Do mums make better politicians? Well, #notallmums, obviously. I for one would be bloody awful. But do mums in general share an insight into everyday human realities that is sorely lacking amongst our current political elite?
That is what has been suggested by Labour MP Helen Goodman. Writing in the Huffington Post, she expresses her support for Yvette Cooper’s campaign to be Labour leader on the basis that “as a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life.” The necessary implication of this is that those who are not working mums must be lacking in this self-same understanding.
Certainly this is how supporters of Liz Kendall’s rival leadership campaign have taken it (Kendall does not have children). Kendall’s campaign manager, Toby Perkins, has told the BBC that the very idea that one ought to back the candidate who is a mother “suggests a paucity of intellectual argument, which the Labour party should really have moved beyond”. It is notable that male leadership candidates seem considerably less riled by the whole affair. This might lead one to ask whether all of this is really about what mothers have to offer, or more about what we expect a female political candidate to be.
To take the first option, as a mother – one who hates starting any sentence with the phrase “as a mother” – I find it hard not to get irritated by attempts to justify the usefulness and multi-applicability of maternal experience. It always feels incredibly patronising. Yes, I know I’m useful – isn’t it obvious? And no, I wasn’t better or worse at my job before my children came along (just less tired). Nonetheless, it is true that the raising of the next generation should be – and is not always – a major political concern. And isn’t it the case that mothers have insights and experiences of major political relevance? Almost everyone has a mother – could it not be argued that we are the starting point, the hub, the central point of interaction with institutions such as the family, the education system, the social care network and more? If there is a contemporary crisis regarding our ability to care for one another from cradle to grave, perhaps it would be better if mums were in charge.
In Maternal Thinking the philosopher Sara Ruddick argues that “out of maternal practices distinctive ways of conceptualizing, ordering, and valuing arise.” She articulates a mode of thought which originates in the act of caring for children and is based on three principles: the preservation of life, the fostering of growth and the achievement of acceptability within a broader community. Each principle contains within it the risk of degeneration (the prioritisation of acceptability, in particular, can translate into selfish conservatism), hence mothers must access a particular level of self-awareness in order to overcome. But overall Ruddick seeks to define a way of thinking and acting which need not be specific to mothers – nor even exemplified by all mothers – but which can have broader political applications (Ruddick herself, writing during the Cold War, is particularly focussed on the peace movement).
I find all of this this fascinating. Certainly I believe that we desperately need to embed a politics of care within our current social and economic structures (recent works such as Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? also support this view – and Marçal is not, as far as I am aware, a mother). I do wonder whether this is a maternal position so much as a feminist political position, one which many mothers, especially those who are very wealthy, need not necessarily share. The priorities that Goodman articulates in her piece strike me not as left-wing ones as such (many left-wing men seem willing to put unpaid ’women’s’ work on the back burner), nor as female ones (contrary to popular belief, females are a pretty diverse bunch). What holds them together is a particular ethics, one which we – as vulnerable, potentially dependent creatures – should ideally all share. Without question this ethics is conncected to what most mothers do, but it cannot be wholly defined by it.
Right now, if female politicians do get a boost from motherhood, I think it comes less from being seen as in tune with particular issues and more from current prejudices regarding what constitutes a “normal” woman. For instance, it’s notable that Goodman starts her Huffington Post piece by claiming that “it can sometimes seem like politicians are not ‘real’ people. But, believe me, we are”:
Much more important to me than being an MP and shadow minister is that I am a mum. I have two children and although they are both grown-up (supposedly), once a mum, always a mum. I remember the difficulty of having to work and arrange childcare. Getting them up and ready for school, nagging them about their homework, which strangely seems to get harder as they get older, then battling to get them to bed at a sensible time – a task.
While much of this is very familiar to me, I wouldn’t say that it makes me more “real” than I was before I had children. Moreover, I don’t see many male politicians seeking to demonstrate their “realness” by listing all of the mundane things they have to do in order to get the little sods ready for the day. While this is probably because their wives or nannies are doing it anyhow, I think it says something about how much more professional women are expected to expose of themselves in order to prove that they are not ‘fake.’
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had to deal not only with Tony Abbott describing her government as “one which lacks experience in raising children”, but with conservative senator Bill Heffernan calling her “deliberately barren”. There are online debates as to why the “unmaternal” Hillary Clinton only had one child and as to whether her career was more important to her than motherhood. Perhaps our ideal female politician would be like Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, not wholly defined by motherhood by definitely compromised by its demands. Oh, but wait, that would make her less focussed than a male counterpart. I guess we then find ourselves stuck with the Margaret Thatcher model, someone who can dutifully pop out two children, one boy, one girl (perfect! normal!), while making sure no broader principles of nurturance ever infiltrate the corridors of power.
Within the “politics” that governs my own family, I’m pretty sure I benefited from a “real woman” boost when I became a mum (I even once heard my mother tell someone “yes, she’s got a PhD, but she has children now, so she’s normal” – um, thanks, I think). Sadly, I don’t think my book learning-defying ovaries will be enough to make me electable (the papers would eventually find out that I’d snogged that bloke who thinks he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur Pendragon, so I might as well own up to that now). Even so, if I could be a politician, I would hope that what motherhood has brought out in me is not so much “normality” as a greater awareness of the importance of unglamorous, boring old care.
What this current kerfuffle is edging towards – but sadly not yet expressing – is the need for us to look after one another. In the age of individualism, it is hard to find any leaders – mothers or not – who are prepared to defend this principle in absolute terms. Dependency is shameful, self-sufficiency is all. What makes most mothers “special” (if one can call it that) is that they necessarily have to bail out on this fetishisation of self-interest, at least part of the time. Many other people do this, too, but nowhere near enough, and many mothers fail to extend these principles beyond the confines of their own family. We do not need mothers to lead us. We just need people who see that carework and nurturance are the responsibility of all.