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.

On sexed bodies and mind over matter

As activists campaign to cancel Britain’s best-loved children’s author for stating her belief that biological sex exists, transgender rights has become one of today’s most toxic cultural flashpoints. Even most cautious approach to the topic feels like walking on eggshells.  

My own journey on the subject has taken me some distance from my 00s social life, that for a while revolved around the (then embryonic) London female-to-male trans ‘scene’. There, I explored my own gender identity and presentation, while evangelising queer theory to all and sundry. But as time went on I felt a growing disquiet at the direction the movement was taking.

Back then, transgender identities felt like a progressive challenge to restrictive sex roles. But as such identities have become more mainstream, and normative sex roles ever less relevant to how we work and live our lives in the modern world, it has increasingly felt to me like the cutting edge of the movement is morphing into something less liberatory than hubristic: a radical assertion of the primacy of mind over matter.

Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Sex roles (commonly referred to as ‘gender’) can’t be wholly separated from biological sex. In asserting that sex roles have no relationship to sex, but are in fact free-floating identities, the trans movement in effect declares that sex is unimportant. Some even question its objective existence.  Thus severed from any material grounding, the social roles ‘man’ or ‘woman’ become costumes or attitudes, no more objectively definable than (say) ‘goth’.

This can feel liberating to those who find the social norms associated with the sexes uncomfortable. But for females in particular, biological sex is far from a trivial detail.

I still remember the first time my brother defeated me in an arm wrestle, when I was 10 and he was 12. I was furious that something as unasked-for as a biological difference between us had now permanently rendered us unequal in a playfight, where previously we’d been evenly matched.

On a more serious note, crime and violence are sexed: males commit some 96% of all murders, 99% of all sex crimes and 100% of all rapes (because you need a penis to rape). Meanwhile females are less physically strong, and our anatomy and reproductive capacity makes us vulnerable to assault, rape and the many risks associated with pregnancy.

Inner identity does nothing to mitigate the threats women face due to being female. It’s physiological femaleness that marks girls out for FGM; physiological femaleness that gets women kidnapped for bride trafficking into China; physiological femaleness that got 14-year-old Rose Kalemba raped at knifepoint to create a porn video monetised by PornHub for years while she was still at school.

Even if we pretend it isn’t there, or is subordinate to our identities, the sexed nature of our bodies continue to exist and shape women’s interactions. So a movement that asserts the absolute primacy of mind over matter, identity over biological sex, is bound to feel jarring to women – because experience tells us it’s not true. And claiming it is disadvantages us at a fundamental level: if we’re all just free-floating minds, women no longer have any basis for talking about the ways our bodies make us vulnerable.

This of course doesn’t mean that we’re nothing but the sum of our biology. Humans are thinking, feeling, social and visionary creatures as much as we are evolved animals. All these aspects of us exist in tension.

Acknowledging the role of our bodies in shaping who and what we are as humans isn’t to reduce humans to the status of mere flesh. Nor is it a claim, as some activists suggest, that male and female humans alike should stuff our personalities into narrow masculine or feminine boxes to match our physiology.

Rather, it’s a recognition that the human condition is a mess of competing urges, aims and longings, and sometimes we can’t have what we want. Sometimes the world outside us refuses to be reshaped according to our innermost desires. That this is true is more distressing for some than others, but it’s still true.

For that subset of people who experience an inner identity that feels at odds with their physiology, that tension between psychic and embodied reality is painfully acute. We should meet this obvious distress with compassion and courtesy, not stigma or discrimination. We should as a society shield transgender people from unjust treatment. But that doesn’t mean we must accept the idea that bodies don’t matter.

Stop telling us feminism means making women work more

Figures released recently by the ONS show that 3 in 4 mothers with dependent children are now in work, more than ever before. Second-wave feminism has long treated women’s entry into the workplace as an unalloyed good. The ONS numbers, and the rise in the number of working women, were met in just this way by Claire Cohen at the Telegraph, who writes that this rise is ‘surely good news, but we need to examine what sort of work these women are doing. Have they been forced to cut their hours to care for their children, as one in three women told the ONS they had compared with just one in 20 men?’

Cohen’s turn of phrase suggests millions of women chased weeping from rewarding careers into resentful servitude wiping bottoms and scrubbing doorsteps. Children are presented as a burden, or an obstacle to the more satisfying business of slaving over a hot spreadsheet. The ONS report is more circumspect, observing rather more neutrally: “Almost 3 in 10 mothers (28.5%) with a child aged 14 years and under said they had reduced their working hours because of childcare reasons. This compared with 1 in 20 fathers (4.8%).” So are women, as Cohen puts it, really being ‘forced’ by the inconvenient demands of dependent children to crush their career aspirations under the burden of school pickups and bottom-wiping?

Back in 2001, sociologist Catherine Hakim presented a multidisciplinary approach to understanding women’s divergent work-related choices in the 21st century: ‘preference theory’. She showed how five transformations have coincided to give the majority of women in advanced liberal economies more choice about their lives than ever before: contraception, equal opportunities, the expansion of white-collar work, the creation of jobs for secondary earners and a general increase in the importance of individual choice within liberalism.

