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

Censoring motherhood in the name of feminism

The Guardian reports on the first advertisements to fall foul of June’s Advertising Standards Authority rule change on ‘sexist stereotypes’ in advertising. One ad was banned because it depicted a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram. The advertiser claimed that the ad was about ‘adaptation’, and that adjusting to the arrival of a newborn baby is a situation where people must adjust. It was no use. The ASA “concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm”.

Depictions of motherhood, then, are harmful to women, because they are sexist. Really? Hold on a minute. It is also polite received opinion, among the same class of our Progressive Betters who spend their time complaining about sexism in advertising, that mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed. And in this, our Progressive Betters are not thinking their position through. Because unless a mother is willing to spend hours a day hooked up to a milking machine, breastfeeding obliges her to be near her baby. How else are we to be present, boob at the ready, when our infant is hungry?

How are we to make sense of this muddled message? The only reasonable interpretation is that, in truth, our Progressive Betters do want mothers to breastfeed, to be available to our babies. But they want us to do it brim-full of miserable ambivalence. We are to breastfeed while editing science journals, answering emails from the CEO, or possibly skydiving or in space. We are to keep no more than one foot in motherhood at any time, and feed our babies knowing that this can never be a source of pride. Because to commit fully to motherhood as an occupation (even for a few short years) is to show – at best – a lack of imagination and ambition, if not a fully-fledged identification with patriarchal oppression and concomitant hatred of the rest of our sex.

The notion that depictions of motherhood are ‘harmful stereotypes’ is a rejection of the reality that a majority of mothers want to care for their children, generally a great deal more than they want to spend all day staring at spreadsheets, trading stocks or cleaning offices. But it is worse than that: by depicting motherhood as a ‘harmful’ stereotype, this value system encodes in the public sphere the notion that motherhood is a kind of failure.

In these rulings, in the name of social progress, the ASA has institutionalised contempt for traditionally feminine values. Women, it is implied, only throw off our oppression to the extent that we succeed in dissociating ourselves from any of the qualities traditionally (that is to say stereotypically) associated with motherhood. Values such as kindness, patience, empathy, self-sacrifice, placing others’ interests before our own. These values are ‘harmful’ and could (in the words of the ASA) result in women ‘limiting how [they] see themselves and how others see them and the life decisions they take’.

Instead, we should embrace stereotypically masculine virtues: courage, activity, adventurousness, leadership. Never mind that most women want to play the lead role in caring for their children, and that kindness, patience and a willingness to put others first are considerably more useful when dealing with a howling preschooler than two doctorates or experience leading a blue-chip corporation. Or is that just my identification with my own oppression?

Most women do a solid job of combining work interests and caring for children. More power to every single one of us, however we make it work. But it really does not help to be told that half of our useful skill set – which we know perfectly well is useful – is in fact ‘harmful’ and encouraging us to limit ourselves. Has the ASA and the rest of our Progressive Betters considered that those of us who are mothers, and who do not prioritise work above all else, just have a different idea of what constitutes ‘limitation’, and what constitutes success?

Perhaps our Progressive Betters should step back from their attempts at social engineering and think about the message they are actually conveying. Perhaps they might consider that using institutional power to enforce public valorisation only of women performing stereotypically ‘masculine’ activities, and censoring any association of women with stereotypically ‘feminine’ ones, in truth does real women with real children no favours. That they are in fact liberating women from nothing but our confidence that the skills we use in caring for our children are valuable, and that caring is itself valuable. Perhaps then they might see that their efforts to censor any public representation of motherhood, or valorisation of the traits that help mothers succeed, represents not feminist progress but a profound hatred of motherhood: the deepest and most vindictive misogyny of the lot.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman

In defence of an unequal distribution of housework

When I was younger and more idealistic, I started a business with friends. Being (as most twentysomethings are) well-meaning lefties, we thought hierarchy was A Bad Thing. We were determined to do things differently, with a flat structure and no one of us in authority over the others. We believed  that among the group we would self-organise to ensure all tasks were completed in a timely way.

