Originally published: 31.05.16
Originally published: 31.05.16
Choice is a complex term, on one hand we feel as though we are independently directing our choices, but on the other our choices, both manipulated and restrained, are to a large extent directing us as women.
Choice is clearly linked to many factors, such as ethnicity, sexuality, class, access to resources etc and this is imperative to acknowledge.
All women however suffer particular manipulation due to patriarchal society which benefits and privileges men.
Feminists over the ages have worked collectively and individually to challenge many misogynistic views and practices.
However people do not always see the ways in which societal institutions or assumptions [still] interfere with their choices and hurt them or hurt the class of people to which they belong.
Read more ‘Choice’ for women remains a loaded term.
When you qualify as a social worker, you have no clue how little actual face to face work you will do.
You imagine yourself supporting vulnerable people & working with them to improve their quality of life.
You start your career, full of enthusiasm and energy. You have all this knowledge bouncing around in your head and you’re desperate to get out there and start making a difference.
Instead, you sit at your computer, repetitively completing assessments and forms and reports and plans.
You review your cases constantly. Have you done everything you were meant to do? Are the child protection plans in place? Are they robust? Have you covered all angles? Are the children safe? Are they SAFE?
Read more The Life Cycle of a Social Worker by @PlanetCath
When I had my four babies my husband and I were both self-employed working mostly from a home office so we had the perfect situation for sharing childcare (bar his frequent trips away). We were both able to spend time with the children while they were little and we could both escape to the office (mutually acknowledged as the easier job).
When I had to go to outside meetings I would take the latest breast-feeding baby along in a sling. I was once in a meeting of all men, my baby was slurping very noisily on the breast and every so often he would pull away startled, causing my breast to spring out still spraying milk. I remember thinking I had to be ten times as professional to get away with that.
So it wasn’t easy but I think I was very lucky to have the flexibility I did. I wanted to spend every minute of the day with my babies at the same time as being desperate to get away from them and have some adult space, stimulation, and a life of my own. I’m sure I’m not the only mother to experience childcare as both the most beautiful rewarding gift in the world AND the most boring tedious drudgery.
Working parents will now have more flexibility in sharing childcare as new government regulation comes into force from April 5th and couples will be able to share 50 weeks of leave (37 of those paid) on top of the mother’s statutory two weeks maternity leave after the birth of a baby. This looks good on paper, it allows for more equality in childcare and more flexibility for couples, but I’m not convinced it will have any real impact on most people’s lives.
I wonder if my daughter, when she grows up, will still be the one having to make the choice between children and a career in a way that my sons won’t. I wonder if she will be the one who stalls mid-career and never reaches her potential while my sons fly higher and still get to have a family.
Because according to the government’s own predictions, only around 5,700 fathers are expected to apply for the new parental leave over the next year. 50% of dads don’t take their full entitlement to statutory paternity leave of two weeks anyway – a figure that rises to 75% of those on low incomes. 40% of new dads with partners who are not in employment won’t even qualify.
Take-up will not be great even amongst couples who are equally committed to sharing child-care as long as the macho work culture we have in the U.K. remains unchallenged. Working life in this country is still heavily skewed towards men who are assumed to have a wife at home looking after everything else. We have the longest working hours in Europe, increasing pressure to do overtime, attend that important meeting scheduled for 7pm, or take part in after-hours networking – and if you don’t do it, someone else will. Asking for shared parental leave in this culture will be seen as a lack of commitment and ambition, and not many men will risk that, no matter how much they want to.
Add to that the low pay for traditional ‘women’s work,’ the socialization of girls to be too nice to push themselves forward in their careers, the gender pay gap (where even female graduates will start out on a lower pay level than their male equivalents) and the British sexist work culture and it’s clear that when couples take a look at the financial implications of which career to risk, all factors are weighed heavily against the mother.
