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7 January 2016updated 04 Oct 2023 9:54am

We need a feminism that is willing to get its hands dirty

The trouble is, bodily mess hasn’t stopped and won’t ever stop coming.

By Glosswitch

Lately I’ve found myself musing on the ways in which gender is fluid. By this, I don’t just mean any fluid. I mean milk, urine, curdled white vomit and bright yellow shit. Rare are the days when my clothes are not stained with at least one, usually two, of these things. The sour-sweet smell of baby sick never leaves me. Despite months of experimentation with breast pads, different brands, new positions, my body is always glazed and sticky with milk. I use the same muslin several times in a row, then find that I’ve lost it and make do with my sleeve. None of this is remarkable. It’s just your average, day-to-day, motherwork mess.

But the context of this mess is gendered. All around me, a certain class of people – women, and not just mothers – spend their time dealing with bodily effluvia, their own and that of others, so that no one else has to. It is a fact rarely mentioned in discussions of gender and bodies, where the approach remains focussed on outside and inside, not the boundaries in between. When it comes to taboo, the most we’ll allow for is anxiety surrounding gender non-conformity and sex. As for shit and vomit, well, who wants to talk about those? (Julia Kristeva, that’s who. But not in a way that’s of any use to those of us still scraping out stained underpants.)

Yet such things are not going anywhere. There will always be vomit and shit, just as long as there are human beings with bodies, and we will always need people who are willing to muck in on behalf of others. Indeed, we will need them more than ever; an ageing population and brutal cuts to health and social care funds will leave families having to make up the shortfall in care work and it is likely to be women who have to work the hardest, regardless of whether or not their own needs are met.

Most unpaid care workers are female, with the burden falling most heavily on women between the ages of 50 and 65. Still, it’s not our favourite feminist issue, and it’s easy to understand why. Like everyone else, I’d much rather be thinking about my own complex identity, metaphorically fluid, rather than dirt, age and death. It’s only the ceaseless march of time – bringing with it small children, sick relatives, ageing parents, the decreasing reliability of my own flesh and blood – that is forcing me to engage with these less appealing forms of fluidity (that, and the constant odour of stale milk).

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? Katrine Marçal describes how “woman has been assigned the task of caring for others, not of maximising her own gain. Society has told her she cannot be rational because childbirth and menstruation tie her to the body, and the body has been identified as the opposite of reason.” One of the ways in which feminism has responded to this has been, not by challenging this arbitrary division of mind and body, but by rushing to prove that women, too, can be on the side of the mind. Or at least some of us can, but certainly not all, otherwise who would clear up afterwards? It’s not a question we like to answer (hence we now have men such as David Aaranovich expressing bafflement at the very existence of “the divide between men and women,” then turning to biology and philosophy, never stopping to think that actually, it’s more to do with the sex of the person who’s changing nappies and cleaning floors).

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The trouble is, bodily mess hasn’t stopped and won’t ever stop coming. And I think part of the current splintering in feminism is between those who see this as universal and inevitable, to be experienced by all, and those who don’t. Liberal feminism’s fear of the body is perhaps the best illustration of what we mean when we talk about gender as a class system, with some members seeking to evade the definitions imposed on others. There is a tendency to look down on the woman in the gutter, up to her elbows in crap. She must, it is reasoned, bring it on herself. She must identify with her fate. It cannot be that in a fair world, we would all be sharing in her work. Thus we end up with liberation as social mobility, allowing a select few to better themselves, moving up from the carer class, while material conditions for the rest of us either stay the same or worsen.

I am tired of a feminism which is so reluctant to get its hands dirty. The ultimate goal of our politics cannot be to make us pristine, intellectually pure, relieved of the dragging weight of our own and other people’s physical selves. We will never replace the behind the scenes grunt work women have undertaken for millennia with the disembodied immortality for which gender-as-religion strives. Instead, we need a feminism that digs deep, interrogating what women’s bodies and women’s social roles mean in terms of how we are born, live and die. Right now we are not even scratching the surface, so terrified are we of the mess that lies beneath.

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