My MatFem Theory Workshop Speech at Nottingham Women’s Conference

Lots of women have asked me for a copy of this, and said it struck a chord, which is v gratifying – thank you all. I hope those who didn’t hear it enjoy it too x EP

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If you want an instant, powerful reminder or realisation of how misogynist our society is, of how sexist men are, and how much internalised sexism women have, become a mother. You will be judged, shamed, criticised, dismissed, sneered at, threatened, rejected, like never before. It’s a common misconception that mothers and feminism don’t mix, and yet, everywhere I turn, in real life or online, where there are mothers, I witness them saying, over and over again: I wasn’t a feminist until I had children, having children made me strengthen my commitment to feminism, having children radicalised my feminism.

Here’s Photographer Alice Proujanksy on capturing women in labour : “We have ideas about what women’s bodies are for and it’s not this. You see a woman naked but her body is performing functions that are intense. Our culture has a weird thing about images of women’s bodies doing this kind of physical work that isn’t young and sexy; birth has elements of struggle, power, transformation and mortality that don’t fit with our ideas about women’s bodies: they’re ok to look at when they’re sexy but when they’re working it’s something else. Birth is uncontrolled and that freaks us out.”

Being a mother has actually got nothing to do with the gender stereotypes we’re all familiar with. It is about strength, resilience, lack of vanity, physicality, sacrifice. Are these gender paradigms usually associated with women? No wonder many women feel they have lost their identity when they become mothers – it’s not only because our society doesn’t value mothers, it’s because we’re unshackled, if we care to be, from what we’ve been told all our lives to be, and that’s scary and painful, however good this news actually is.

Women say that when they get pregnant, they feel like their body belongs to their baby and it feels strange; horrible sometimes. But I believe this – that what happens is that for the first time in their lives, they feel their bodies belonging to THEM. It is no longer defined by male authority. It is doing things that only a woman’s body can do, it is looking like only a woman’s body can look like. It does not exist to please men, to titillate men, to serve men, to do anything for men. Are we free, now, to use our bodies for purely female things, without taking into account the needs, wants, desires, the gaze of men? This feeling is the confrontation of our institutionalisation.

Patriarchy values the making of things, the accumulation of things, inert acquisition and possession. Objectification. Culture is about what men do: their work, their sport, their art, their fucking, their consumption, their power, their fantasies, their stories, their views, their feelings. Patriarchy obliterated the goddess cults, and forced on the world religions where a male is the creator, and thus has all the power, all the control, all the glory. And yet… And yet… Only women truly create. Real, living, fallible, flesh and blood women. Women make human life IN their bodies and OUT OF their bodies. This is not nothing. This is everything. Tell me again why the narrative of our culture says men are the ones who build and make and do?

All this making, all this acquisition, all this denial of female corporeal reality – I’m not the first to think men are envious and resentful of the power of women’s bodies. Men cannot bear life, so they say it is meaningless, that it means nothing. They sound like hungry children seeing another child munching on a biscuit and saying “Biscuits are rubbish anyway, nyaaaah”. From their denial of the mother’s making, active body comes the constant demanding that we shield them from the reality of our bodies: by shaming us about appearance and functions and smells, by telling us that we can only be real and have value through what men approve about our bodies, demanding that we cover ourselves (invisibility) or expose ourselves (objectification), by making us disconnect from our bodies via rape, abuse, harassment and humiliation, and so much more. Patriarchy reduces us to the sum of what our bodies can offer or mean to men – but not as the providers and sustainers of life. That would mean they’d have to admit that women have value, have agency, have power, are real.

Men posit themselves as everything that is real, vital, and alive, yet, taken as a whole, the actions of men as a class throughout history amount to nothing less than a death cult. The things they value and worship and demand that women value and worship too, are all cold, dead things; money, possessions, objects, power, death itself, which require the subjugation, denial and obliteration of others deemed Other and lower. Nearly always women. Patriarchy turns life into a labyrinth of fake gods; cold, uncaring, artificial monoliths designed to halt us at every turn, so we can never get to the truth at the middle of all things: that women are at the centre of life.

One thing all women raising a child with a man can tell you is that there is a huge culture shock when the first baby comes along. A baby takes the focus away from men, and the need for their validation, and even love and physical attention, instead of enshackling yourself to him ever more via childbirth. Take a quick glance at a website like Mumsnet, and you’ll see it groaning under the weight of woman worriedly confessing to not loving their husband or partner as much, now they’ve had a baby, finding him self-obsessed, pathetic, weak, a disappointment, being disgusted that he is being squeamish about the baby’s bodily functions, or breastfeeding, or the unpleasant aftermath of both vaginal and surgical births, exasperated by him expecting loads of attention, maybe sex, often seeming jealous of the baby getting her attention, outraged at him acting like his work, his hobbies, his mates down the pub or gym are more important than the baby, and than her mothering, furious that his life seems to be carrying on much as ever did, whilst hers has changed forever, and yet he’s acting like his superior, when she’s keeping the most important person in her world alive, goddamit.

These are not spiteful misandrists. These are women, oftentimes ones who would never identify as feminist, finding their worlds rocked by the dual realisations that men are trained to be selfish, pathetic, needy, self-obsessed, and immature, and, more importantly, that the world does not revolve around men. At all. Freaking out at realising that they’ve been plugged into The Matrix all along. And this is where men need to Step. The. Fuck. Up. Start with the home.

