How "mummy feminism" can get it wrong

The shock of having children can make us pine for our privilege in a way that alienates others. We need to be more vigilant and we need to be more self-aware.

The news that 59 per cent of Mumsnet members identify themselves as feminist has seen a mixed response. That motherhood and feminism are compatible should of course surprise no one. It’s been this way since The Feminine Mystique took hold of the “mummy myth” and redefined it for a generation of white, middle-class, university-educated women. Motherhood pulls the rug from under you, no matter how plush.

As a feminist - and a white, middle-class, university-educated mother - I’m glad my peers still have that fury. And yet, as we enter what is being lauded as feminism’s fourth wave, I start to feel old. How relevant is my feminism now? Mothers like me might need feminism, but does a feminism that strives to be more open and inclusive really need us?

As Hannah Mudge has outlined, snide responses to Mumsnet feminism betray a disheartening lack of interest in issues that affect mothers of all backgrounds. The passion, activism and generosity of feminists I’ve met through Mumsnet is a million miles away from the self-centred Polly Filler stereotypes . Nonetheless, since having my own little rant about this, I’ve been challenged by women who find “mummy feminism” alienating for other reasons, ones that can’t be so easily dismissed. As a broad group mothers need defending, of course - but do some of us who shout loudest always do so for the right reasons?

Not all mothers are like me (white, heterosexual, cis, middle-class, able-bodied). However, those who are experience motherhood differently to those who are not. For many of us, it’s the first time problems we’ve only thought about in abstract terms become real. We notice workplace discrimination more when we’ve got a bump. Having a pushchair makes us resent public places that don’t have ramps or wider aisles. Poverty finally bites when our wages won’t cover the cost of childcare. All of those things that used to affect other people now affect us. And while for us a lot of this might only be temporary, we still feel anger.  We feel enough anger to recognise that we’re losing out because we’re mothers, but not always enough to see this isn’t just about mothers - it’s about inclusion full stop.

Our workplaces and public spaces are not built to cater for the needs of most people. It’s easy to ignore this as long as our own needs overlap, mostly, with those of the default person, who is wealthy, able-bodied and unencumbered by dependents. We only care about inclusion at one remove. Thus when we’re excluded too we don’t fit it into a broader framework; it feels too personal. It’s all about us.

The frustration I felt at using public transport with a baby, a pram and a toddler was only partly down to the fact that disembarking felt like a high-stakes version of crossing the river with the fox, the chicken and the bag of grain. It was also because I don’t think of myself as the sort of person who has to worry about space, accessibility and needing help. And then I’d think “a society that was more accepting of mothers would be more supportive”. To my shame, I rarely asked myself what riding a bus must be like for people whose children won’t ever walk or who’ll never walk themselves. I guess I thought “that’s just their lives and they’re used to it”. It wasn’t my life, though. At times I seemed outraged by the fact that motherhood was giving me just the tiniest glimpse of lives that would never be mine. I thought I was too special for motherhood, the great leveller, to cut me down in my prime.

While I can’t excuse it I don’t think I am alone in thinking this way. On the contrary, it’s this sense of entitlement that risks skewing the focus of mummy activism, making it all about the privileged demanding that their privilege be restored. It leads to groups like Netmums (distinct from Mumsnet) campaigning for supermarkets to “tilt the balance” in favour of parents, ahead of those registered disabled, when it comes to allocated parking. It leads women with higher-earning partners to see child benefit cuts as an attack on stay-at-home mothers rather than just one capricious cut amongst many (not to mention a cut which hurts higher-earning single parents the most).  It leads to this Telegraph article, in which the terrible impact of unpaid labour is illustrated by those in the “squeezed middle” struggling to pay their “high mortgages and inflation-busting school fees”. Most damaging of all, it leads to mothers who face other disadvantages feeling that their concerns are not “pure” enough for mummy feminism. It shuts them out.

I don’t think middle-class mothers are more selfish than other human beings. I don’t necessarily think we make worse feminists. What I do feel is that sometimes, the conditions of middle-class motherhood make it harder to hide one’s own self-interest. The shock of having children can make us pine for our privilege in a way that alienates others. We need to be more vigilant and we need to be more self-aware.

According to the writer Elizabeth Stone, the decision to have a child “is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”. Parenthood exposes you and it exposes your feelings. It also lets you know just how morally immature you are. Mummy feminism at its best - such as in the examples highlighted by Mudge - can transcend this. So too, however, can listening to others and, regardless of whether they’re parents, creating more space for them.




A young child sits in her pushchair outside a shop in Blackfriars, London. Photo: Getty

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

Show Hide image

The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.