On Saturday, 2nd July, I spoke at the Matchwomen’s Festival in London. It’s a great event, set up by author, historian and all-round kick-ass feminist shero Louise Raw to honour and celebrate the Matchwomen, the working-class women and girls working for Bryant & May whose solidarity, intelligence, perseverance and organisational skills led to one of the most famous strikes of the C19 (for better, safer working conditions, in 1888), and which played a vital part in the creation of the modern labour movement.
I shared a bill with an amazing array of women: Louise Raw kicked off with explaining the history of the Matchwomen, accompanied by an awe-inspiring mini-film called In Search of The Matchwomen, made by girls at a local comprehensive. The Key Speaker was Shami Chakrabarti, who not only delivered an amazing, rousing speech, but was v friendly and chatted with me and some of our members and eagerly wore the All Mothers Work badge that I offered her (I can die happy!). Freedom Programme ‘graduate’ Nina M spoke next, about her experiences of an abusive marriage, and looked particularly at the way domestic abuse affects Asian women.
Then it was my turn to speak, and what I had to say was very well-received, with one woman in the Q&A section saying that mothers should receive extra wages on top of a universal Basic Income (hear hear!). I also got to lay it on the line to men about pulling their weight and not just being ‘fun dad’, which is always nice. But before the Q&A, Nikki Dancey gave a fantastic presentation on the science of sexism, using hilarious slides to show what nonsense gender is and that discrimination is not just ‘in our minds’.
Next up was Sarah Jackson, who spoke with real passion and humour about the Suffragettes, busting the myth that it was mostly posh white women who made things happen. Bestselling authors Rachel Holmes (‘ Eleanor Marx’) and Sunny Singh (‘Hotel Arcadia’) were next, and it was fascinating to find out more about the hidden stories of mighty women.
I had to go at this point, but I was b sad that I had to miss the rest – Nesta Holden talking about homework and what it means for women, GMB organiser Nadine Houghton on organising women, and Class War’s Liza Mckenzie on fighting back- and getting nicked for it. Comedy from the award-winning Sajeela Kershi rounded the day events off perfectly.
In the evening, attendees were treated to amazing comedy, poetry, performance and music from: Raven Garcia, Gaptooth, Swingerella, Steve White and the Protest Family, The Wimmin’s Institute, and last but not least, Thee Faction.
There were also stalls, food, late bar
and it was a family-friendly event.
It wasn’t women-only but it was a safe space. The men definitely knew their place, ha!
Not only was it an event I was incredibly proud to be part of, I also met old friends again and met some online friends for the first time too – even more wonderful in the flesh, all of them.
So here is the talk I gave. It was 20 minutes long, so get comfy…
I started with introducing myself and All Mothers Work – my mum was a SAHM and political activist and did huge amounts of voluntary work for charities, and that’s what’s always inspired me. Because in my home, it was made very clear to us that my dad earned money to allow my mum to do the work that really mattered – raising children and trying to change the world to make it better for everyone. My views and choices led me to find like-minded women online and in real life, and we named our praxis Maternal Feminism. All this led me to create All Mothers Work in 2014. I also explained what maternal feminism is not; that’s it’s not about saying all women should want or have children, that we think SAHMs are superior, and so on. I then went on to explain that I was going to look at 4 main topics, ending with a quick word about solutions.
“IT’S NOT REAL WORK”
One of the biggest problems in society is the concept that mothering isn’t work. Isn’t real work or that it’s problematic if women choose it. (Which is why I set up AMW, to challenge and change this). The idea that mothers don’t contribute to the economy, and therefore aren’t full members of society, etc. Of course, that’s a horribly androcentric and capitalist way of looking at it, but more importantly, it’s simply not true. As the UN stated only this year that every type of paid labour, every viable economy on Earth only exist and are designed to only be able to exist because of the unpaid caring and domestic labour of women. Ensuring that these are not considered real work is imperative to continue this system.
Points: 1) A 2013 study showed that if a SAHM with 2 children was paid for everything she does in an average week, she should receive £172k p.a.