Hakim argues that in the context of these transformations, women’s greater freedom is expressed in three main preference clusters: home-centred, work-centred or adaptive. In other words, given the choice, around 20% of women will choose a home-centred life, 20% of women will choose a work-centred one and the rest – the vast majority – will prefer a mix of both.

The ‘adaptive’ group, she suggests, is the most diverse, containing women who want to combine work and family as well as career ‘drifters’ and those who would prefer not to work but are compelled to from economic necessity. As a group they are responsive to social policy, employment policy, equal opportunities legislation, economic cycles and other policy changes governing areas such as school timetables, part-time working, childcare and so on.

Though Hakim’s work on preference theory is nearly two decades old now, Equalities Office statistics released last week support her tripartite breakdown of women’s preferences: nearly two decades after her book was published, around 20% of UK mothers are working full-time, 20% are not working at all and the rest falling somewhere in between.

The Equalities Office sees women’s divergent employment behaviour post-baby as a bad thing, with the introduction full of discussion of the ‘large pay penalties’ experienced by women with children, and the ways in which taking time out to propagate the species is ‘damaging for career progression’. The inference throughout is that women are compelled through the unfortunate demands of motherhood to cramp their soaring career dreams to accommodate the exigencies of dependent children. The report as a whole is full of bright ideas for policy levers that could be applied in one way or another to equalise this post-baby burden between the sexes and equalise the working patterns of mothers and fathers. But if Hakim is right, is it not possible that today’s statistics just reflect the way women prefer to work?

Flexible working, maternity leave, good quality childcare and so on are excellent things and should be celebrated. But so is not feeling pressured by the entire aggregate voice of the policy and media machine to increase our labour force participation at the expense of time with our families. It should not be beyond the capacity of commentators and policy wonks to consider that plenty of us are working about as much as we’d like to, and just consider other things as important as, or more important than work: for example the ability to flex a schedule to nurse a convalescent toddler, rather than chasing her out to the childminder miserable and full of snot. Or (God help me) sewing Halloween costumes. These things matter too, even if no MP can take credit for them and they do not show up in the sainted GDP stats.

Rather than presenting women’s part-time preferences as evidence of the hill feminism still has to climb, or the malign depredations of sexism, those good people at the Equalities Office and elsewhere might turn their minds to ways in which the diverse range of mothers’ work and family priorities could be better supported – including those choosing to work less.

Why liberal feminists don’t care

A society that venerates health, youth and individual autonomy will not much enjoy thinking about birth or death. We are born helpless and need years of care until we reach the happy state of health and autonomy. At the other end of life, the same often applies: the Alzheimer’s Society tells us there are some 850,000 dementia patients in the UK and that this will rise to over a million by 2025 as life expectancy continues to rise.

If we are reluctant to dwell on the reality of human vulnerability at either end of life, we are unwilling to give much thought to its corollary: that (somewhere safely hidden from the more exciting business of being healthy, youthful and autonomous) there must be people caring for those who are unable to do it themselves. Someone is wiping those bottoms.

Traditionally, this job of caring for the very old and the very young has been “women’s work”. To a great extent, it still is: the OECD reports that, worldwide, women do between two and ten times as much caring work as men.

In the UK, this tends in statistics to be framed as “unpaid work”, a sort of poor relation of the economically productive type that happens in workplaces and contributes to GDP.

Carers UK suggests there are around 9 million people caring for others in the UK part or full-time, of whom up to 2.4 million are caring for both adults and their own children. Women carry out the lion’s share of this work: 60% according to the ONS. Full-time students do the least and, unsurprisingly, mothers with babies do the most. Older working women carry the heaviest load of people in employment, with those in the 50-60 bracket being twice as likely as their male counterparts to be carers whether of a vulnerable adult, a partner or a child or grandchild.

Second-wave feminism pushed hard against the pressure women experience to take on this work of caring. Within this variant of liberalism, caring work is routinely framed as a burden that imposes an economic “penalty” while harming the economy by keeping skilled women away from the workplace. The OECD report cited above states: “The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.”

The implication is that, once freed of this obligation, women can then pursue more fulfilling activities in the workplace.

So what does this liberation look like in practice? According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, women in managerial and professional occupations are the least likely to provide care, as are people with degree qualifications. The number working in routine occupations who also donate more than 20 hours a week of care in their own homes is far higher than those in intermediate or professional occupation.

In other words, higher-earning women are to a far greater extent able to outsource the wiping of bottoms to less well-off people, who are themselves typically women: 90% of nurses and care workers are female.

These women are then too busy to wipe the bottoms of their own old and young, who are sent into institutional care. Such institutions are typically staffed by women, often on zero hours contracts, paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly. The liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme.

This is a problem for our liberal society, for two interlocking reasons. Firstly, the replacement of informal family-based care with a paid, institutional variety renders caring impersonal, in a way that invites cruelty. Indeed, cases of care home abuse are well documented – see herehere or here – and the number is rising: the CQC received more than 67,500 in 2018, an increase of 82 per cent over the already too high 2014 figure of 37,060.

