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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage