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.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.