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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.