When Sweden and Norway implemented a similar shared parental leave policy back in the Seventies, take-up was very low (7% in Sweden and 4% in Norway). Today, both countries have a ‘use it or lose it’ policy whereby a section of shared leave is ring-fenced for fathers – if they don’t take it nobody can – and the take-up rate is 90% in Norway and 80% in Sweden. Sweden introduced an ‘equality bonus’ tax credit in 2008 to further encourage dads to take parental leave, and the system is underpinned by high levels of wage replacement (in Denmark, Norway and Portugal it’s 100%) whereas U.K. parents get 90% but only up to £138.18 a week.
The other building block in place in these and other countries (France for example) is excellent and affordable (or free) child-care, whereas here in the U.K. child-care is limited, low paid, under-funded and of varying quality.
In 2010 the Fatherhood Institute published an international Fairness in Families Index which placed the U.K. at number nineteen out of twenty-one nations on issues including parental leave, time spent caring for children and the gender pay gap. We are not doing too well.
The new shared parental leave is a step forward, and I’m very happy for the families who will benefit, but the real test will come when the results are assessed. Will a low take-up lead to greater political motivation to take further steps to create a fairer society for our girls, or will the government sit back and take it as evidence that women really would prefer to be at home and men are just not cut out to be child-carers?
Communicating with Kids: I’m a feminist, mother of four and I blog about how we communicate with our children. Very interested in cultural influences and neuroscience.
A few years ago there was a Christmas advert for Boots, which featured two women bumping into each other in the street, laden with bags and notes, sneezing into hankies as they exchanged tales of busy-ness and feckless menfolk home abed with man-flu. I think the message was supposed to be celebratory: wonderful mums, carrying on to make Christmas happen when all around them are slacking off. Thank God Boots is there, with its 3 for 2 selections of mugs and socks and dubious celebrity aftershave to help them out.
It stuck in my mind, though, as a perfect example of how many women do interact with each other. We have these daily fencing matches of words:
“How are you?”
“Oh, fine, you know, busy. You? “
“Oh, manic, you know…”
It’s a contest, although I think often we don’t think of it as such. It’s a subtle, barbed duel of to-do lists and daily chores, competitive references to work and activities and commitments.
We all say we’re too busy, and often we are, but why are we so bloody proud of it? Has having too much to do, being in a constant state of stress and worry and overload come to represent our value to ourselves and others?
It might just be me, it might be a reaction to the “hard-working” rhetoric that abounds at the moment, but I feel an increasing pressure to justify what I do with my time now that I’m not in employment. I reel off voluntary commitments and help lent to friends, cringing as I do so, in a kind of validation of my life. I feel forever on the back foot in conversations with friends who have jobs, even those who have enormous amounts of family support around them. I simultaneously resent the implication that I have endless amounts of free time to do things, even while recognising that I do have more hours at my disposal at present than most.
There are endless articles about de-stressing, about simplifying one’s life. Practising mindfulness, not being subsumed into the overwhelm of our cluttered daily existences. Finding time for oneself, being able to focus on the essentials. Yet when these are possible; when, like now, I do have time to cook from scratch and walk the children to school and spend time during the day writing for no other purpose than my own pleasure, it feels somehow like a cop-out, not a worthwhile end achieved. If I’m not demonstrably busy, then I’m somehow less.
Does it matter? Even I can find few tears for the existential crises of a pampered, privileged woman who has had the luck to choose how to spend this portion of her life. At a broader level, though, I think it does: if we equate a person’s activity with their value, we risk losing sight of all the different contributions that make up our society, all the different ways in which a person can be of worth. That so many people have no choice but to live at a frenetic pace shouldn’t be a badge of honour.