2) The ONS produced figures earlier this year that revealed that unpaid female caring, domestic and other labour is worth just over £1trillion a year (to put that into perspective, the entire GDP of the EU is just under £17trillion!). If men undertook that much labour for free and it wasn’t even called work, there’d be a revolution! Blood running in the streets!
MatFems call for the implementation of Basic Income which people rail at for 2 reasons: 1) they choose to mother & 2) it’s done out of love, to pay for it cheapens it. Let’s look at the idea that if you choose work & you like it, you shouldn’t be paid. By this logic, only slaves should be paid! The same people who put forward this argument are always outraged if you encounter that by their logic, sportspeople, musicians, actors, artists, neurosurgeons and so on shouldn’t be paid.
Because what their argument REALLY means is: women’s work should be done for free for the benefit of men and by extension, all society (as this a patriarchy). And it also means that ALL work done by women and all work designated ‘feminine’ by gender, is worthless and should be performed purely for the want and need of men and society or to keep them out of society.
It’s not just mothering that is hard work in and of itself, many mothers are involved in all sorts of work and support that is invisible or ignored until one becomes a mother. Suddenly, you see all the work mothers do to support other mothers, particularly when they have newborns, and are at their most vulnerable, stressed, scared, confused and exhausted. Breastfeeding support, sling meets, work for the NCT, baby and toddler groups, classes such as baby massage, businesses set up because there are glaring niches in the market, the unpaid work mothers contribute to their children’s schools and much much more. All of this work, nearly all unpaid or very low paid – it is all entirely to support other women. Vital, even life-saving (certainly in terms of maternal sanity!) work which also creates women-only space, sisterhood and sisterly support, companionship, understanding and community. This is also done online, like the All Mothers Work FB group and many others. Why are these busy services, usually given freely by women to women, so invisible in society? Why are they treated as niche and silly? Why are they dismissed, when they offer women so much? Women, supporting women, in women-only spaces. Is this not feminism?
And yet I know, all the things I’ve listed will have some of you rolling your eyes, either literally or internally. Bo-ring. Not proper work. Not the real world. All just… Mum’s stuff.
But the majority of women are mothers. WHY are these things not real work? WHY are they boring and twee? Why are they unimportant, when they are lifelines to huge numbers of women? What does it say if women have an internalised division in their minds between ‘mothers’ and ‘real woman’?! What does it say if women see the things that mothers do, not just their mothering, but their support for other women, as irrelevant, as not counting, as not having purpose or worth? And beyond that, how come the lives of the majority of women are, in reality, on the periphery of what most people see as society, of culture. Why is women’s work for other women seem not only as not work but an indulgent waste of time?!
Although it seems initially paradoxical, the devaluing of mothering actually strengthens patriarchal and heteronormative models of family, because it turns caring into something that women have to do to keep society turning, with society as a metaphor for the traditional father, whose success, leisure, freedom and pleasure is made possible only through forced or resentful extraction of labour done by those deemed worthless precisely because they do it. And the answer is not to not have children, to not mother, to refuse to do the most vital human thing there is – to care. This might work on an individual basis, but it is simply not practicable, helpful or relevant to most women – because women already have children, women want children, women love their children. Everything else that patriarchy says makes women worthless and lesser, we dispute, we resist, we fight it, we prove it wrong. So why are we so ready and willing to concur about the capacity that defines us as a class and which the majority of us will utilise?
HOW IT AFFECTS ALL WOMEN & THEIR WORK
Make no mistake, treating mothering like it’s not work directly and adversely affects all women – because if we keep saying that it’s not work, and that the only worthy work is paid work, then women in paid employment can also be exploited as much as possible too – we know women in paid employment do all or most of the childcare, housework, other caring and emotional labour once at home.
POINT: The Equal Pay Act was passed over 40 years ago and yet no-one alive today – not even babies born today – will see the gender pay gap close in their working lifetime. Paying for women for any labour is simply not a priority!
The thing is, the devaluing of mothering, of caring will affect nearly every women. Because caring encompasses far more than just maternity. Many women, including many women for whom not having children has been a pivotal personal and political expression, find themselves, at some stage, caring for another or others. Family is not just heteronormative and formed in blood.
