Archive for the tag 'feminism'

Raising children: it’s not rocket science, y’all!

NS July 13th, 2010

After writing about the devaluation of roles traditionally performed by women today over at Fertile Feminism and then reading Potty Mummy’s post about her attitude towards parents before she was one herself, I couldn’t help but smirk when I read this Daily Mail article (I know, I know but @boudledidge linked to it on Twitter) about women choosing housewifery and at-home motherhood over ‘high-flying’ (read: frivolous and/or selfish) careers. Commenter Zoe’s analysis of the differences in difficulty (or lack thereof) of caring for children as compared to office work stunned me with its utter failure to see the numerous similarities between the two. I’m guessing Zoe hasn’t raised any children herself so I’ll break it down for her.

Lets face it looking after a small child isn’t rocket science. It may be trying at times, even a tad monotonous but it’s hardly a stretch for the average graduate [and sitting in a cubicle or office performing monotonous, sometimes-trying tasks IS rocket science?]. Contrast that to the workplace where your performance, commitment and attitude is constantly monitored, measured and managed [you mean the same way that parents, especially mothers, are constantly monitored, criticised and managed by societal expectations, pressures and constraints?]. Tasks and targets are deliberately set to be barely achievable [much like being expected to keep every inch of flesh covered while breastfeeding in public and every toddler tantrum immediately controlled and silenced?], unpaid overtime is expected [both, simultaneously, are a given for at-home parents], salaries are frozen or even cut [divorce and benefits reductions, anyone?] and there is the omnipresent prospect of summary redundancy [30,000 women in the UK lose their jobs every year as a result of their pregnancies; many more lose the potential for pay rises and promotions due to their family commitments, not to mention those who must find a job after the children are in school or have left home]. Not only this but there is the endless efficiency initiatives, budget cuts, head count freezes and vicious office politics [we get parenting advice, studies telling us we're doing x, y and z wrong/not often enough/too much, budget cuts and vicious relationship politics in which we struggle to retain a shred of equality with our partners while performing a traditional role]. Compare this to sitting out the recession looking after little Johnny, who will be at school from the age of four anyway , while somebody else takes the flack and bank-roles your lifestyle [or, you could look at it as the at-home parent bank-rolling her partner by allowing them to avoid paying anyone to care for their children]. Personally I wouldn’t want to be reliant on one person ( call it experience ) so I’ll take my chances in the front line [oh Zoe, Zoe, Zoe; call it experience, but if you think working for The Man night and day puts you on the 'front line' of progressiveness and the cutting edge of modernity, I'm afraid nothing I say will make any difference to you -- you do read and comment on Daily Mail articles, after all].

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some bon bons to eat while I watch daytime television and my children sit silently and obediently at my feet.

Photo credit

What’s missing in the ‘mummy wars’

NS March 29th, 2010

This article appeared in yesterday’s Observer magazine, about the so-called ‘mummy wars’ and why women are so critical of each others’ parenting choices. The journalist, Lucy Cavendish, makes the majority of us out to be guilt-ridden, shame-inducing, competitive bitches who stab each other in the back at any given opportunity in attempts at gross one-upmanship.

Mothers are each other’s nemeses, bickering among ourselves about our own particular style. Parenthood has become a fractured and fractious scene. Working mothers can’t stand stay-at-home mothers; older ones think their younger versions are too overindulgent. Those who choose not to have children are militant about those who end up having four or more. Hothousing mothers with their endless Kumon maths classes look down on the more laid-back ones who think children should do what they want, when they want.

Really? I can honestly say I’ve not seen this exhibited on a large scale. Sure, you get the odd control freak who has her kids enrolled in every class and activity under the sun and who loves to boast about their accomplishments, but I (and most of the other parents I know) just shrug it off as that mother’s particular brand of neurosis; after all, we all have one. Unless one’s self-confidence is so wrecked as to require the constant approval of every parent one comes into contact with, most mums just do the best we can and try to keep our noses out of other people’s business. Yes, there’s the odd twinge that says ‘Gee, am I doing it right?’ but that’s pressure we put on ourselves, not something that other mums made us feel. Can there really be that many women who feel like this?

Consequently, there’s a war out there. You may not see it, it may not kill you, but if you are a woman with children, you’ve had shots fired across your bows. I bet, like me, you’ve been questioned, taken apart, broken down, demoralised and criticised until you feel like crying.

If any ‘shots’ have been fired I either caught them and threw them right back at the offending person  so quickly that the dagger never pierced my armour of indifference or I’ve missed out on this ‘battlefield’ I’m meant to be dodging every day. I hate to break it to you Lucy, but using hunting references and telling us we’ve all been these predators’ prey won’t make it any more true for me. And the war clichés? Yawn. If I see one more bottle being wielded like a weapon by a woman wearing army fatigues, I may be induced to bash the unimaginative and collectively absurd media over the head with a weapon of my own choosing, though I suspect it will hurt a lot more than a rubber nipple would, and leave a much redder mark.

Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet (always held up as some magical portal into the ‘real world’ of parenting) is quoted extensively throughout the article and at one point she says:

“We are all trying to be ‘good mothers’ but sometimes we don’t feel we are doing very well at it. There is not a working mother alive who doesn’t feel pangs of guilt about leaving her children. There are probably very few stay-at-home mothers who don’t feel frustrated sometimes that they are not fulfilling themselves. It’s a culture of ‘having it all’ and yet very few of us can do this, which is why we get defensive about how we are seen as mothers.”

And then later, Lucy writes:

Every time I talk to another mother, they seem to be doing a better job of parenting. Their children play more sports than mine, they are academically more competent, they read books all the time, they are constantly on playdates, they are popular, witty, funny. Their mothers cook food from scratch, have coffee mornings with other mothers, help read in school, enrol them for extra tuition. I do none of this and it makes me feel useless.

At this point I would just like to say: Grow a pair! Stop feeling judged and just live your lives! It’s not that difficult to find judgment in every thing you do if you’re looking for it. Being hypersensitive to these slights and using them to ‘prove’ just how horrid and exclusive the other mummies are while you — dear, poor you! —  innocently attempt to peacefully co-exist with these pieces of work reeks a little of attention-seeking manipulation. Perhaps a big, fancy war in which two types of soldier (those on a mission to seek and destroy, and those there as peacekeepers) battle it out for the top accolade of Perfect Mum is a great way to keep one feeling important, hmm? Perhaps? Have a drink and think about it.

Finally, this nugget of information is imparted to us:

Why do we do this? Why do we criticise each other all the time? As Kate Figes points out: “When it comes to work-life balance, little has changed in 10 years. While the fact that many mothers want and need to continue working may be more accepted and talked about, practical support is thin on the ground. Few families can manage now without both parents earning a living. But it is the mothers who bear the brunt of this stress. Most would not want to have it any other way. They love being mothers to their children. But their expectations are still shaped by stereotypical notions of how ‘good’ mothers ought to behave and they strive to be perfect in both roles (as worker and mother), which in turn takes its toll on their sense of self and well-being.”

What kind of crap reporting is THAT? No follow-up, no further probing, not even a cursory investigation into why it might be that women have all this stress to be so ‘perfect’ and to ‘have it all’; no mention of the children’s fathers, social expectations, traditional gender roles or the capitalistic system that requires two incomes but few accommodations for childrearing. Absolutely no anger that, 40 years after the previous generation fought to get us some basic rights, we are still stuck at an infuriatingly unfulfilling crossroads of Self and Mother, where the only choices go off on divergent paths at right angles to one another instead of following a curve that can change and stretch and grow alongside our lives.

It amazes me, it really does. This is why feminism is not dead and why it can’t be laid aside. Can so many women truly not see how we have been pitted against each other by a patriarchy-constructed and media-peddled diversion that keeps us from paying attention to all of the ways in which the system and society still fail us? Have we been distracted that easily, lured in by breast-or-bottle debates and plastic toys vs. wooden?

We’re at war all right, but not with each other. So take that grenade of criticism you thought you just saw lobbed at the school gate by the mum who parents differently to you and throw it back where it really came from.

A woman’s wish list

NS March 8th, 2010

I’ve been trying to decide what to write today, on International Women’s Day. There are so many issues I could explore, explain, shout about, get angry,  sad and wax lyrical about. But today, I am not in the mood for any of that. All I want to write is what needs to change. So, in no particular order, a few demands I’d like to make of the British government.

Give women absolute rights over their bodies and reproductive choices. This means allowing women as young as 25 to be sterilised if they do not wish to have children; granting no-questions-asked access to safe, inexpensive and immediately available contraception and abortion; and allowing women to birth their babies where, with whom and in whatever manner they see fit.

Require employers to keep and make transparent all records relating to the pay levels of their employees as they relate to skill level, length of employment and educational background. Heavily fine and penalise employers breaking the law by discriminating on the basis of gender or parental status.

Set out directives requiring that, wherever possible, meaningful, part-time and flexible work of all skill levels be made available to all employees, especially those with dependants or caring responsibilities.

Normalise, support and protect breastfeeding as a woman’s prerogative and a baby’s human right.

Produce a Parliament that is representative of the people it governs. If this means all-women, all-racial-minority shortlists, so be it.

Decriminalise the selling of one’s body but make buying another’s illegal and punishable.

Open childcare centres with fully-trained, well-paid staff, longer hours, greater flexibility, more individualised care, more outdoor space, healthier food and less expensive fees. Subsidise, subsidise, subsidise.