Sat in a pod
Or at a desk
Lying in bed
You scan with your code
And your algorithms of shame
Eyeballing for the sleights
The choice keywords
Juicy tidbits to wave under
The noses of your allies
The allegiances formed
Through shared experiences
And you frighten
Condemn and denounce
These keyboard “aggressors”
You are known to us
From a page backlit
And we are watching you
Looking at your language
Looking for your hate
Avoid these scum
While actively searching them out
Reducing them to sound bites
Privileged and hated
For expressing opinions
For naming their oppression
The banana is one of the most popular and ubiquitous fruits in the world. Walmart sells more of them than any other product. The word “bananas” has entered our language not just to refer to the fruit, but also as a slang word for something crazy or bizarre. In terms of imagery it’s slippery skin has become a comedy staple. Moreover, its phallic shape has given rise to a myriad of sexual connotations. However, the banana is the eunuch of the fruit world being sterile after thousands of years of human interference. Despite being an ongoing hotbed of mirth and eroticism their lack of genetic diversity leaves them highly susceptible to disease, and therefore constantly on the brink of extinction.
Furthermore, the phallic banana is most often placed in the company of women of colour. A dangerous triad of primitivism, imperialism and racism have brought about a long history of associating people of colour and other colonial subjects with primates (think of monkeys often depicted with a banana in hand), and women of colour as highly sexed and deviant. Let us not forget the disturbing recent history of human zoos that haunt the world over in which Africans and Native Americans were held in captivity and placed on public display, often alongside other animals. Consider these racist stereotypes and you unearth a long history of discrimination that has seeped into pop culture.
Of course it must be noted that not all iterations of the banana are racist or even erotic. Some, like Gwen Stefani’s idiomatic use of bananas in “Hollaback Girl” is simply surreal and evades definition. However, the pairing of women of colour and the popular yellow fruit is rarely innocent and usually for the purpose of entertaining and, in some cases, “educating” armchair geographers whose knowledge of other races and cultures is rendered and shaped through biased publications.
In light of this I have compiled a Storify of just a few of the cultural expressions of the banana. These range from the innocent and comedic to the erotic and racist:
Americas Studies: This blog, Américas Studies is the product of an Irish feminist researcher in transatlantic dialogue with the Américas. It is grounded in my current experience as a doctoral candidate with posts about literature, film, feminism, and issues related to academia.
Last Friday, I came home, shouted at my son, and promptly burst into tears. This, for anyone who knows me, is a rarity. But just 40 minutes beforehand, I had felt emotionally destroyed.
As many of my readers know, I am a lone parent. And, as many of my readers know, when I say I’m a lone parent, I mean that I am lucky to have more than three nights away from my son a year. At this current moment in time, I’ve had two nights away from him this year. Two days away from the label of being ‘Mum’, and no-one more.
Yet a mother is not all I am. A frequent writer, a learner, someone who takes every opportunity to read something new, in the hope of gaining knowledge. Someone who returned to college with a two year old child, and further embarked on the first year of a degree. I later left the course due to poor health, something that sadly couldn’t be avoided. I am, as many of you know, a campaigner, a fighter, and someone whom sets their sights on a greater aim.
Yet, as I fall into the category of the long term unemployed, battling to find my way back into work, a large proportion of who I am is erased and minimised. To those who run the work programme, those who see me week in, week out, I am little more than a statistic. Someone they believe hasn’t worked for five years.
My time as a student is erased, due to my inability to complete my degree. My time as a mother is erased, due to my status as being legally unemployed. My time as an activist is erased, and I couldn’t tell you why. Is it because I work to make the world a better place for women? I couldn’t tell you.
Since January this year, I have repeatedly asked for help in improving my CV. To date, none has been received. On Friday, it became apparent that my CV had never been seen before by my advisor, given that, upon asking for help from her, she finally noticed an error on one line. A line I had corrected ten weeks beforehand, when she had asked me to email the CV over. For some reason, my corrected CV was not on file.
When asked of ways to improve my CV, I found my questions dismissed. As I asked for ways to make my CV more appealing, due to the lack of interviews I seemed to be receiving, I was dismissed with a comment about being unable to lie on CVs, as if that was the question I had asked. No advice was given that day. Instead, who I have been for the past five years was replaced with a sign that said ‘unemployed’.
