The news that 59 per cent of Mumsnet members identify themselves as feminist has seen a mixed response. That motherhood and feminism are compatible should of course surprise no one. It’s been this way since The Feminine Mystique took hold of the “mummy myth” and redefined it for a generation of white, middle-class, university-educated women. Motherhood pulls the rug from under you, no matter how plush.
As a feminist – and a white, middle-class, university-educated mother – I’m glad my peers still have that fury. And yet, as we enter what is being lauded as feminism’s fourth wave, I start to feel old. How relevant is my feminism now? Mothers like me might need feminism, but does a feminism that strives to be more open and inclusive really need us?
As Hannah Mudge has outlined, snide responses to Mumsnet feminism betray a disheartening lack of interest in issues that affect mothers of all backgrounds. The passion, activism and generosity of feminists I’ve met through Mumsnet is a million miles away from the self-centred Polly Filler stereotypes . Nonetheless, since having my own little rant about this, I’ve been challenged by women who find “mummy feminism” alienating for other reasons, ones that can’t be so easily dismissed. As a broad group mothers need defending, of course – but do some of us who shout loudest always do so for the right reasons?
Not all mothers are like me (white, heterosexual, cis, middle-class, able-bodied). However, those who are experience motherhood differently to those who are not. For many of us, it’s the first time problems we’ve only thought about in abstract terms become real. We notice workplace discrimination more when we’ve got a bump. Having a pushchair makes us resent public places that don’t have ramps or wider aisles. Poverty finally bites when our wages won’t cover the cost of childcare. All of those things that used to affect other people now affect us. And while for us a lot of this might only be temporary, we still feel anger. We feel enough anger to recognise that we’re losing out because we’re mothers, but not always enough to see this isn’t just about mothers – it’s about inclusion full stop.
Our workplaces and public spaces are not built to cater for the needs of most people. It’s easy to ignore this as long as our own needs overlap, mostly, with those of the default person, who is wealthy, able-bodied and unencumbered by dependents. We only care about inclusion at one remove. Thus when we’re excluded too we don’t fit it into a broader framework; it feels too personal. It’s all about us.
The frustration I felt at using public transport with a baby, a pram and a toddler was only partly down to the fact that disembarking felt like a high-stakes version of crossing the river with the fox, the chicken and the bag of grain. It was also because I don’t think of myself as the sort of person who has to worry about space, accessibility and needing help. And then I’d think “a society that was more accepting of mothers would be more supportive”. To my shame, I rarely asked myself what riding a bus must be like for people whose children won’t ever walk or who’ll never walk themselves. I guess I thought “that’s just their lives and they’re used to it”. It wasn’t my life, though. At times I seemed outraged by the fact that motherhood was giving me just the tiniest glimpse of lives that would never be mine. I thought I was too special for motherhood, the great leveller, to cut me down in my prime.
While I can’t excuse it I don’t think I am alone in thinking this way. On the contrary, it’s this sense of entitlement that risks skewing the focus of mummy activism, making it all about the privileged demanding that their privilege be restored. It leads to groups like Netmums (distinct from Mumsnet) campaigning for supermarkets to “tilt the balance” in favour of parents, ahead of those registered disabled, when it comes to allocated parking. It leads women with higher-earning partners to see child benefit cuts as an attack on stay-at-home mothers rather than just one capricious cut amongst many (not to mention a cut which hurts higher-earning single parents the most). It leads to this Telegraph article, in which the terrible impact of unpaid labour is illustrated by those in the “squeezed middle” struggling to pay their “high mortgages and inflation-busting school fees”. Most damaging of all, it leads to mothers who face other disadvantages feeling that their concerns are not “pure” enough for mummy feminism. It shuts them out.
I don’t think middle-class mothers are more selfish than other human beings. I don’t necessarily think we make worse feminists. What I do feel is that sometimes, the conditions of middle-class motherhood make it harder to hide one’s own self-interest. The shock of having children can make us pine for our privilege in a way that alienates others. We need to be more vigilant and we need to be more self-aware.
According to the writer Elizabeth Stone, the decision to have a child “is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”. Parenthood exposes you and it exposes your feelings. It also lets you know just how morally immature you are. Mummy feminism at its best – such as in the examples highlighted by Mudge – can transcend this. So too, however, can listening to others and, regardless of whether they’re parents, creating more space for them.