What's the point of a "feminism" which attacks mothers?

If feminism winds up assuming “someone else” will raise the kids while “we” get on with the real work, it's just become what it was fighting.

One man attacks another man on the grounds that his failure to reproduce betrays a lack of investment in the future. Niall Ferguson, you’ve been a fool, but at least you’ve admitted it this time (sort of). Now all that remains is for the debate about who’s the most self-centred – parents or non-parents – to become more and more about mothers, in the way that any debate about “parents” does. Has that happened already? Ooh, excellent.

I’m a parent and I’ll be honest: I did not have children for altruistic reasons. Yes, I could lie and say that the only reason I gave birth was so that my children would be around to pay the taxes that support feckless child-free folk in their old age, but that would be bollocks (as would, to be fair, any suggestion that I only had them in order to get nine months’ maternity leave and the right to use parent parking at Sainsbury’s). I had them because I got broody. It’s not a very detailed or helpful reason but that just about sums it up. In my defence – and that of all selfish parents – I don’t think we parents have a monopoly on failing to do things for the right reasons. I strongly suspect more people don’t have children due to a lack of broodiness than because they’re committed to saving the planet. It’s just one of those things. Those of us who’ve been able to respond to our broodiness or lack of it (as opposed to enduring forced pregnancy or infertility) have to admit we’re the lucky ones, selfish or not. 

Unless we’re Julie Bindel, that is. Bindel has taken one look at Ferguson’s dismissive, homophobic  depiction of John Maynard Keynes, and spun it into a full-on diatribe against selfish, unproductive parents – or, let’s be honest, mothers. It’s nothing incredibly unfamiliar. For women in particular, judgments based on whether or not you reproduce are so extreme and unforgiving that it’s not surprising these buttons get pushed. Women who – shock! – do not have children have to deal with intrusive comments and off-base assumptions on a daily basis. Mothers, meanwhile … well, they’re just mums, aren’t they? Like proper people, but somehow not. The Daily Mail-driven face-off between the barren harpy who’s “left it too late” and the smug, porridge-brained mummy who’s “let herself go” might not be taken seriously but it’s seeping into the general consciousness all the same. The spectre of Motherhood makes all women vulnerable. Far easier to reach for off-the-peg insults, courtesy of Femail, than deal with the deeper inequalities which these stereotypes mask. 

Overall, Julie Bindel’s “mothers are selfish” rant isn’t a patch on one of Liz Jones’s (my favourite of hers being “no, I don’t hate all mums – just middle-class ones over 30”. Like me. *glows with pride*). I find Bindel’s more problematic, though, because of the misguided links she makes with feminism. You get the impression that for Bindel, having children really does represent a form of selling out. After all, it limits your freedom of movement and your ability to have influence in a society which is not focussed on the needs of unpaid carers. I’d say this was a feminist issue, and Bindel would agree – but only, it appears, insofar as all this caring can make a woman a crap feminist compared to those less encumbered. Those such as Bindel herself, for instance:

My legacy – what I leave behind – will not be my DNA but my contribution to the emancipation of girls and women.

To be honest, I’m not sure how implicitly excluding mothers from having any agency as feminists contributes to the emancipation of women, but what would I know? I should be out slut-walking and instead I’m stuck at home wiping noses and the occasional arse. 

Bindel is dismayed at the apparent lack of activism by feminism mothers:

I have seen the most passionately committed feminist activists go gaga once they give birth. All the promises such as "I'll still come on that march/go to that conference/burn down that sex shop" disappear when they sprog.

Reading this, I can’t help thinking of Alan Sugar having another of his rants about useless bloody women screwing up his profit margins by swanning off to have children. Should feminist activism work along the same lines? Does Bindel actually expect feminists to adopt the mindset of dinosaur patriarchs who see no value in any human being who has domestic and familial responsibilities? The truth is, if feminism, of all movements, can’t call for a different approach, I don’t know what will. If feminist activism is structured in a way that necessarily assumes “someone else” is looking after the kids/washing the dishes/caring for the elderly while “we” get on with the real work, then it really has adopted the very mindset it claims to challenge. 

Feminism has to recognise its investment in motherhood. Not all women are mothers, not all women want children and not all women become mothers by giving birth. Those who can physically bear children are more than their wombs. Cis womanhood is not a mere waiting room, defined by the tick of the biological clock. Even so, it doesn’t follow from this that any woman who has children holds such a reductive view of herself and others. Nor does it mean that choosing motherhood means bowing out and accepting secondary status as a human being. Motherhood is neither an embarrassment to feminism nor an all-embracing definer of female power. It’s part of some women’s lives and not others, but prejudices about it restrict us all.

1958: "Mr and Mrs C Baker and family of Cambridge take part in a march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermanston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment". Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.