Getty
Show Hide image

Does feminism need a new slogan - "care work is work"?

Looking after the young and old falls more heavily on women. Our society needs to acknowledge that prosperity is built on women's unpaid labour. 

Care work – be it mopping up bodily effluvia, getting up in the night for a crying infant, spending hours on end listening to the ramblings of a relative who doesn’t recall who you are – is not aspirational. It’s wearing, dealing with the demands of bodies, hemmed in on all sides by mess, exhaustion and an absence of mental stimulation. Most people who do this work are women, trained from the day they are born to feel shame at any lack of that mythical nurturing instinct. Men tell themselves women do care work because they want to; we tell ourselves we do it because every other woman wants to, hence there must be something wrong with us if we don’t.

It has been said, over and over, so many times it has become boring and almost meaningless, that austerity hits women hardest. Of course it does. It saves money if the work that goes into caring for bodies is taken from the state and offloaded on to women, by a Tory government that claims to hate dependency. It’s a government that doesn’t want 18- to 21-year-olds to receive housing benefit, or for families to “rely on the state” to care for elderly relatives, or for a bereaved parent with young children to get too comfortable outside of paid work. It wants people to stand, if not on their own two feet, then on the backs of unpaid carers. After all, we are supposed to think, if care work is kept in the family, it doesn’t really count.

Such thinking is of course classic Thatcherism. In a well-known 1987 interview with Woman’s Own, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed there to be “no such thing” as society: “there are individual men and women and there are families.” Broader social responsibilities can be disregarded; the buck stops at your own front door, regardless of who is behind there with you. Thirty years on we have a more sophisticated version, which tells us there is no such thing as the body: there are individual men and women and there are identities. It’s a philosophy into which the left has bought even more eagerly than the right, seeing in it liberation from biology as destiny. Yet there’s a gaping inconsistency in getting angry at what the right are doing to bodies while simultaneously denying bodies have a political context at all.

“If the body was taken seriously as a starting point for the economy,” writes Katrine Marçal, “it would have far-reaching consequences”: “Hunger, cold, sickness, lack of healthcare and lack of food would be central economic concerns. Not like today: unfortunate by-products of the one and only system.”

Alas, we have a world in which the body is seen, not just as embarrassment, but as something entirely separate from our true selves. The work that goes into maintaining the body – gestating it, nursing it, feeding it, caring for it when it cannot function independently – is at best undervalued, at worst ignored. It demeans us to think of ourselves as dependent beings, faced with the inevitable decay of our mortal flesh.

As Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, co-director of the Women’s Budget Group, argues, the current government’s combination of chipping away at social security while making tax cuts that benefit higher earners is effectively “a policy of transferring money from the purses of poorer women into the wallets of richer men.” That higher earners depend on the care work and flexibility of those women in the lowest-paid groups is ignored; we’re all individuals, aren’t we? The left will claim to be horrified by this, but any close-up analysis of why women remain so exploited will not be for the squeamish. There are some easy targets – so-called lean-in feminism, the Tories as the perennial “nasty party” -  but what we’re really dealing with is something more fundamental: the stigma attached to sexed bodies, dependency and care.

If we want to transform the way we see our economy, we need transform the way we see sex and gender in the context of work. “Sex work is work” has become a popular liberal feminist slogan; “reproductive work is work” sadly less so. We need to acknowledge that the work of gestation, birthing and nursing is real work, and that it takes place within a highly gendered context. We need to sever, once and for all, the association between femaleness and femininity, implying as it does the care work done by women is in some way attuned to their innate sense of self. We need to stop pretending that bodies do not have inevitable functions, needs and destinies:  growing, ageing, getting sick, dying. That it is becoming taboo to simply say “yes, your body does stop you from being exactly who you might want to be” is an indicator not of liberation, but neoliberal narcissism.

Because liberation – both economic and gender-based – does not mean being seen as the person you believe yourself to be inside. It means redistribution. It means everyone shouldering the weight of what it means to be a dependent, mortal human being. It means doing things you don’t want to do, taking on roles you don’t want to take on, for the sake of other people. Carers don’t just need to be valued more; they need to be every single one of us. 

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

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496