I have asked repeatedly for help in obtaining a basic IT qualification. One that proves my claims of being more than slightly capable of navigating my way around any computer are true. These requests have been greeted with empty promises repeatedly since October, and as I was told last Friday that there were no longer any relevant courses available, another step into work was removed. Details of my work can be verified. The fact I’m self-teaching myself HTML and CSS can, as far as I’m aware, not.
And then came the voluntary position debacle. Some of you will have read my rant on Saturday morning. This was an exchange that had continued to upset me almost eighteen hours later, as the stress prevented me from sleep that night.
It seems that my advisor had intentions of forcing me to take a voluntary position, starting during the summer holidays. As the issue of childcare was raised, I was patronised and told to stop using childcare as a barrier. Not once prior to this, during my entire time on the work programme have I raised the issue of childcare. But when you face an expense you cannot afford as the result of an action you’re expected to undertake, it is reasonable to question how you can afford it. It is not avoiding work if you point out you would have difficulty paying for childcare during school holidays if your income remains at its current level. I have already found myself chastised for bringing my son to an appointment as childcare for the duration of the appointment could not be found. But yet raising genuine concerns about affording the expense of childcare, whilst knowing extra help would be unavailable from tax credits due to the unpaid nature of the work, earned me the threat of sanction and the label of work-shy. It was ignored that I had attended every available interview that I have been offered during my time unemployed. The fact I had childcare planned for had I received any of these jobs was also ignored. And the Work Programme wonders why just 2.7% of the lone parents it ‘helps’ find themselves in sustainable, long term employment.
I could tell you why. It is because, in ignoring the work that parents do in raising their children, in ignoring their requests for help and guidance, and in pretending their achievements no longer exist.
The help I have received in my time at the Work Programme so far has amassed as follows:
No-one enters the benefits system, expecting a job to be handed to them on a plate. What we do expect, however, is to receive the support we need to find our way back into work. And while the achievements and the work people do outside of paid employment, particularly lone parents, goes unrecognised as such, is it any wonder so many people struggle to find themselves leaving benefits behind for good?
The streets in Scotland are full of children in navy blue, black and grey school uniforms trudging or skipping back to school. This week, schools in England and Wales return: with children in school uniforms that are very clearly gendered with lovely pleated skirts for girls and polo shirts for boys. Considering the increased awareness of the harm caused by gendered stereotypes as seen in the campaigns Let Girls be Girls and Let Toys be Toys , why are school uniforms still embraced? Is there really a difference between Lelli Kelli selling sparkly shoes for girls that come with make-up and Clarks selling school shoes for girls that you can’t play sports in, as per their recent advertising campaign?
I’m always perplexed by the obsession with school uniforms and the questionable defence of forcing children to attend school in clothing that are simply not designed to be played in. School uniforms may have worked in the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s when children were forced to sit in rows and learn by rote. Considering the amount of proof there is demonstrating that that is the least effective way of teaching, why on earth are we still obsessed with stuffing children in clothing which simply does not match current theories in childhood education?
Whenever I ask this question, there are two answers that always pop up: that children behave better in uniforms because they respect themselves and the educational environment and that it decreases bullying. I have yet to see evidence that supports either statement.
I have read studies which link increased performance of students in state exams to uniforms, but once you read the research it turns out that uniforms aren’t the only change in the school. Frequently, the implementation of uniforms follows a change in management or the discipline policy. These have actual measurable outcomes. Forcing six-year-olds to wear ties does not. The strictest uniform policy in the world will not compensate for poor management or poor teaching. Kids wearing jeans to a school where the staff and management respect one another and the children will do far better than children in ties in a school where staff are demoralised with poor management.
Many countries do not use school uniforms and have just as much good behaviour, bad behaviour and ‘results’ as schools in the UK. It must be noted that most schools will still have a uniform policy banning offensive t-shirts, non-existent skirts, branded sports clothing and, in certain areas, banning gang colours. You can have a dress code that requires children to be presentable that doesn’t involve cheap nylon pleated skirts or ties.