And what about children? When a child’s whole world is their mother, their mother must be important, valued, supported, respected and loved. They must feel this. They must witness this. They must know this. This must be main truth of their world. That mothers matter. This must be what they understand about life. For if a small child is taught that mother is worthless, that what mother does doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, that it is a demeaning and degrading chore, that he or she is a burden, that being a mother is a negative thing, a humiliation, then how can we expect that child to grow up to feel good about themselves and the world, and more pertinently, how on earth can we expect that child to grow up and respect women?! If their first experience of women teaches them to disrespect women, and just see them as service providers, to feel resentful towards, to feel like they deserve to get things from, to believe that they are to blame , etc., then there is no hope. The male child will be ripe for the misogynist picking, the female child will internalise that negativity and worthlessness about her own sex and potential future as a mother.

None of this is the fault of mothering. Motherhood is glorious, wild, hard, scary, gentle, brutal, noisy, difficult, messy, dirty, ugly, beautiful, boring, hilarious, fatty, bloody, milky, chocolate handprints on walls, glitter and playdoh in the carpet treads. When mothering is a debasement or oppression, it is entirely made so by a system that hates women, starting with the first women: mothers. Patriarchy seeks to quash matriarchy because it is jealous, resentful, left wanting.

We must keep checking how much patriarchy we have unconsciously taken onboard when it comes to thinking about mothers, and mothering. If we look down on mothers and mothering because of patriarchal and capitalist values, we are not being feminists, we are throwing other women under the bus. There are many problems facing mothers, and many problematic issues surrounding mothering in our society, but we must always understand that these problems are not caused by the act of being a mother, by the work of mothering, or by children. They are caused by a patriarchal, misogynist society that denigrates mothers and makes no space for women to mother their children.

Besides, if we do not respect or support motherhood, we do not respect caring in general. Whilst women might choose not to have children, or find, sadly, that they can’t have the biological children they wish for, many women will end up caring for elderly parents, or their partner, through illness, accident or shared old age. And most of us will be cared for by others. Do we want that to be by underpaid, undervalued, overworked & resentful individuals?

Motherhood is routinely seen as a binary of demeaned drudge or beatific, sentimentalised Madonna or Earth Mother. A route to dehumanisation, both. But motherhood is not dehumanising, it is the exact opposite. It makes you an adult. Being a mother is as real as it can get. It is hard fucking work. You do not get to stop, you do not get holidays and hiatuses, there are no sickies to be thrown. You do not even get to go to the toilet on your own, when you have a little one or ones. Every day is Bootcamp, and just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, you find yourself back at square one.

So when people say that mothering is not REAL work, that it’s not hard work, that it’s lazing about, slacking, sponging, being a lady of leisure, just think about what that says not only to mothers, but about how mothers are treated and viewed in this society. About how mothers worldwide are treated and viewed. Because the majority of the world’s women and innumerous girls are mothers – what are we saying about the majority of our class, about the majority of just over half the world’s population if we say they, their work, & their lives, are lazy, are demeaning, are meaningless, are worthless, that, if they are in heterosexual relationships, they are traitors to other women, that they are merely breeders or milchcows,that it doesn’t constitute ‘real’ work, that they are inferior to women who earn money for their work, mothers or not?

This is patriarchy. This is misogyny. This is androcentrism. This is capitalism. This is hate. If you make any of these ideas about women part of your feminism, then you are no feminist.

You do not need to be a mother to be a woman, to be an adult, to be worthy. Maternal feminists are ardently pro-choice. Mothering is not superior to any other work. But we need to respect mothers, to acknowledge and value what they do. The Mother has always been the central archetype of womanhood, throughout all time, throughout every culture. Mothering had always been, or been seen as, women’s essential work. We call our ecosystem Mother Nature. We call our planet Mother Earth. This is not nothing. That is not for nothing. If people do not respect mothers and mothering, they cannot respect women, full stop. They cannot respect the qualities embodied in mothering, particularly caring. They cannot respect other animals or our planet. They cannot respect anything except their false gods of money, power, control, status, acquisition.

Do not presume to feel sorry for mothers or presume that they must want to do other, paid work, other work that YOU think is more important, more worthy, more intelligent, more creative, more fulfilling, more anything. Don’t presume mothers only do it because they have to. Do not presume they rank lower than their partners in the family. Don’t presume that it’s a waste if mothers don’t work for pay. Don’t presume that mothers must want to do ‘something else’. Don’t presume that stay at home mothers aren’t clever enough, hard-working enough, ambitious enough to get ‘real job’. Don’t presume that being a mother means that women aren’t using their brains or are wasting their potential.

As journalist Zoe Williams says, “Motherhood is the point at which your life becomes the whole world’s business. We’ll have achieved equality not when we all agree, but when we can all be as different from one another as men can, without attracting any comment.”

Denigrating women’s ability to bear children is hatred of the female body. It this unique power is not respected, it Others us. We do not have to have children to be a mother, or to honour how amazing the female body is, but we cannot omit mothering when we are talking about how great women are and can be. Women’s liberation does not mean liberating us from what our bodies can do and what so many of us want it to do.

The egg that became me was ready and waiting in my Grandmother. She gave me my son. I gave her immortality though his birth. Mothers are living, breathing time machines! Tell me again how that demeans us… ?! -EP








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