A newborn baby in an incubator. Photo: Getty Images
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True reproductive justice is more than being allowed to become a mother at an older age

Simply having the choice to have children later than before isn't a sign of greater freedom - it's simply a sign of greater privilege under the same old patriarchy.

Older mothers, feel guilty no more! David Richmond, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has decided that there’s no point in berating you for having “left it too late”. The shift towards older motherhood is, he claims, unavoidable and hence he’s not here to judge you:

I think it [the trend] is irreversible because of increasing equality in the social, professional, financial [and] corporate environment we live in. If you put a man in that situation, they would do exactly the same. I completely respect that position."

At thirty-nine and as the mother of two small children, perhaps I ought to be delighted at this laissez-faire attitude, but the truth is, I’m not. It’s not that I regret having children later (I don’t), it’s that any talk of an “irreversible” trend due to “increasing equality” strikes me as untrue. The apparent inevitability of older motherhood isn’t a sign than we’re becoming a more equal society; on the contrary, it relies on an implicit acceptance of all the inequalities that persist, ones based not just on reproductive difference, but on class, race and age.

Older motherhood is nothing to be ashamed of. Nevertheless, the risks involved in delaying conception – risks which include miscarriage, high-risk pregnancy or simply never conceiving at all – are not a price we are paying for our individual workplace “liberation”. They’re the price individual women pay for a broader societal resistance to economic redistribution and cultural transformation. That it is, apparently, unthinkable that we organise our working lives and social relations any other way is anything but a cause for celebration. As Nina Power notes in One Dimensional Woman, this betrays an appalling lack of imagination in the face of contemporary capitalism:

We can have as many vibrators as we like, and drink as much booze as we can physically tolerate, but anything else outside the echo chamber of money-possessions-pleasure is strictly verboten. Communes, you say! Collectives! Alternative models of the family! What are you, mad?! It’s a weary indictment of the state of things when virtually every book on these topics has been removed from your university library. People can’t possibly have once thought that there might be more to life than Daddy-Mummy-Me...could they?"

And yet they did. However resigned we are today, it wasn’t always like this. One of the key demands of second-wave feminism was free 24-hour nursery care, making economic independence feasible for mothers of any age, class or familial set-up. While this may now seem hopelessly naïve, it’s worth noting how much further away the UK is from such a goal in comparison with other OECD nations. How “inevitable” are a woman’s choices when they vary so greatly depending on where she was born?

Radical feminism has argued that men exploit women for their reproductive capacities. To many this will sound ludicrous. But they don't, not any more! Women have the right to choose! But (relatively) legal abortion, access to contraception and a (slight) reduction in the expectation that all women must breed are not the same as true reproductive justice. This is a point that Black feminists and womanists have made repeatedly but which middle-class white feminists have often ignored, focussing instead on how to work the current system before realising it doesn’t work, not even for us. It’s a mark of our privilege that we leave it too late. We’ve bought into a myth of choice which wasn’t even offered to the majority of women. 

In a 1989 interview with Time magazine (quoted by Power), Toni Morrison offers up a vision of motherhood that is truly inclusive, dependent not on wealth, race, age or the presence of a partner (male or female):

I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community – everybody – to raise a child […][Young Black mothers] can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. […] I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.’ That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.

When challenged over how one would in fact pay for this since “you can’t just hand out money”, Morrison’s response is simple:

Why not? Everybody gets everything handed to them. The rich get it handed – they inherit it. I don’t mean just inheritance of money. I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s shared bounty of class.

To put the injustice in such simple terms is, I think, devastating. We deprive mothers and babies of the support they need to thrive because we’ve reduced it to a matter of “individual choice”. We describe the different choices women make as “inevitable” even though they are quite clearly dependent on social prejudice, racial privilege and the prioritisation of profit over human life. We even have the nerve to couch this in terms of “increasing equality”. It is nothing of the sort.

My partner once taught a bright eight-year-old girl who told him she planned on having a baby at twelve. Taken aback, he asked her why:

If I leave school at 16 the baby will just be starting so I'll be able to find a job and get my life back."

How we laughed. Laughed and laughed. And then we stopped laughing as it became clear that, given the choices currently available to young women, it's not that ridiculous a plan. We could all be doing so much better but right now we lack the will. 

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

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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