Stop blaming victims and demand that perpetrators of rape and domestic violence be held entirely accountable for their actions.

Put news relating to women’s rights, health and lives in the main bit of the paper, not the bloody ‘Lifestyle’ section or in ‘women’s supplements.’

Force anyone printing and distributing images of women, be it in advertising, promotion or media, to disclose when and to what extent said images have been altered.

Take your harmful, war-mongering, mother-blaming, woman-hating, gender-conforming, patriarchal norms and shove it up your collective arses.

Book review: The Equality Illusion

NS March 4th, 2010

This is the first in a run of book reviews I hope to do in the coming months, seeing as I have a backlog of relatively new feminist non-fiction to read. First up is ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard, former campaigns officer for the Fawcett Society, an organisation that campaigns for social and economic justice for women in the UK.

Before I get to the review, I’d just like to make a somewhat-tangential aside about Ms. Banyard’s place of employment. While I know that there are sectors within which unpaid internships are the norm and that non-profits are one of the biggest culprits, I was pretty disheartened when I emailed the Fawcett Society a few months back to eagerly ask how I might assist them with some volunteering of some description. I didn’t mind if it was stuffing envelopes or whatever, I just wanted to get involved with an organisation I’ve always admired and would love to work for some day, when my return to paid employment outside the home is imminent. In reply to my query about volunteering on an occasional basis, I was sent details of an unpaid internship (what other kind is there?) instead. The kicker was that the job would’ve been perfect for me and I would have happily applied right then and there…if it actually paid any money. Travel expenses and £4/day for lunch isn’t going to pay the bills or the childcare though, that’s for sure. When I wrote back to say as much and again asked if there were any more occasional tasks or weekend events I could help with, I was told they “don’t really do that sort of thing.”

Now, the only reason I bring this up is because I think this is a good example of an organisation trying to do good work but putting restrictions on who can actually work for it. I mean, who else but the wealthy or those just out of university and living with their parents, sans any immediate financial responsibilities, could afford to work for three days a week for 3-6 months, completely unpaid? The assumption that those interested in feminist activism can do unpaid internships (especially by an organisation that campaigns for fair wages and equal pay for women!), just comes across as astoundingly arrogant and clueless to the realities most of us face. And the only reason I’m pointing this out is because some of my criticisms of this book are based around this general appearance of excluding some topics in favour of others that may be more sensationalist or controversial but less relevant to the majority of women’s everyday lives in the UK, ones that are affecting their livelihoods and personal lives in deeply-ingrained, meaningful ways. So with that grumble out of the way (and with it having no direct bearing on Banyard because she is not the sum of her employer’s policies, obviously), on to the review.

First off, I will say that my overall impression of the book as a tool to get the general public thinking about ways in which gender inequalities still exist is a fairly good one. If you ever heard someone say “We’ve/you’ve got equality now, what are you complaining about?” or use a term like “post-feminist world,” (has a more laughable phrase ever been uttered, aside from ‘post-racial’?) you could do worse to hand them ‘The Equality Illusion.’ For those unversed in gender issues, this is a good starting place. However, as Jess at The F-Word already pointed out in her review, Banyard is kind of preaching to the ‘yes, we all know this’ choir as far as how already-established feminists are likely to react to it.

The first chapter, on body image, does a pretty good job at dissecting the main issues —  media representations of women,  objectification, gender conformity, beauty standards and the beauty industry and how all of it is damaging to girls and women. The young women she interviews for this portion of the book indeed have heartbreaking tales of shattered self-esteem and distorted views of their bodies, but I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t include much in the way of how we can combat these images in our daily lives, not just by taking on the huge structures perpetuating and capitalising on it, which is a huge task that no one is really sure how to undertake.

One of the most important ways we can help girls (and boys, for that matter) build healthy self-esteems and realistic body expectations is through involved parenting and leading by example. The messages sent by a constantly-dieting mother who is always (only half-jokingly) calling herself a pig can be far more harmful and seep into a child’s subconscious than a parade of billboards with conventionally attractive, airbrushed models on them. Talking to your children about the messages they receive and the images they see can be a very effective tool in keeping their expectations healthy, yet Banyard does little, if anything, to mention empowered parenting as a potentially massive part of the ‘solution,’ as it were.

I have similar complaints about the chapter on education. Overall it’s very good in presenting facts and providing a context in which we can see the gaping inequalities still present in today’s schools, but where are the interviews with parents? What do they think of gendered behaviour, gendered education, the arguments for and against biological and socially-conditioned differences in the way boys and girls think and perform? What are their thoughts and concerns on how gendered education is effecting their kids and if they are counteracting that at home in any way? Speaking to the teachers and to the children themselves is all very well and good, but leaving parents out of the education equation just because they don’t actually attend school with their kids is trying to complete a 24-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 18 of the pieces.

