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Feminism and the working class mother

This is a cross post by Peter Bracken

Feminist politics issue from a continuously evolving dialogue with wider society about women’s rights, freedom, and autonomy.

The dialogue is founded upon a grievance – namely the preferential treatment that society affords men. It has transformed social relations. The vote, equal access to the professions, abortion on demand, maternity rights, child benefit, affordable childcare – each and all have advanced the status of women.

But especially the status of working class women. Poverty accents injustice. Thus, whilst child care provision might satisfy the right of choice for a middle class mother, it targets more tellingly the need of her poorer sister. Today, this need is more acute than ever. Knowledge economies privilege the specialist and the skilled but barely support the living standards of manual workers, among whom double income families are becoming a necessary norm.

One might even claim that working class households have been true the beneficiaries of feminism. Its efforts over the years to advance the cause of equal pay, equal opportunities, better childcare provision, abortion rights and more besides have helped sustain low income partnerships shackled willingly to an endeavour that is both great and parochial: the family.

But progress has come at a cost. Working class families adhere to role delineations that are stronger than their middle class counterparts. That’s partly to do with culture, of course, such that even if the breadwinner is the woman of the household, she still bears primary responsibility for domestic chores. But the role is also predictable given the innate predilection for behaviours that – to the chagrin of some feminist ideologues – remorselessly differentiate the sexes. The upshot is that advances in the equality agenda have in some ways denied working class women their preferred choice because financial constraints have replaced choice with need.

The irony, of course, is that feminism intended to be a liberating movement, not a restriction on women’s life choices. This, in part, explains the recent trend among some within its ranks to argue that roles are wholly cultural constructions, and that equality will not be realised until male-female roles are seamlessly interchangeable. They go further and reason that, the preferences of women notwithstanding, those that meekly accept their subjection to role expectations are party to the very oppression feminism exists to repel. Adrienne Rich has even argued that a woman who engages in heterosexual sex is complicit in the patriarchy that oppresses the sisterhood. And in extremis, gender feminism concludes that because the family is the basis of women’s oppression it should be replaced by professional, collective care.

It’s a ruinous red herring. The cul de sac of gender politics detracts from the central efforts of feminism to ensure that domestic roles jettison their subordinate status, that families are provided with the kind of support that enables choice and, specifically, that raising children avoids the income trap that affects working class households above all others. The aim of feminism, in short, should be to recapture the dignity of roles, not to abolish them.

Parenting is not intrinsically oppressive. But it is disadvantaging. Thus, the target of reform should be the disadvantage, not the role. And since men today are willing househusbands, feminism should embrace them, too. For feminism is not about the rights of women in isolation; it’s about attaching equal weight to the social dimensions of partnerships in whatever form they take.

Assuming that men and women will go on wanting and nurturing children, the radical way forward remains as clear as it always has: to salary primary carers. At a stroke this would attribute value to child rearing, elevate the status of the role and – crucially – improve the life chances of children in poverty. Of course, the cost of such an initiative would be enormous, which is why its pale alternative in the form of child benefit prevails. But feminism should pursue stretching, material goals that transform lives, not objectives that satisfy outlandish fads, which is what the androgynous society some extreme feminists call for amounts to.

For starters, it should have more to say about the taxation mindset that can’t escape the fetish with pre-tax income. Martin O’Neill has recently outlined the rationale whereby “tax justice dissolves into the broader question of overall social justice.” As he says:

The question to ask is not whether the “tax burden” is fairly spread, but whether the full set of economic and political institutions within a society leaves nobody unjustifiably badly off.

This consciousness-raising insight deserves the widest audience. It is aspirational, progressive and – in the longer term – perhaps incrementally achievable. It could also precisely target the grit that still retards the feminist cog: the Cinderella status of motherhood.

Not that women aspire to be princesses. Just to the dignity that should attach to being a parent and a working class mother especially, for no one needs it more than she.

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