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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.