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12 April 2017

If Kate Middleton is secretly using Mumsnet, is she one of us?

Some of the parenting forum discussions have a stressed-out future consort written all over them.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

According to Reveal magazine, the Duchess of Cambridge has a secret Mumsnet account, which she’s been using “to swap parenting stories anonymously with other mothers”. In the words of a Mirror report on the story, “Kate Middleton may live in a palace and be married to the future king, but apparently she’s just like millions of other mums out there, relying on the internet for childcare tips.”

While I’ve often been a lurker on Mumsnet’s chat pages, I can’t say with any certainty whether I’ve encountered the woman whose DS1 is third in line to the throne. True, some of the thread titles have a stressed-out future consort written all over them:  Help me to be productive; Oh FFS, I’ve only gone and bought the same sandals as MiL; AIBU to think we should encourage our daughters to “marry well”; The queen – why doesn’t she wear a hat? But we can’t know for sure that that’s her.

Either way, this news is only the latest in a series of stories purporting to show us how Kate, the mother, is just like the rest of us. “Kate Middleton admits that parenting is hard,” reports Vogue, “even for a princess.” Phew! Forget the enormous, mind-blowing inequality of opportunity faced by a mother on a low income compared to someone who has never had to worry about money at all. She’s still a mum, just like you and me. No matter how rich you are, the shit in that nappy still stinks.

And yes, it’s true that wealth doesn’t protect against tantrums, or childhood illnesses, or the constant fear of inadvertently harming the person you love most. Let’s be honest, though: it does make a lot of things a lot easier. I bet Kate doesn’t spend every weekend desperately trying to do housework despite a toddler’s dogged insistence on “helping”. I bet she doesn’t panic over how to manage an after-school club bill that arrives at the same time as a nursery bill, just as I don’t panic about not being able to feed my kids or take them to a doctor if they fall ill. Motherhood is difficult, but the difficulty is relative.

It’s why I can’t buy the idea that as mums, we’re all in this together. Often I’ve wished we were. Think of all that mothers could achieve, if only we could share a common purpose. Instead we’re distracted by competing loyalties, needs and desires, as are all women, regardless of whether they’ve had children or not. So how can sisterhood, let alone motherhood, mean anything at all? I’m nothing like Kate; most mothers are nothing like me.

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It’s a perennial problem in feminism. Unlike socio-economic class or race, gender is harder to define in class terms because the oppressor is not segregated from the oppressed. We share our food, homes, and beds with them. A working-class woman may justifiably feel she has far more in common with a working-class man than a middle-class woman. A white woman may decide she has nothing to lose by voting for Donald Trump. This can lead to the claim that there is no such thing as a shared experience of womanhood and that, therefore, “woman” is a far more flexible, open category than “black” or “working class”. If we’re not all in it together, is there anything to be in at all?

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If there wasn’t, there would be no political basis for feminism, since there would be no definable group for whom to organise (the “non-men” problem, one might call it). Yet it is clear that male people have, across time, classes and cultures, used a gender hierarchy to extract sexual and reproductive resources from female people. So we do need to organise on behalf of the latter. What makes this difficult is the way in which intersections of race and class define the way in which a woman experiences sex-based oppression. The differences become particularly stark with regard to motherhood. The problem isn’t that not all women become mothers – although most do, and all of us were once gestated in a female body – but that the exploitation of female bodies and labour is highly context-specific.

For instance, certain strands of white, middle-class feminism have focused on reproduction and female bodies only as far as defending a woman’s right to an abortion, with motherhood itself being defined only as a site of oppression. As bell hooks wrote in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, such a focus “alienated masses of women from the movement, especially poor and/or non-white women, who find parenting one of the few interpersonal relationships where they are affirmed and appreciated”. It also ignored the fact that while some women are forced into motherhood, others are denied the opportunity to mother at all. For some women motherhood is celebrated, while for others it is stigmatised. This is not to say that there is no consistency in the way in which women are reduced to reproductive objects, but that what this means in practical terms depends on other factors.

At one end of the spectrum there are poverty-stricken women of colour gestating the embryos of the rich, immigrant nannies sending home money to the children they’ve not seen in years, and entire family lines cut short due to racist forced sterilisations. On the other there is the Duchess of Cambridge, a woman not just permitted to bear and raise her own children, but constitutionally obliged to. All of this is grim, but it is not the same order of grimness for all. I do not envy Kate Middleton the intense pressure of being, in the eyes of a waiting nation, nothing more than a brood mare. I do, however, find it impossible to grant universal applicability to any specific narrative of what is difficult about motherhood for her.

By that I don’t mean she should be silent, nor that no one can really say anything about motherhood on the basis that it is bound to exclude someone. To change the conditions under which all of us mother – or seek to mother, or are defined by not being mothers – requires us not to flee definition, but to define and re-define, in each case ensuring that we understand, as Kimberlé Crenshaw put it, “what difference the difference makes”.

I don’t begrudge the Duchess of Cambridge lurking on Mumsnet, if that’s what she’s been up to. If your DH’s Prince William, your MIL’s Camilla Parker-Bowles and your DH’s gran is the sodding queen, you’re going to need all the help you can get with raising DS1 and DD1. But the work of bringing mothers together is not achieved by shared acronyms alone. For that we need an erosion of hierarchies and privilege altogether.

Over to you, future queen.