Opening remarks for Res Publica post-liberal feminism webinar

The Motherhood Blind Spot

The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:

Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.

Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.

Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.

All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.

Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.

The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.

The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.

This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.

It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.

But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.

If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.

Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.

In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.

Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.

So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.

The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.

But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.

If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.

It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.

That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.

To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.

My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.

Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.

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