And what is going to happen when the retirement age is upped to 70 for women, as the Tories propose? Because we can be sure that it will still be nearly all women who will continue to end up caring for elderly relatives, only in the future, they will be so overstretched, so exhausted, so exploited that they themselves will become the elderly in need of care before they’re legally allowed or able to be! And who will care for THEM, when younger generations have come to see caring as something so pointless & demeaning, which should just be outsourced to an underclass of women that they sure as shit don’t want to be part of.
By not seeing and treating mothering and caring as work, women can be kept out of class analysis of labour. 52% of the world’s population are female and the majority are and will be mothers, meaning that there are almost as many women who are mothers as there are men as a whole, and yet the most common form of work on the planet is omitted from class analysis. Only paid labour performed by women is counted.
We have analyses that rightly and importantly say that no woman should become a mother if she doesn’t want to, and that mothers must have more options to work outside the home if they want or need to, yet any positive analysis of mothers, and the work of mothering, is studiously avoided, rejected, even taken offence at.
HOW WE ARE TAUGHT TO DEVALUE MOTHERING & WHY.
Why is this? The answer that I, and other maternal feminists keep coming back to is that we are trained to have both personal and sociocultural needs to mentally and practically keep mothers as drudges, as an underclass who exist to serve and support us, without requiring thanks or remuneration, without having needs, wants or inner lives of their own, because they are innately servile and masochistic. And then this is how all women get viewed. This is an infant’s view of mummy and it infantilises our thinking on the topic, stopping us being able to think maturely, objectively and effectively, much less to have self-awareness of the internalised misogynist and exploitative filters we are taught to view mothers and mothering by.
Where do we first learn the messages about women’s work? When we hear it about OUR mothers. We hear it on her breast, on her knee, our hand in hers, as everyone, often including her, describes her as ‘just a mum’. ‘Only a mum’. Says that she doesn’t work, doesn’t have a job, that what she does isn’t real work. And so we are taught, in so many ways, in every way, to both take what she does for granted and indeed as a given and to not see it as doing anything at all. And what is our right as a child continues to be seen as our right as adults; to flourish on the back of the unseen toil of mothers.
How have we got to a place where it’s either financially impossible or hellish or a big sacrifice for a mother to look after her own children, where it’s discouraged, where she’s told others can and should do it better, that it’s seen as a luxury and privilege to do so, and that doing it is demeaning, worthless, some kind of threat or treachery to feminism and so on?!
Talking positively about mothers and mothering is made hard for women not just because of the way patriarchy has used it to physically and domestically oppress and exploit women, but to create the lies and stereotypes then used by gender to describe the harmful, artificial construct of femininity which all females are meant to somehow innately possess and express. It can feel wrong, and even anti-feminist for women to speak positively about motherhood because the core of our oppression lies there. But this is so critically and analytically wrong. What a hegemony says about something does not make it true. There is a sense amongst some women that mothers choose their oppression, or, rather, accept the identity that patriarchy places upon them – the use of the offensive label ‘cisgender’ being the prime example of this.
To accept and repeat, without question, the stereotypes of mothers is to uphold the harmful & untrue stereotypes of gender. With neoliberalism, we are taught that only androcentric values and roles matter. And so, we are left with fetishising tropes & clichés of femininity as ‘self-empowerment’ & fun. We are in a bizarre situation where we are told it’s best to let other women raise our children and clean our homes, whilst we are aggressively sold housework & domesticity as leisure time. This is not progressive in the slightest – it is an opportunity being seized upon that is only made possible by the denying that mothering and domestic work are work, by the devaluing of motherhood until people see it as a ‘doss’, for want of a better word.
Of course, men are not having the idea of tidying as a hobby pushed at them. Labour deemed masculine is NEVER packaged as leisure or fun or not real work – on the contrary, masculine tropes of leisure such as sport, are presented as incredibly important and essential. That we live in a society where an ability to kick a ball is seen as superior to keeping small humans alive is absolutely insane. Yet we do not stop to question it.