I have similar complaints of the reproductive rights chapter, which deals, unsurprisingly, with teenage/young pregnancy and abortion but not much else. There is no mention of feminist issues relating to pregnancy or birth rights, or of the changing role and consequences of reproduction throughout a woman’s life. Again, the focus seems to be on young(ish) women and those who have chosen not to have children, at least for the time being.

From my corner of the feminist parenting blogosphere, there hasn’t been much hope that this book would be any different from most of the others in really dissecting some of the issues important to mothers, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the ‘Sexism in the City’ chapter to be dedicated almost solely to the injustices and inequalities that women face with regards to work and childcare and the division of domestic labour. The case study she uses to open the chapter is about one woman”s struggle to care for her children and earn enough money to support them. Banyard asks some good questions and raises relevant topics, such as:

Why do so many women have to work below their skill level because those are the only jobs that fit around their caring responsibilities? Why are cleaning and other forms of traditional ‘women’s work’ (like carers and caterers) paid so little — and in particular less than traditional ‘men’s work’ (like plumbers and decorators) that require equivalent levels of skill and effort? Because gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal and women make up nearly half the workforce it is easy to assume that all is now fair and equal. But the near equivalent numbers of women and men in the workplace is where any ‘equality’ ends: 30,000 women are sacked each year in the UK simply for being pregnant, women make up only 12 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors and women are paid on average 22.6 per cent less per hour than men.

She also writes:

When discussing women in the workplace a standard media refrain is to ask whether women can ‘have it all’, i.e. a family and a career. But women have always had to combine work and caring. For many, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, that question is redundant; if they don’t work their family doesn’t eat. The real question is why is it only women who have to choose between a family and maximising their career potential? And, in fact, why should anyone have to choose between these two things at all?

Banyard goes on to talk about discrimination against mothers at work, the belief that women’s careers are curtailed by their ‘choices’, not because the system is set up to favour those without caring responsibilities, and the concept of a ‘sticky floor’ that exists well below the ‘glass ceiling.’ She interviews a charity that supports working parents and talks to working mothers themselves, making a real effort to understand and explain the disparities they face. There were things she didn’t touch on, of course — issues relating specifically to mothering are about more than just combining work and family — but for a feminist book by (from what I gather is) a relatively young, childless woman, I thought it was pretty well done.

Finally, the chapters on violence against women and the sex industry were informative, compelling and passionate. It seems pretty obvious that these issues are the most important to Banyard, and many young feminists, and she/they are doing a great job of speaking out against them. However (didn’t you know that was coming?), I will say that while I am 100% supportive of feminist aims to help women exit prostitution and to combat the pervasive and often-unpleasant sex industry, I can’t help but feel that the intense focus on it can be a bit off-putting to the general public. As Rachel Cooke pointed out in her review in the Guardian:

Mostly, she is preoccupied with finding ways to help women exit prostitution, and while I’m all for that, too, there are 30 million women in Britain, of whom not even a quarter of 1% sell sex for a living. What about the rest of us?

That’s not to say that prostitutes or sex industry workers don’t deserve our help and attention, because they unreservedly do. But if a book about gender inequality is trying to reach out to large swathes of people in one country, many of whom probably don’t identify as feminist in the first place, it needs to be relatable to their lives. Focusing on the sex industry, or female genital mutilation or forced marriages in other parts of the world (for example) can be, rightly or wrongly, seen as directing focus away from the issues that women right here in the UK face, all around them, every day. Portrayals of Western feminists as young, childless, middle-class, white girls who want to save ‘those poor women’ (sex industry workers, African women, child brides, etc..) from themselves may be off base entirely, but the fact is that this is the image they (we) have been saddled with by some. If a book’s aim is to foster greater understanding and enthusiasm for gender issues within a Western framework and amongst the women who inhabit it, I have to wonder if narrowing the focus a little bit and not necessarily worrying about casting the net wide in an effort to be ideologically diverse would actually catch more fish, as it were.

Again, I don’t want to insinuate that international problems or ones affecting a small, specific minority are not our problems or that we should be discouraging others from thinking about and acting upon them, but if Banyard truly wants to inspire ‘grassroots feminism’ (to which she devotes most of her last chapter), she would do well to remain focused on issues a bit closer to home and our hearts and remember that most of us — especially those living with children, or with disabilities, or financial hardships — can’t easily attend meetings and marches, or get online to check out all the latest blogs and conferences, or partake in unpaid internships.

Overall, this is a good ‘primer’ book but its approach is too broad and there’s not enough fire in the belly. We need less theoretical pontificating and more solid ideas for action. Because until we start organising the latter, the former is all we will ever do.

Cross-posted at Fertile Feminism