.

Mother or not, you are positioned in relation to motherhood. The existence of birth control has not even allowed us to make the choice between being seen as a mother and being seen as an independent person; we can only choose between being seen as a mother and being seen as a non-mother. Either way we are defined by our capacity to produce someone else, someone who may be worth more than us; we are insufficient in and of ourselves.

At the risk of sounding old and mumsy, this is something which I think younger feminists often fail to recognise. It’s a phenomenon which only really kicks in once you've either had children or are perceived to be running out of time in which to do so. When you're young, you might assume no one is judging you as a pre-childbearing female; the truth is, they've already made their assumptions. Your reproductive potential need never be discussed, at least not until you've got pregnant or hit 35 without having done so.

People can live on unspoken prejudice right up until the "truth" of your reproductive destiny has become an unavoidable issue. In the meantime you can deny that perceived childbearing capacity has anything to do with the oppression of women in the twenty-first century, but you would be wrong. It has everything to do with it. This (perhaps actual, perhaps assumed) container inside us - this womb - is seen to offer something that we cannot: humanity. Dehumanised ourselves, we exist merely to carry its potential. There's not enough life in us to say, "no, I don't want this pregnancy, let me be"; not enough life to say, "without children I am already full and complete"; not enough life to say, "post-menopausal, I remain a creative force". Or rather, we say all of these things but we're not being listened to.

The belief that women are, deep down, just walking wombs is all around is, yet it remains difficult for women to challenge it in any united, coherent way. Instead we are pitched against each other. When child-free women argue their case, part of me is anxious and does not want to listen. I worry these women see me as conservative, lacking in independent thought, wholly absorbed in nappies, CBeebies and nothing else. Perhaps in turn such women see me as arrogant, someone who is convinced that the childless cannot know the true meaning of existence (whatever that would be). Yet while having children makes an enormous difference to the practicalities of one’s life, the ideological divide between mothers and non-mothers is largely illusory. When we talk to one another, we find we are still as diverse as ever, all of us held back by a culture which groups us crudely into mummy and non-mummy camps. We must not fall into the trap of dehumanising ourselves just because that is what we have been encouraged to do.

It is absurd that women such as Jennifer Aniston are perceived to have incomplete lives, trailing off into oblivion at the point where it becomes obvious that – shock! – they might never reproduce. Absurd, too, that we can place so high a value on the contents of an abused woman’s womb that we forget to see her humanity at all. As women we need to confront this together. We are not simply the childbearing and the child-free; our stories extend beyond the production or non-production of others. We are complete in our own right and deserve to be viewed as such.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.