It is difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Caring for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated is emotionally testing even when we love those we care for. An exhausted worker on a zero-hours contract, paid the minimum wage to perform more home visits than she can manage in the allotted day, is unlikely to have a great store of patience to begin with, let alone when faced with a refractory “client”. The entire system militates against kindness.

Secondly, and relatedly, it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.

When caring is treated as “unpaid work” and we are encouraged to outsource it in favour of employment, no one of adult working age has time for voluntary civil society activities any more. If the number of people caring informally for relatives is waning, replaced by institutional care, so is voluntarism: between 2005 and 2015 alone there was a 15% drop in the number of hours donated (ONS).

The result is loneliness. Almost 2.5m people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK, almost a million more than two decades ago. Around 2.2 million people over 75 live alone, some 430,000 more than in 1996. In 2017, the Cox Commission on loneliness described it as “a giant evil of our time”, stating that a profound weakening of social connections across society has triggered an “epidemic” of loneliness that is having a direct impact on our health.

Several generations into our great experiment in reframing caring as a burden, we are beginning to count the cost of replacing mutual societal obligations with individual self-fulfilment: an epidemic of loneliness, abuse of the elderly and disabled in care homes, substandard childcare. A society liberated from caring obligations is, with hindsight, a society liberated from much that was critically under-valued.

What is the alternative? Some would prefer a more communitarian approach to caring for the old and the young. Giles Fraser recently wrote on this site that caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of their offspring:

“Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. […] Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.”

These are strong words and there is much to agree with, but the barest glance at the statistics shows that in practice what that means is “women have a responsibility to look after their parents”.

If we are to count the costs of liberating society from mutual caring obligations, we must also count the benefits, as well as who enjoyed them. Society once encouraged men to seek worldly success, underpinned by the imposition of an often-suffocating domestic servitude on women.

Liberalism blew this out of the water by declaring that in fact both sexes were entitled to seek some form of worldly activity and fulfilment. It is not enough to point to negative side effects of this change and say: “Someone needs to be resuming these mutual caring obligations or society will disintegrate.”

To women well-accustomed to the widespread tacit assumption that it is they who will pick up those underpants, wash up that saucepan, pack that schoolbag and so on, this sounds a lot like a stalking-horse for reversal of societal changes that, on balance, most of us greatly appreciate. In truth no one, whether liberal or post-liberal, wants to confront the enormous elephant that liberal feminism left in society’s sitting room: the question of who cares. Who, now that we are all self-actualising, is going to wipe those bottoms? There are no easy answers.

This article first published in Unherd

Miserable babies in industrial childcare

THE Times reports that a chain of nurseries has invested in ‘frustration toys’ for children prone to biting. The Tops Day Nurseries operations director said: ‘The children learn that if they get the sudden desire to bite they can select a teething toy or similar to bite on to release the urge.’

With more than three-quarters of UK mothers of dependent children in work, non-maternal childcare is overwhelmingly the norm for young children in this country, and it makes its impact, at a mass scale, on their development.

Decades of research show that maternal attachment – meaning the strength and security of the bond between mother and young child – is of crucial importance in laying the foundations for psychological wellbeing in later life. We have known since 1997 that children spending more than ten hours a week in poor quality childcare are at increased risk of for unhappiness and insecurity.

That children left in ‘industrial’ childcare settings (however committed individual staff may be) are likely to be less secure than those cared for by a loving mother at home will not come as a shock to readers of The Conservative Woman. What is disturbing is the rising prevalence of nursery behaviour indicating infants’ frustration and unhappiness. It suggests an epidemic of infant misery across the country as barely-verbal preschoolers shuttle between screen time at home as their overworked parents scrabble to complete domestic chores around full-time jobs, and sometimes chaotic nursery settings which function less as caring environments for development than holding facilities for children whose parents cannot afford to look after them themselves.

Stones would weep for these poor babies. For their mothers as well: I know too many women who spent weeks in a state of bereavement, sobbing in the office loos on returning to work after maternity leave. Eventually, those mothers became accustomed to suppressing the visceral desire to be physically close to their baby (for a 12-month-old is still a baby). Presumably their babies adjust – at whatever cost – as well. But for the most part, these sobbing mothers are returning not to fulfilling careers but to mundane jobs. They have little choice: the alternative is not staying at home with their baby but having their home repossessed.

The conservative stance on these matters has for some time been to see the problem in terms of women’s needs (not babies’ needs) and their assumed desire and priority for fulfilment via the workplace.

Now too much screen time and the pressures on working parents, which means they are not spending time talking to their children, are blamed for the rise in children’s problems communicating. 

Seeing the situation through this lens alone ignores the way public policy, from left and right, has been falling over itself for years to put the entire population – male, female, young and old – under this pressure by driving them out of the home and its purported ‘economic inactivity’ and into GDP-boosting employment instead.

To glance past this and place the blame solely on mothers, as individuals, for the misery of their babies in industrial childcare is at best wilful blindness and at worst a kind of sadism. Where are the voices in our political discourse who are unafraid to stand up for mothers and mothering and say that some things matter more than GDP? That top of the list is family life and especially the needs of young children?

This article was first published in The Conservative Woman