Sometimes a sentence has to leave your mouth before you realise how true it is. The scene: a cramped seminar room in Manchester, where I was talking at a Labour Women’s Network event on participation in public life. We’d heard from at least a dozen female councillors about some of the challenges they faced, from flagrant sexism to subtle assumptions about their priorities and abilities. But one contribution stood out: a single mum who had become a councillor not long before. “Without my mum – and planning everything months in advance – I’d never cope,” she told me.
I sympathised, and found myself saying: “Of course, if I had kids, I wouldn’t be here.” It hit me with the force that only something truly obvious, something crushingly banal, can do. I can swan off to Television Centre on Sundays to give the hungover nation the dubious benefit of my wisdom because I don’t have a second job as a carer. I can say yes to that panel discussion or freelance piece because I arrive home from work and don’t immediately plunge into a maelstrom of story, bath and bedtime.
You might think it’s pretty embarrassing that this hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind before. I certainly do – it’s only now, past 30, staring into the nappy-filled abyss, that I have truly accepted into my heart that the oppression of women is based on the fact that they have the babies. Eliminate all the gropers, banish the pink plastic tat that passes for girls’ toys to the back of the cupboard, fill our screens with heroines . . . and none of this will solve the problem that bums need to be wiped, and it’s mostly women who do the wiping.
The toll exerted by caring – and how little a capitalist society values such a vital activity – should be one of the key issues for feminism. We know that caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, and not only when it comes to looking after children: three-quarters of those claiming a carer’s allowance (meaning they care 35-plus hours a week) are female. But the effect on men is not negligible: although they are less likely to have to give up work to do so, one in six men aged 50 to 64 is now a carer. (Among female baby boomers, it’s one in four.)
The vast amount of unpaid labour involved in raising children was a critical issue during the Second Wave of feminism – the wave whose activists many of today’s young radicals now deride as hopelessly bourgeois and dilettante. They wanted wages for housework, too, because women’s entry into the job market was restricted by all the unpaid work they were already doing at home. The Fourth (or is it Fifth?) Wave just isn’t that bolshie: we’ve swallowed the line that it’s your choice to have children, and therefore every negative consequence is your own fault, love.
Then again, maybe making this a “women’s issue” isn’t the right way to get it taken seriously. In a recent debate about the future of feminism in the New Republic – a kind of American sister magazine to the NS – its senior editor Judith Shulevitz argued that the whole movement needed a rebrand as “caregiverism”. We will not achieve the social and economic equality of the sexes “just by telling girls they, too, can be ambitious”, she said. “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.” I have particular sympathy with my American sisters in this: their country has no requirement for all employers to offer paid maternity leave; a quarter of all workers don’t get any paid holiday time, either.
How do we drive the issue of care to the top of the political agenda? Here’s the rub: the people most likely to speak eloquently about it are just too bloody busy to take part in public life. On 30 September, I spoke to Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Carlisle, a 42-year-old single mother called Lee Sherriff. Fighting a Conservative candidate with a majority of 853, she is likely to end up in parliament next year – even though, as a former shopworker, she always thought that “people like me don’t do this”.
Sherriff joined the Labour Party in May 2010, after a visit to the gym where she got into an argument with two men who supported the Conservatives. “I was like, ‘Are you mad?’ I argued with them for an hour, on the cross-trainer, going faster and faster. I thought: This is it, I have to do something . . . I couldn’t shout at the TV any more.” Like the councillor in Manchester, Sherriff manages with the help of her mum – and by emailing at 2am and sleeping only five hours a night. (In a rare display of tact, I don’t say: “Ooh, like Maggie!”)
The issue that brought Sherriff into politics was tax credits, introduced by Labour between 1999 and 2003. “When my marriage ended, it was a destructive thing for my kids, their dad going. But I could continue working. It just meant I knew that me and my kids wouldn’t live in poverty, that we could survive.” Because she could afford childcare, she could stay in work, and because she had an income, she managed to buy out her ex-husband’s share of the family home: “My kids didn’t have to leave the only house they’ve ever known.” And because the benefit was universal, Sherriff did not feel marked out and treated like a child (one of the unintended consequences of free school meals, and now Iain Duncan Smith’s wheeze of giving benefit claimants pre-paid cards). “It gave me dignity,” she says. “There’s stigma coming back about single mums – but you were getting the same as your neighbours who were a couple.”
For me, this is politics. Don’t you find it more engaging than macho willy-waving over deficit reduction targets or who landed the most sizzling zingers at Prime Minister’s Questions? We need to hear more from carers, and we need policies that give them a chance to speak and be heard. As Lee Sherriff put it to me: “Politics shouldn’t be about you, it should be with you.”