It didn’t work. Things fell through the cracks, resentments built up. And without clear lines of accountability power games began to emerge within the group as hierarchy fought to re-establish itself. Those games culminated in such hostility that it became impossible to work together. The business failed, and in that experiment with egalitarianism I lost more than the venture I’d put heart and soul into: the friendships that had inspired us to start the business never recovered. I came away with little except a hard lesson in the value of hierarchy. Egalitarianism sounds lovely on paper, but to organise a system of any complexity there needs to be someone with an overview and decision-making authority.

This insight is not controversial in the world of business. So why, when it comes to the domestic setting, is egalitarianism still flavour of the month?

In popular feminism, we hear repeatedly that management, monitoring and coordination of domestic matters should be evenly distributed between adults in a relationship. Countless articles rehash the idea; this one is typical. The burden of remembering to buy loo roll, putting things away, packing school bags, knowing when the windows were last cleaned and so on is called ‘the mental load’. This ‘mental load’, we are told, is unthinkingly handed to women by men who simply take the smooth running of domestic matters for granted.

I do not doubt that this is often the case. My argument is with those who tell us that the solution is to redistribute this ‘mental load’ evenly. To illustrate why this is a terrible idea, imagine a small business that has two Managing Directors. They have joint responsibility for approving expenses, liaising with suppliers, paying bills, chasing invoices, remembering to get the paperwork into Companies House. How long do you imagine this situation lasts before one of the MDs is seething with resentment, having found themselves in practice being the one who is keeping track of most of these tasks, reminding the other to do things, picking up things the other has forgotten, and fuming inwardly every time their co-MD preens about their progressive company management method? This, or something very like it, happens in households up and down the country where either both parties are trying to be household MD or both are pretending they don’t need one.

The truth is that the ‘mental load’ (which I prefer to think of as executive oversight of the household) cannot be evenly distributed. Someone has to take ownership. That person can delegate parts of the work, or subcontract to paid helpers, but they cannot delegate the overview: cleaners just clean, they don’t put away, or reorganise storage, or declutter, or deep clean – not without someone managing their work – and there you are again, needing someone with executive oversight. Accounts, schedules, storage, organisation, team politics, hygiene, canteen, transport…. like any other moderately complex system, without planning, goals and direction a household rapidly becomes chaotic. There is no point expecting everyone to ‘just muck in’ and make it all work smoothly with no one person in charge. My twentysomething venture was a painful lesson in how that plays out: things don’t get done, people seethe in silence, relationships deteriorate. In short, it doesn’t work.

This matters. What could be more profoundly important to human happiness, whether individual or societal, than harmonious homes where each person knows which jobs are their responsibility and each does their part? And yet our culture treats a household either as something so simple that it should largely run itself, or else as such lowly work that taking responsibility for it is a mark of shame, suggesting as it does a fundamental inferiority to other members of the household.

Worse still, this denigration has been widely presented in popular media as a feminist view. A movement which was supposed to liberate and uplift women has ended up dismissing the complexity and value of the household MD role – a role that had traditionally been women’s field of expertise – so thoroughly that it vanished from the public conversation altogether until re-invented as that most invidious of impositions, the ‘mental load’. And now that being household MD has been thoroughly denigrated as worthwhile in its own right, and in the teeth of best practice from the management of organisations in any other context, we are expected to believe that the solution to this dire situation is to bring in a co-MD. It is a recipe for misery.

Of course there is no obvious reason why the role of household MD should by necessity be taken by women. If a woman feels she is being tacitly handed that role by her male partner and wishes to demur then by all means do things the other way round. But a home cannot get by without someone taking the role, at least not without incurring discord and disarray.

And if no-one wants to do it? What if both partners feel the role of household MD is beneath them? Is that where we are today? If so, it is that lack of respect for what is in truth vital work, not the unequal division of domestic management and labour as such, which should be the issue addressed by those who wish to advocate for the interests of women and families.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman.