Welfare 5 February 2015 Why do we still see equality for pregnant women and mothers as “special treatment”? Everyone benefits from so-called “women’s work”. Treating women in the workplace in the same way to heterosexual men is not equality. Photo: Getty Sign UpGet the New Statesman's Morning Call email. Sign-up According to the feminist and civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy, “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”. I think that she is right. If men got pregnant – not in some wild revision of history, but right now, overnight – there’d be no fussing over “nuanced moral arguments” and “balancing the rights of the child against those of the father”. We’d simply think “his body, his choice” and get on our way. But what if a pregnant man did not want an abortion? In that case we would be forced to see pregnancy in a completely different light. If pregnancy became something that happened to people who matter, we’d have to appreciate it as actual, meaningful work. We’d see pregnant men not as bloated leeches, screwing over employers and the welfare state, but as masterful creators of human life. We’d be in awe of them. We wouldn’t force a man to stay pregnant but we’d worship him if he did. Women, meanwhile, would be reminded of their inferior, non-gestator status every day of their lives. Of course we do not live in such a world, but one in which pregnant women and new mothers are vilified at every turn. We don’t respect the person who creates new life. We call the foetus inside her “the unborn child”, as though she is a mere waiting room, incidental to the formation of a person who will one day breathe on his or her own. We fret over the impact her pregnancy will have on her employer, the environment, the economy, anyone but her. We think of pregnancy in terms of what it means she cannot do (all of that paid work which, since she’s just a woman, isn’t a basic necessity but something she only does to feel “empowered”). We might coo over the odd celebrity mum-to-be who manages not to offend our sensibilities (that’s you, Kate) but by and large we see pregnancy as a wilful opting-out of general usefulness. People might not say this out loud, but they think it all the same. For instance, consider this scenario: you are having a conversation with someone who claims to be pro-feminist and they will say something along the lines of “since women were given equality…” or “since women were allowed into the workplace…” It is at this point that you realise that a) they see this apparent granting of equality as an act of generosity on the part of men and b) they have this bizarre idea that until the 1970s women didn’t do any work. You get the sense that to them, this “women being equal to men” thing is not a basic human truth, but a matter of politeness and tolerance. Deep down they know we’re not really equal – otherwise where have we been all this time? – but they’re trying to be kind. They’re too tactful to mention the basic design flaw but we know the one of which they’re thinking (women get pregnant! Or if they don’t, that means they’re weird, and who’d want to trust one then?). Certainly, some feminists have argued that women’s current inferior social status can be traced back to the fact that unlike men, women constitute group in which some members get pregnant. Nevertheless, what this does not mean is that the risk of pregnancy makes women inherently inferior to men. It’s an arbitrary historical development in which one group (males) found a way to control the resources of another (females). It does not mean women are less useful than men. As the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards points out “it seems most unlikely that so much effort would have been put into making women artificially dependent on men if they had been naturally so”. There’s nothing wrong with us or our bodies; it’s our status in a world constructed to meet the needs of only half the population that is letting us down. When people say “the pay gap is really a maternity gap” what they really mean is “we’ve decided it’s okay to exploit you since you’re not the ‘right’ kind of person for this world”. And it’s in this world that new mothers such as Angela Ames can lose their jobs, simply for being women. The US Supreme Court has ruled that Ames – who was not provided with facilities to express milk on her return to work after maternity leave, was ordered to catch up on all of the tasks she had missed within two weeks, and was then told “just go home and be with your babies” – was not a victim of sex discrimination because what happened to her could, in theory, have happened to a man. Everything about the decision is ludicrous. For instance, the court has claimed that firing a woman for breastfeeding is not discriminatory because men can lactate under certain circumstances, thus showing themselves entirely ignorant of the fact that expressing milk to feed a baby is not the same as lactation (the former is work – pumping, sterilising, storing – while the latter is just a biological process). The court also found “just go home and be with your babies” to be a gender-neutral statement, presumably since it doesn’t literally include the words “you pathetic woman!” I think it is obvious that if an employer said the same thing to a male employee, the meaning would be different. Language is interpreted through the filter of different social relations and positionings (I guess the court would also argue that “nice tits!” isn’t sexual harassment because some men have moobs). The overall impression from the Ames case is that her employer considered her an imposition for not being the default non-postpartum employee. What is shocking is that two courts of law have supported this view. They have understood “equal treatment” to mean “treating all people in exactly the same way, regardless of their social realities,” and as is so often the case with workplace discrimination, “treating people in exactly the same way” seems to be “treating everyone like a heterosexual married man who has a wife at home to take care of all of life’s invisible work”. This is not a question of pregnancy and childbirth being inconveniences that employers have to work around in order to appease inconvenient women. Everyone benefits from so-called “women’s work”. It is about a social and economic structure which is, from top to bottom, set up to extract labour from women at minimal cost while pretending to be doing them a favour. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are not discriminated against because they are pregnant or breastfeeding; it because of their social position as women. If the biological rules changed overnight and someone of higher status – a man – was expressing milk at work, he would not be treated in the same way as Ames. Still seeing his body as the default body, we would consider expressing facilities as basic a need as having an on-site toilet or kitchen. We’d ask female employees – those inferior creatures – to cover for him, maybe offering him a drink since expressing is such thirsty work. The perceived social and economic “uselessness” of pregnant and breastfeeding women is anchored not in their biology, but in the centuries of sexism used to justify their exploitation. It’s about time we got paid our dues. › It is no longer enough for our parties just to talk about mental health Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing. Subscribe For more great writing from our award-winning journalists subscribe for just £1 per month!