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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496