Let’s be honest here, a lot of school uniforms that are available are of poor quality, made by sweatshop labour and rip easily. It is more cost effective, especially for those on limited incomes, to buy a few pairs of jeans from Tesco or Asda that can be worn throughout the year, than it is to buy uniforms that are “seasonal”. This is without addressing the utter ridiculousness that is the price of school shoes or schools demanding children wear official uniform to gym class. Do children really play football better in shorts with the school logo on?
Another reason given for school uniforms is poverty; the theory being that if all the children are in the same outfit, then children won’t get bullied over clothing. Ten minutes in a school playground will demonstrate just how wrong this theory is. If your school has an expensive uniform available from only one shop, then parents on limited incomes will struggle to pay for it. Kids can also tell the difference between clothes from Tesco’s and clothes from John Lewis even in schools, which have generic cheap uniforms. They can tell the difference between boots bought from Clarks and knock-offs from ShoeZone. If they are bullied for clothing, they are just as likely to be bullied for wearing uniform as they are for wearing Tesco’s brand jeans.
This argument also fails to address the real issue of bullying. Bullies go after the weakest link. If it isn’t uniform, it will be something else. The problem is not that the children are dressed the same or not; the problem is that the school has a culture of bullying which is not being addressed effectively. That’s the definition of a bad school. Pretending that clothes will make it go away is naive and disrespectful to the children who are victimised by bullying. It makes them responsible for being bullied because they aren’t dressed appropriately rather than blaming the bullying on the school environment that allows bullying to continue without intervention.
Bullying is part of the patriarchal structure of our society, which sets up everyone in a hierarchy of importance. It marginalises any child who does not ‘fit’ the mould. In many ways, school uniforms are outward emblems of social control designed to make children ‘others’. If you think of the work which requires uniforms, most are of low status and equally low pay: jobs which are frequently performed by women.
Clothing is the outward signifier of respect: those in power require these to make a clear distinction between those with power who have value and those who have neither. As a society, we are reaping serious social damage due to our lack of respect for our children.
The conformity encouraged by school uniforms is about maintaining hierarchical social control. It is misogynistic as well as classist: setting out a clear difference between those who are important and those who are not important.
Fundamentally, school uniforms only serve to reinforce Patriarchal norms at the expense of our children’s education and their self-respect.
On a recent visit to Stockholm, I was amused to encounter an exhibit in its excellent historical museum titled “The Bäckaskog woman”. This woman’s well preserved remains were excavated in 1943 and were found alongside grave goods such as fish hooks, carving blades and other paraphernalia indicative of a an active life of living off the land through hunting and fishing. The remains were immediately interpreted as those of a man and took pride of place among Sweden’s archaeological exhibits as “The Barum Fisherman”. It was not until 1970 (!) that some enterprising physical anthropologists thought to actually examine the skeleton in detail, whereupon they were staggered to discover that, based on the condition of the skeleton’s pelvis, the Barum ‘man’ had given birth to at least six children in ‘his’ life!
On the face of it, this is a familiar tale of sexist academics and their blinkered view on prehistoric gender roles; in fact I’ve written before about the illogic of most of our assumptions about who made the milestone innovations like the harnessing of fire, plant cultivation, pottery use and so on. But what especially intrigued me about the modern exhibit was that it is now named “The Bäckaskog woman”. Not “The Bäckaskog fisherwoman” or “The Bäckaskog huntress”, just… “Woman”. Even while being restored to her rightful identity, this long dead ancestress of the progressive Swedes is deprofessionalised, her survival activity subsumed and invisibilised within her gender identity. The status of the work this woman had undertaken in order to provide sustenance to herself and her children was lowered from that of a named occupation to the default activity we as a culture have always expected of women, and continue to expect of them today.