In the last 6 months, we’ve seen two SAHMs win the most popular cooking contests on British tv – Nadiya Hussein winning Bake Off & Jane Devonshire winning Masterchef. Reactions were predictably patronising – how come these mere mums knew how to cook so well and cope in the real world? When any mother will know that getting most small children to eat healthily and getting tea ready with one toddler insisting you breastfeed a dinosaur and another hellbent on covering the cat in Sudocrem, makes the demands, stress and inventiveness of high end cooking an absolute doddle. Most mums would see going on Masterchef as a relaxing break from trying to get a truculent 2 yr old to try cauliflower.
People were surprised that these women won because we are trained to see mums as not working, as having no skills, no talent, no interests, etc. There is the persistent idea in society that you can’t learn anything being a mother, can’t develop and grow. That it must be an infantilising, humiliating stagnation. This, my friends, is bullshit. Cyril Connelly might have found that the infamous pram in the hallway stifled his creativity, but he was a man, with the luxury of having a woman to deal with that pram anyway. Most mothers find the pram in the hallway galvanising and invigorating. It’s thriving under pressure. Motherhood is about constantly learning new skills, improving old ones and self-mastery – because your child’s life depends on it.
Although I’m so happy that Nadiya & Jane won, I found the idea that many people espoused, no doubt thinking they were being right-on, that their skills were now valid, useful and ‘real’, highly problematic. I fail to see how making a sorrel and elderflower foam for millionaires is more valid than actually keeping human children fed.
The only way it is truly acceptable to be ‘cool’ or feminist nowadays is to be incredibly sneery at motherhood, even if you yourself are a mother. It’s something we are expected to be apologetic for, desperate to escape, scornful of, full of passive aggressively-amusing stories only ever about how awful it is. How much more fun and important it is to be in paid employment. It becomes routine for mothers who speak positively about being a mother to be treated like traitors who are smugly trying to guilt-trip other mothers, or deluded, pathetic ninnies, or boring, regressive throwbacks. Women can get amazingly aggressive and offended if anyone speaks positively about motherhood. We rush to defend hating it and seeing it as belittling and horrible far quicker than we ever rush to defend it and talk about how wonderful it is.
We think this is freeing us from regressive ideas, especially the idea of us as servile and masochistic. Yet this constant fixation with and demand that we only talk about mothering as awful, upholds that idea far more than the “Yummy Mummy” trope. Who are we trying to impress with it all? It’s certainly not making us happy. It is absolutely a variation on the whole “I’m not like those other girls” way we try to make ourselves look cool, real, and valid and acceptable, by rejecting what society calls icky and crap about being female.
Mothering can be bloody awful at times, yes, and inevitably will be. But what job is a non-stop whirl of constant thrills and fulfilment undertaken with for people who exalt you as a radiant hero at all times?! We can, and must, talk about it being hard, annoying, thankless, dull, etc., and why, but we must have not only a realistic, proactive analysis of why this is but also realistic expectations of it too. For expecting it to be somehow endless joy and fulfilment is also falling for patriarchal lies about motherhood, those that say that it is the only fulfilment women need, want and are allowed. And we can start to make change by understanding mothering as WORK.
CARE AND UNITY.
The way mothering now works in our society is a classist issue because it’s modelled on the parenting culture of the elite of centuries past: from birth, rich and aristocratic mothers were expected to hand their children to other, poorer women to raise, and only see them for a short period at night. Bonding was seen as not only unnecessary but a weakness, a flaw, a danger. In reward for complying with these rules, mothers could enter society. Society meaning the world of rich white men.
Meanwhile, ordinary women were seen as barely more than animals for raising their own offspring, their children seen as a drain on the country until they could be put to work. Mothering was seen as a ghastly, unfortunate, belittling and dehumanising business best left to the female dregs of society whom god had ordained lowly enough to thanklessly toil as brood mares and drudges.
And we are still unwittingly perpetuating a social construct of a separated and divisive binary of public and private sphere, making mothers and carers the invisible underclass ‘downstairs’. This was not what feminism intended in its rightful demand for work equality, but without liberation from patriarchy, that’s what we’ve ended up with.
