As promised, here is the full transcript of my panel speech (10 mins). Hope it strikes a chord – EP
“One great supposed truth of feminism is that motherhood is oppressive. However, for far too long, this has just been taken as a given, without any real analysis. Motherhood is not oppressive – women are oppressed because they are mothers. Society ensures that mothers are oppressed, and, like all oppressions, ensures that it seems innate, right, justified, and that those suffering that oppression either choose it (so it’s okay) or deserve it. But the current rhetoric in mainstream, neoliberal feminism, with its fixation on individualism & market participation, is that only wage-earning mothers have value, are feminist-approved, and deserving of support or attention. Their message is clear: play by patriarchy’s rules, where mothering has no worth, is boring, unsexy, demeaning, and unappealing to men, and eeeeeverything will be alright. I mean, not for THOSE mothers over there. And there. And there. And all over the world, where the choice to do anything else but be a mother doesn’t really exist. But if you’re going to get anywhere in a hierarchy, there has to be sacrifices. So make sure that doesn’t include YOU.
Feminism veered away from the original aim of the liberation of women from patriarchy into a diluted, distracting fixation with striving for equality. The original second wave focused on domestic issues to valorise mothering, etc., and challenge and dismantle ideas and laws that said they weren’t real work or important.
But then neoliberalism came along. Achieving equality without getting rid of the system that enforces and normalises inequality is pointless and impossible. But mainstream feminism took on more of a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, attitude. For the first time, women were being allowed to experience small tastes of what patriarchy said held value. Note: being allowed. As bell hooks said, “We wanted to transform the system to bring an end to patriarchy and sexism… Most women, especially privileged white women, ceased to even consider revolutionary feminist visions, once they began to gain economic power within the social structure” “Reformist feminism became their route to class mobility… While sexism did not end, they could maximise their freedom within the existing system. And they could count on there being a lower class of exploited subordinated women to do the dirty work they were refusing to do. By accepting and indeed colluding with the subordination of working class and poor women, they… Ally themselves with the existing patriarchy and its concomitant sexism“.
Of course, I’m obviously not saying that work and working for pay is for men only, but that it is designated male by patriarchy, as we all know, and how it exists and operates as a whole is entirely for and about men. Which means that care work is not seen as work at all. If you think being in paid employment makes you better, more important, more whatever, than mothers & carers and that it’s fine to overlook and exclude them, that’s collusion with the injustice and hierarchy of patriarchy and capitalism.
By keeping stay-at-home mothers and other carers in a mental and political private sphere, thus silencing and erasing them, and taking them for granted, you are not only doing exactly what patriarchy does to these women, you are condoning, upholding and actively strengthening that oppression, those stereotypes, those lack of rights, visibility, choice and respect. The public sphere, of course, is designated MALE. The active sphere. The default sphere for ‘real’ humanity. To participate in this value system, motherhood and caring must become pointless, empty, worthless endeavours that are taken as a decision to opt out of Being Real, of being truly adult, and it’s her fault if she doesn’t like or accept her exclusion. In our sparkling new choicey-choice world of the individual, the thinking goes that anyone can opt out of oppression, and if they don’t, then they deserve or want it.
There is no place for women in patriarchy. Mothering makes this painful truth very obvious and thus very unnerving. Women have not really gained any parity in the public sphere. Women are now allowed into the public sphere because it either benefits men in some way, or it doesn’t negatively impact them. That’s the truth. We still absolutely have to abide by rules that remind us that our inclusion isn’t a given, isn’t natural, but a favour bestowed upon us. Women, know your place. You have to accept that you’ll work for less pay at work and then do most or all of the work at home for free, in ways men simply never, or incredibly rarely, do.
Of course many women have to work for pay, and many want to work for pay, and this must be in a system that truly supports them, reflects their lives and needs and properly & fairly rewards their efforts and contributions, but for most women, work is insecure and poorly or unfairly paid, and they are forced to commit to a system as unequal and oppressive as the traditional family, controlling and draining their energy, time and labour. If a system is tainted and toxic on every level, you will not create positive change or destruction of that system by just injecting more and more women into it, adopting more and more of its ways and rules and thinking, and making mothering an irrelevance, an embarrassment, a nuisance, to women. The only way to create real change is to start by radically altering ideas about what constitutes work.
The less mothering women do and are seen to do and the less value they are seen to afford it, the more we are rewarded with being assured we can be full humans now. Women and girls are told constantly that being a mother is the ultimate in brainless compliance with the harmful stereotypes about femaleness and womanhood, from all sides. But being a mother in and of itself is life-changingly powerful. In fact, at the heart of the problem is that this power is doubly denied, in terms of societal refusal to acknowledge it exists and then refusal to give it any outlet, any expression, any value or any real role of influence within society. Being a mother was the first ever job in the world. How mothers and mothering are treated and viewed in a society is the template for how all females in society are treated, and how all women’s work is viewed. If women truly want to ameliorate the lot of women, if they truly want change and equality, and so much more, then you have to START AT THE ROOT. Patriarchy is founded upon the false enforcement of a hierarchy placing women at the bottom because of our reproductive capacities.
