“Reproductive freedom” is being defined as a person, not just a womb

Motherhood can be life-changing, but women shouldn’t have to consider it some kind of “destiny”.

Motherhood: it’s a complicated, difficult, but presumably rewarding journey that propels you headfirst into public property faster than a stint on the X Factor. Suddenly, it seems everyone knows what’s best for you – what you should (or shouldn’t) be eating, drinking, and, most importantly in K-Middy’s case, wearing (a recent headline asked whether or not she’d be “frumpy like Diana”). For those who carry their offspring in their womb, this first taste of motherhood usually comes from someone in the frozen foods aisle boldly placing his or her hand across their swollen uterus and enquiring about the due date - and repeat, for every other day for the next long few months, until, like a woman of our acquaintance, she explodes, and finds herself yelling “GET OFF ME AND FUCK OFF” at a perfect stranger.

Others have less irritating initial experiences: epiphanies during ultrasounds or when they first see their newborn’s face, for instance, in the brief period of relief in between the lasting effects of an epidural and the government’s next announcement that they’re raising tuition fees again. Undoubtedly, becoming a parent has the power to change a huge amount on a personal level. But for women, one other thing is also for certain: whether it’s a panel on This Morning discussing whether “breast is best” for the hundredth time, speculation in the latest tabloid over whether Beyoncé was wearing a “false stomach” during her pregnancy (really), or the patronising assumption at a dinner party that you’ll “just grow out of” deciding not to have children, the choices that an individual woman makes about motherhood are almost always assumed to be free topics of public discussion.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the fall-out from Hilary Mantel’s fairly uncontroversial essay on perceptions of royalty in the media, extensively quoted out of context and then reimagined as a “catfight” between her and Kate Middleton by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The Mail heavily implied that Mantel’s criticism was in some way connected to her inability to have children: a jealous rant at the demonstrably pregnant Duchess, because women’s words – even in academia – must only be prompted by deep-seated Freudian emotions linked to their biological “destinies”, especially when babies are involved. Like the evil barren stepmother from folklore, Mantel is cast as the older women jealous at the Princess’ youth and fertility. So obvious was the fairytale connection (for what are celebrity stories if not fairy tales?) that these archetypes even manifested themselves in cartoon form, showing the double Booker Prize-winner gazing into a magic mirror too divine the fairest of them all and seeing, of course, Kate.

While it got its teeth firmly set into Mantel and her supposed infertility, it was sharpening its claws for the next victim: Heather Frost, a mother-of-eleven on benefits, who was receiving a six bedroom council house – or, as the right wing press would have it, a “mansion”, as opposed to a fairly economical – two kids per bedroom at least – use of social housing. Frost had piqued the media’s ire by supposedly buying one of her children a horse (although in fairness every mother who has served up Findus lasagne in the last ten years is probably guilty of that crime). Apparently, a mother in receipt of state welfare should expect that the nation scrutinise the nuances of her parenting decisions in return. It’s only fair, after all, since Frost had rudely “chosen” to have eleven children she couldn’t afford, and would probably have had more were it not for the small matter of cervical cancer. And yet, her children, who have presumably already had a fairly tough time of it watching their mum fall prey to a life-threatening disease, are expected to receive punishment for her reproductive choices. Never mind the wee ones and their entitlement to warmth and shelter, it’s more important to the bitter mob in the comments section that the mother learn her lesson for daring to reproduce to such a great extent.

Of course, little is said of how Frost, might have had a reasonable expectation of some child support from the childrens’ fathers. Fathers, particularly absent ones, are afforded some societal judgement themselves - but all too often, “motherhood” is equated with “parenting”, while “fatherhood” is extracurricular, and women are held to much higher standards in this arena than their male counterparts. Which brings us to the other news story this week – the IVF reforms, including the raising of the upper age limit to 40. Cue much commentating on irresponsible and selfish women leaving it too late to get pregnant, and how the state shouldn’t be expected to fund such an endeavour. Their male counterparts, however, (you can call them “career men” if you like) are never berated for their bachelor lifestyles that delay parenthood. Women dawdle and dilly-dally, while men euphemistically sow their wild oats and enjoy their freedom. Such stereotypes save anyone having to think about things in too much depth – throw a woman who couldn’t care less whether she has kids or not, or isn’t that invested in the whole shebang, and it all gets rather too nuanced and complicated to make simplistic headline-grabbing value judgments.

In media land, while middle class women are spunking up £3,000 a cycle on IVF, working class women breed indiscriminately, producing children they can’t afford to keep. In fact, neither “group” has anything approaching true reproductive freedom. While one lot is wrestling with a lack of information regarding contraception, not to mention the expectation that giving birth is all they are good for, the other is trying desperately to assert their independence from all of that, only to find it difficult to conceive later in life. Of course, most women fit into neither group, because they are both, largely, media confections, but the point about reproductive freedom stands. Who, truly, can be said to possess it? You might say the aristocracy, unhindered as they are by financial or career related concerns, but then the Waity Katy/Royal Womb narrative would beg to differ.

Having a baby (or not) is a personal choice that is different for every single woman, and one that occurs for a myriad of reasons. It often also involves a man. And yet, there seems to be very little empathy regarding any of those choices viewed as being within the woman’s remit. It’s always a case of doing it wrong. Thus there is no sympathy for the woman devastated by her inability to conceive, nor for she who is unable to cope with her many children. Less so for she who does not desire children at all. She must have a screw loose, or rather, something missing in the biological nuts and bolts make up the various components of “womanhood”.  “Being a mum” is still seen by many as our natural state; so much so that women who choose not to breed (especially feminists) are widely seen as “cutting their nose off to spite their face”. Men are often taught that women will ask for the standard package – marriage and babies – as soon as a certain amount of time has passed. Women’s media feeds us back the idea that that is a woman’s place and natural aspiration: flick through any celebrity magazine and witness a female public figure who has recently popped out a child instantly transformed from human of interest into “yummy mummy” or “tiger mother” or “momtrepreneur” (anything, as long as it’s not “tax-wasting benefit scrounger”). Such archetypes are used to divide us, when what we need most is to have empathy for one another and an understanding that motherhood can be life-changing, but that it does not come to define us. In other words, the true meaning of “reproductive freedom” is being able to define yourself, first and foremost, as a person.

 

Women can't be divided into "yummy mummies" and "tax-wasting benefit scroungers". Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Live blog: Jeremy Corbyn hit by shadow cabinet revolt

Three shadow cabinet members resign following the sacking of Hilary Benn. 

11:40 Labour's only Scottish MP, Ian Murray, has just resigned as shadow Scotland secretary. As I noted earlier, this means the job will have to be done by a non-Scottish MP or a peer. 

11:21 Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray (see 09:11) and shadow transport secretary Lillian Greenwood are expected to be the next to resign. 

11:11 Shadow minister for young people Gloria De Piero has become the latest to resign. It's worth noting that De Piero is a close ally of Tom Watson (she's married to his aide James Robinson). Many will see this as a sign that the coup has the tacit approval of Watson (who is currently en route from Glastonbury). 

De Piero wrote in her resignation letter to Corbyn: "I have always enjoyed a warm personal relationship with you and I want to thank you for the opportunity to serve in your shadow cabinet. I accepted that invitation because I thought it was right to support you in your attempt to achieve the Labour victory the country so badly needs.

"I do not believe you can deliver that victory at a general election, which may take place in a matter of months. I have been contacted by many of my members this weekend and It is clear that a good number of them share that view and have lost faith in your leadership.”

10:58 Shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry has backed Corbyn, telling Michael Crick that "of course" she has confidence in his leadership. She is the fourth shadow cabinet minister to back Corbyn (along with McDonnell, Abbott and Trickett). 

10:52 Our Staggers editor Julia Rampen has written up Benn and McDonnell's TV appearances. 

"Two different visions for the Labour Party's future clashed today on primetime TV. Hours after being sacked from the shadow cabinet, Corbyn critic Hilary Benn was on the Andrew Marr Show ruling himself out of a leadership challenge. However, he issued a not-so-coded cry for revolt as he urged others to "do the right thing" for the party. Moments later, shadowhancellor John McDonnell sought to quell rumours of a coup by telling Andrew Neil Jeremy was "not going anywhere". He reminded any shadow ministers watching of the grassroots support Labour has enjoyed under Corbyn and the public petition urging them to back their leader."

10:46 Asked to comment, Tony Blair told the BBC: "I think this is for the PLP. I don't think it's right for me or helpful to intervene." 

10:38 On the leadership, it's worth noting that while Corbyn would need 50 MP/MEP nominations to make the ballot (were he not on automatically), an alternative left-wing candidate would only need 37 (15 per cent of the total). 

10:27 Jon Trickett, one of just three shadow cabinet Corbynites, has tweeted: "200,000 people already signed the petition in solidarity with the leadership. I stand with our party membership." 

10:14 McDonnell has told the BBC's Andrew Neil: "I will never stand for the leadership of the Labour Party". He confirmed that this would remain the case if Corbyn resigned. McDonnell, who stood unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership in 2007 and 2010 (failing to make the ballot), added that if Corbyn was forced to fitght another election he would "chair his campaign".  

10:12 Tom Watson is returning from Glastonbury to London. He's been spotted at Castle Cary train station. 

10:07 A spokesman for John McDonnell has told me that it's "not true" that Seema Malhotra, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, is canvassing MPs on his behalf. Labour figures have long believed that the shadow chancellor and former Labour leadership contender has ambitions to succeed Corbyn. 

09:51 Appearing on the Marr Show, Hilary Benn has just announced that he will not stand for the Labour leadership. "I am not going to be a candidate for leader of the Labour Party." Tom Watson, Angela Eagle and Dan Jarvis are those most commonly cited by Corbyn's opponents as alternative leaders. 

09:46 Should Corbyn refuse to resign, Labour MPs are considering electing an independent PLP leader, an option first floated by Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's former press secretary, in the New Statesman. He argued that as the representatives of the party's 9.35 million voters, their mandate trumped Corbyn's.

09:38 Here's Stephen on the issue of whether Corbyn could form a shadow cabinet after the revolt. "A lot of chatter about whether Corbyn could replace 10 of his shadow cabinet. He couldn't, but a real question of whether he'd need to. Could get by with a frontbench of 18 to 20. There's no particular need to man-mark the government - Corbyn has already created a series of jobs without shadows, like Gloria De Piero's shadow minister for young people and voter registration. That might, in many ways, be more stable." 

09:32 Despite the revolt, there is no sign of Corbyn backing down. A spokesman said: "There will be no resignation from the elected leader of the party with a strong mandate".

09:11 Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray is one of those expected to resign. As Labour's only Scottish MP, the post would have to be filled by an MP south of the border or a peer. 

09:01 Diane Abbott, Corbyn's long-standing ally, has been promised the post of shadow foreign secretary, a Labour source has told me. 

The shadow international developmnent secretary is one of just three Corbyn supporters in the shadow cabinet (along with John McDonnell and Jon Trickett). Though 36 MPs nominated him for the leadership, only 14 current members went on to vote for him. It is this that explains why Corbyn is fighting the rebellion. He never had his MPs' support to begin with and is confident he retains the support of party activists (as all polls have suggested). 

But the weakness of his standing among the PLP means some hope he could yet be kept off the ballot in any new contest. Under Labour's rules, 50 MP/MEP nominations (20 per cent of the total) are required. 

08:52 Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has joined the revolt, telling BBC Radio Wales that events make it "very difficult" for Corbyn to lead Labour into the next election. 

08:50 Tom Watson, a pivotal figure who Labour MPs have long believed could determine the success of any coup attempt is currently at Glastonbury. 

08:26 Following Hilary Benn's 1am sacking, Jeremy Corbyn will face shadow cabinet resignations this morning. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has become the first to depart.

The New Statesman will cover all the latest developments here. John McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally, is appearing on The Andrew Marr Show at 9:45.

"This is the trigger. Jeremy's called our bluff," a shadow cabinet minister told me. He added that he expected to joined by a "significant number" of colleagues. The BBC's Laura Kuenssberg has reported that half of the 30 will resign this morning. 

Corbyn is set to face a vote of no confidence from Labour MPs on Tuesday followed by a leadership challenge. But his allies say he will not resign and are confident that he will make the ballot either automatically (as legal advice has suggested) or by winning the requisite 50 MP/MEP nominations. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.