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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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