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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.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear