“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.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.