Insisting that the solution is for all women, all mothers to be in paid employment, is no equality or liberation. And if you think it is, why the resistance, which aligns itself with patriarchy, to name mothering as work and remunerate women for it?!
The devaluing of care is being led in this country by millionaires brought up with privilege, entitlement and wealth that most of us can’t even begin to imagine, but with a dearth of care, a lack of attachment, in an environment where care and thought for others was discouraged and punished. The Tories are absolutely an anti-woman party, and nowhere is this seen more clearly in the way their cuts have affected women, and mothers in particular. Women have shouldered over 80% of all the effects of austerity measures. The cuts have affected domestic abuse shelters & rape crisis centres to the point where they’re at the same levels of funding and availability as 40 years ago – when rape in marriage was still legal. The majority users of these services are mothers. There have been cuts to midwifery services, to breastfeeding support, and more. Under the new pension rules, 100, 000 women aged 56-64 will now receive zero pension because they were SAHMs. These things are not coincidental, they are deliberate policies to ensure that our patriarchal, capitalist, racist society can have a legitimate underclass of exploited female labourers, particularly women from BME backgrounds, and to penalise women who don’t comply, by making things as difficult as possible, with as little respect, interest or support from others as possible.
When we understand the danger of devaluing care, we can see the bigger picture. Every social problem we have, when you boil it down to essentials, is because of the devaluing of care and unity. The devaluing of care is an absolute crisis reaching into every aspect of society and culture and threaten and adversely affects us all.
The two essential truths of mothering are care and unity. Where do we all first experience care and unity? At home, within our family, no matter the size or structure. You denigrate care and unity in the home, you can roll out that denigration to every aspect of care and unity in society and culture. We only have to look at the nightmare of the referendum, which was sold to an unhappy populace on what also boils down to a lack of care and unity; racism, insularity, and so on.
Care and unity are not static, silly, servile, docile, submissive traits, but active, powerful, mature, meaningful characteristics that are essential to all human life.
When children cannot bond, it creates personality issues. When society rejects mothering, it creates problems in every area.
Gender designates care and unity as feminine, which is why our society not only exploits women, but denigrates care and unity for specific political ends. But care and unity, family and community, should be the priority for EVERYONE. This is not just a women’s issue, it’s an issue for everyone – and, like all things deemed ‘women’s issues’, the people who are causing the problems and need to change most, are men.
END – SOLUTIONS.
What can we do to combat all this?
Practically, support Basic Income, support the rights of mothers. Maybe get involved with AMW or other groups.
Our work culture actually suits very few people save the privileged white men for whom it is designed to benefit. We know we have a system where the rich get rich precisely because the poor get poorer. What we need to recognise is that that system is modelled on how mothers are oppressed. How we are treated, how we are made to live our lives. Everyone else progresses and profits on the back of mothers doing and doing and doing. Our work culture should instead be based around the essential principle of family. And not just the patriarchal, heteronormative model of father & mother & 2.5 children. Not necessarily blood ties. A culture that understands, respects and prioritises the value of care, support, community, mutuality, reciprocity, etc. A culture that reflects what really matters – family. And a culture that reflects the wonderful variety of what family can be. Is.
If people know they will not be penalised, judged negatively, be looked down on, be treated as selfish by others for also having caring work they need and want to do because their places of employment will be structured to facilitate this and not burden others with extra work, and if we received Basic Income to respect people, acknowledge the labour they do outside of a traditional workplace and destigmatise benefits, we would be far more productive, in all aspects of our lives. Remove shame, stress, guilt, inequality, etc., and you boost mood, equilibrium, self-esteem, motivation, altruism, commitment & productivity. We know this. It’s not a strange or impossible undertaking. It’s what happens when we simply respect others sufficiently.
So much needs to change, from personal beliefs and values, to our entire work culture, to law, to societal norms. So I hope this sparks the start of change, has got you thinking, has galvanised you into doing things differently – and into striking the phrase ‘just a mother’ from your vocabulary forever. Thank you! – EP