“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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.