Other angles on this phenomenon abound. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt writes of productive versus reproductive labour: speaking of the attitudes to political and intellectual involvement of citizens in the life of ancient Athens, she describes their division of activity into the private and the public. The private sphere contained the activities that were necessary to the sustenance and reproduction of the body. Food production, textile work and sexual services (as well as the provision of offspring both as heirs and as slaves) were tightly enclosed within that realm. It was only the person who could afford not to worry at all about these necessary activities, who was free to assume that they will be performed for him as his right, who could properly speaking be ‘free’ to engage in the (morally and intellectually superior) public activities of law making, philosophy, political debate and art. I’m sure I don’t need to pain you a picture about just how much choice the people relegated to the necessary drudge work of the private realm had in the matter, nor what gender they (if freeborn) exclusively were.
Before Arendt, the German thinker Thorstein Veblen in his seminal essay Conspicuous Consumption (on a side note, if you haven’t read it, it’s currently in print as part of Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, and is some of the most eye-opening 100 little pages I’ve read in a long time) lays out a theory of development of human societies from the earliest (as he sees it) hunter gatherer phase to the modern consumer society. There is much that we would dispute in Veblen’s description of human cultures as existing along a progressive developmental spectrum form the ‘primitive’ to the ‘modern’, but it is of high importance that he describes the gendered division of labour at each stage and provides a useful schema for thinking about how the gradual subjugation of women may have become embedded in human cultures. In particular Veblen distinguishes between what he calls ‘drudgery’ and ‘exploit’: the former, a form of activity or labour that acts on the self, on the bodies of human beings and on the bodies of live organisms with which we coexist in order to support and enable human survival; the latter, a form of activity that acts on the inanimate, inert objects around us in order to extract something – wealth, value, use – which is of no immediate necessity for survival. “[T]he distinction between exploit and drudgery” he writes “is an invidious distinction between employments. Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do not contain this element of exploit … are unworthy, debasing, ignoble”.
Debasing, ignoble, secluded and unseen: these are some of the ideas that underpin our collective understanding of what work becomes when women do it. In practice the logic is circular: women do unworthy work because they are unworthy; work primarily down by women is unworthy because it is done by women. Under this condition it seems only fitting that the activities or employments of women remain hidden, unspoken of, unaccounted for.
Literally unaccounted for, in fact. In her January lecture at the LSE, “The Reproduction of People by Means of People”, Professor Nancy Folbre described what she sees as an accounting problem in modern economics: the fact that we have no means of accounting for the labour (which in economic language we would class as ‘transfers’ once it had been converted to a money value) performed within families, predominantly by women, in order to support the economic activities of the other family members. Feminist readers will be immediately put in mind of the bill for ten years of domestic service in marriage that Myra presented to her cheating husband upon their divorce in Marylin French’s classic The Women’s Room; but more prosaically we can think of a woman’s taking maternity leave and forgoing her full wage for (say) a year as a transfer of her lost wages to both the child she is taking care of and the husband who is not losing his wages in order to care for the child during the same period. Form an accounting point of view, and in a manner which is congenial to our economics obsessed intellectual landscape, child bearing and child rearing can be conceptualised as straightforward transfers of cash from women to men – but in fact our current economic models do not count them at all. They are, to us as a society, invisible.
To what is this rambling jaunt through history and economics tending? To the fact that the invisibility of women’s work is a key stumbling block even within feminism itself, let alone outside of it. I was moved and concerned today to read this piece about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the fact that it is coming under attack these days. Now, any women’s space that is being threatened with annihilation should be of concern to feminists; we have seen, especially in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent austerity policies, many women’s services, women’s book shops, libraries, mother’s groups, as well as refuges, rape crisis centres and homeless shelters disappear or seriously curtail their activities due to lack of funding. This is a trend that should be a worry to us all: our continued safety and the flourishing of our movement cannot be relied upon in the absence of physical places in which to congregate and share our knowledge, our skills and our vision.