Everyone only exists because of their mother. That is everything, not nothing. We owe everything to the people we give least to, think least of, and care least about. Do we really want to be part of a system that condones that? Do we really think that we’ll find true change or rights for women in that system?
What is all this actually saying to our children? When a child’s whole world is their mother, their mother must be important, valued and supported. They must feel this. They must witness this. This must be main truth of their world. That mothers matter. Neoliberal values give our children the message that care doesn’t matter, that mothering isn’t important, is a bore and an insult and an imposition even, however much we love them, and that they, are a hindrance that stop women being real and living real lives, and they teach children that caring, togetherness, community, being part of a whole, all of those innate, essential, human needs, don’t matter.
It is vital that we end the model of a woman being sexually and financially dependent on a man. The family has always been based on the deeply flawed and unjust model of Father as the head of the family; the owner-master of every other family member, the executor of all decisions, the keeper of all the money. Everyone else is dependent on Father, and is to be grateful, dutiful, compliant and silent. Everything must run according to his needs, whims, and desires, and to support everything he does and says. Only he is truly real and human, only he matters, only what he does matters. The patriarchal model of the family oppresses, exploits and dehumanises women and does so deliberately.
And yet neolib feminism doesn’t challenge that, in fact it works on the presumption that the oppressive and unequal family is and always will be the norm, that it is somehow innate even as one might rail against it as unjust and artificial. Escape it or accept it, but don’t try to challenge or change it, could be neoliberalism’s slogan for all oppression.
Our model of family reflects the state: socially, financially, practically and ideologically engineer one class of people to be dependent on another then call that natural, innate inferiority and build every facet of culture, law, governance, etc., around that lie to make that, and only that, possible, and furthermore, capitalise on it by exploiting it as much as possible.
The fact is, our nation, like every other, can only operate because of the exploited unpaid labour of women. All of men’s labour – which is always paid – is only made possible by the exploitation of women somehow. No-one talks about how the unseen labour of women makes men’s mighty macho achievements possible, no-one acknowledges that it is real, hard work. Multitudes, millions of women, unseen, unacknowledged, unrewarded, their efforts denied, dismissed, devalued, mocked, taken for granted, taken as a right, taken for free.
If anything other than love and care was exploited so outrageously – if anything done by men, I mean, obviously – there would be public outrage, hell, there’d be a revolution!
What we need instead is a new model of viewing, understanding, and most importantly, running a family. One based on the TRUTH, that every mother knows: that the primary, and most important, powerful, meaningful and valuable relationship in a family is that between mother and child(ren), and that the mothering is the most important work being undertaken within the family. All the emotional effort, the mental effort, the self-mastery required, the possession and use of an active, doing, making, moving, non-sexual, non-objectified body, and above all, the sheer bloody hard work.
Feminism HAS to start feeling outrage at the exploitation and erasure of mothering work and worth, and start acting on that outrage. Start speaking up and speaking out for mothers. Start understanding that mothering is not some sort of feminist failure, quite the opposite. Do it for your own mother, and the mothers you know. Don’t erase their value, love and labour by thinking they could’ve ‘done better’ than being ‘just’ a mother. Don’t do that. There is no ‘just a mother’. And do it for the mothers you are or might be. To paraphrase Andrea Dworkin, feminism is not just for the women like us or the women we like. It is for all women. And the majority of women are, or will be, mothers.
All of this is why Maternal Feminism is so necessary. Saying that care matters is revolutionary, saying that we do not think wage-earning defines any sense of personal value, worth or status, is revolutionary, saying that we think families, lives, relationships, the very structure of our society have to be turned upside down, is revolutionary. And of course, when we say that, people laugh. Because everyone underestimates mothers.
Well, good. Being underestimated can be powerful, used the right way. They are not looking at the mothers for signs of revolution. But we will bring it. They do not think that we, the bum-wipers, the milk-leakers, the soothers of tears, the washers of uniforms, the holders of frail old hands as last breaths are taken, are worth anything, can achieve anything. We are so many and life can only exist because of what we do, that patriarchy thinks that makes us invisible, that it allows them to make us invisible. And then they can deny us and all our power, full stop.
They will not see us coming. We will take the mother from the private to the public sphere, and we will be heard. A mother’s place is in the revolution!
As Angela Davis famously said, “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change – I’m changing the things I cannot accept”
We create life and we sustain it. We are the powerful ones. Life, and change, start. with. us.”