What struck me especially about Sara St. Martin Lynne’s essay, though, was the detailed, loving way in which she described the decades of hands-on, feet-wet elbow grease that has gone into sustaining the festival:
[MichFest] is a music festival that has repeatedly forgone corporate sponsors and still manages to provide the nutritious meals that are included in the price of a festival ticket for every single woman who attends. This all-inclusive ticket also entitles every woman on the land to community health care, childcare, emotional support, and workshops. ASL interpreters interpret every set of every single stage at Michfest. Every communal space is wheelchair accessible, made so by women who get on their hands and knees in the blazing sun (or pouring rain) and drive nails into the ground through upside down carpets. Great effort is taken to make sure that every woman on that land knows that she is wanted, that she is welcome and that she is precious among us. It continues to be a place that prioritizes the environment and care for the land that the festival is built on. Every single piece of garbage gets picked up by hand. In the months between festivals there is not a trace of festivity left behind. I almost resisted the urge to contrast this to some of the disgusting messes I have seen in the wake of some of our Dyke Marches and Pride Celebrations, but I will not. We take pride in cleaning up after ourselves. Yes, we have a great time in those woods, but oh how this community has worked and continues to do so. (emphasis mine)
Reading this passage put me in mind of the Occupy camp in Bristol in 2011: women in the kitchen, women laying out furniture, women taking notes, women creating a free coffee corner, women printing flyers. Men? From what I saw, lighting fires and posting YouTube videos of their thoughts, mostly. What thoughts would they have had to post if there had not been women there to make sure that the camp, as a physical thing in the world, was able to exist? And for that, women were raped, ridiculed online and to our faces, sexually harassed, ignored, belittled. Occupy was the Manarchists’ movement – and for that reason, it failed. (Parenthetically, one of the flyer-printing women that year was me, trying to get this very message through their thick skulls)
The theory of intersectionality has brought a lot into feminism in terms of how we conceptualise the lives and oppressions of women who are suffering under more than a single axis of domination. Gender interacts with race, sexuality, health and so on in unpredictable ways, creating specific and individual oppressions for the women positioned at their intersections. What has often been lacking from the intersectional conversation, however, is the issue of class. Clearly poor women experience gender oppression differently than well off women – but apart from the occasional nod in the direction of material poverty, I have rarely seen a strong engagement with the topic of economic class in intersectional writing. Partly this is an issue of the Left: class politics is out, identity politics (in the proper, and by no means pejorative, sense of the word) is in, and mentions of class smack of a Marxist universality that fails to take the relational particularities of colonialism, compulsory heterosexuality, physical ability etc. into account. This is in itself not an always unfair criticism; but it does leave a lacuna where a conversation about work ought by right to be being held.
The feminism of the 1970s and thereabouts is often described as overwhelmingly white and ‘Middle Class’ (almost the only time class comes up in intersectional discourse), its concerns the concerns of affluent women disaffected by being kept out of the most lucrative professions and most senior positions in the corporate hierarchy. As Laurie Penny once said, we talk about maternity leave for professional women, but what about the concerns of their cleaners and nannies? This is of course ahistorical: from the match girls to the Dagenham strikers, gender and labour politics have gone hand in hand throughout the 20th century. It is only now, having rhetorically separated them into non-interlocking realms under the atomising influence of neloliberalism, that we can look back at the seeming failure to explicitly link the two together and criticise it as lacking. In fact, the question would not have computed for your typical 60s radical: labour rights and gender rights were obviously interwoven, starting from Marx and Engels themselves, and onwards through the intellectual tradition of the Left.
If labour in general is invisible on the contemporary Left, then the labour of women is many times more so. As Natalia Cecire writes, “neoliberal exploitation succeeds by ramping up and extending the ways that women have typically been exploited under earlier forms of capitalism”; such is the extent of cooptation of women’s work that it might be harder than ever to see it for what it is – even if it is no longer confined to the inner, hidden spaces in of the home or the nunnery. We don’t have a language in which to praise the sore backs of MichFest volunteers or the long and diligent hours of planning, writing, chairing meeting, washing dishes, baking brownies, painting placards, printing flyers that goes in to the reproduction of the physical thing that is feminist activism. And having no language in which to praise them, we disparage them as frivolous, contemptible, disposable.
In fact the labour of women has always been disposable. In part this is inherent to the nature of reproductive labour, which in the end produces nothing more glamorous than the wastes of the body: mothers are the makers of corpses; farmers are the makers of shit. The hours of painstaking craft invested in a patchwork quilt, a meal, a baby, a music festival, do not ennoble any of these things. Women’s effort is not counted towards the value of women’s productions: the work is of no value in itself. Ignoring or at best denigrating women’s ignoble labour is the economic foundation of patriarchy; and in any case it’s not really work, because we do it as a natural, inescapable outcome of our base natures. Women are ‘caring’. We are ‘multitaskers’. We are ‘better at planning’. We are expected to perform the domestic, social, emotional and bodily labour that enables the current society not as an occupation but as an emanation. Like silkworms excrete silk, women excrete labour; therefore all our work is, literally, crap.
In turning a blind eye to the graft that women put in just to keep the world looking (never mind smelling) tomorrow the same as it does today, we are plugging in to a tradition that goes back millennia; so there is nothing progressive about wantonly destroying the labour of decades in closing down MichFest once and for all. Nothing enlightened in dismissing the diligence and tenacity of women working to safeguard other women form poverty or violence. Without a theory and practice of accounting for, appreciating and foregrounding women’s work, no feminism can be either possible or desirable. We need to start building such a theory, even when talking and thinking about the work of women we disagree with.
Rummaging around my PC looking for an article I thought I’d written, I found something else I started writing several years ago and never quite finished before forgetting about it (that’s what happens when you have two children in nappies. They are now seven and five – tempus fugit). I give you an explanation of what the ‘triple burden’ of motherhood is and why it’s an issue.
The Triple Burden: Bad Behaviour, Broken Heating and a Burgeoning Workload?
I have turned to writing to stave off the tears prickling behind my eyes. For the second time this week I have lost my internet connection, my son is refusing to go to school, I have taken on more work than I can realistically do without losing sanity and jeopardising family relations and to top it off we have no hot water.
Let’s deal with these in turn. The first time I lost my connection to the information superhighway my husband had been digging in the garden close to the Virgin cables. It became apparent that we have lost touch when my computer screen fails to find red pesto on www.sainsburys.com and to cut a long story short we go without the internet (and our Sainsbury’s delivery) from Sunday – Tuesday. I am not impressed but I get over it, look for the silver lining (no pressure to respond to e-mails and no distraction from Twitter) and spend more time with my children. Today I am not prepared to get over it because I have a stack of work I need the internet for and I really can’t face another 2 hour ping-pong phone marathon with an offshore call centre. In short I am ready to weep.
It’s at this point I text my husband to have a small moan. I can see him in his comfy chair at his uncluttered desk getting on with the interesting, clever things he does, totally unaware of my plight. He does not know of the battles with our children this morning. He hasn’t had to coax our son to school; the son who was really, really excited about starting Reception on Tuesday but who now says he doesn’t like all the different teachers (he has two who job-share but now a third has appeared) so doesn’t want to go. And who can blame him when powerful captains of industry won’t entertain job-sharing? Neither has my husband had to drop his daughter at the childminder with tears in her eyes (I know she gets over this very quickly so am not dealing with guilt on that front as well this morning). And my husband certainly hasn’t had to worry about getting dirty school uniform washed or sort out what we’re eating for lunch and dinner.
Then I remember something I read whilst researching my book on working mothers: The Triple Burden – a phrase coined by academics. What I’ve told you about my life is the ‘triple burden’ in action – women earning and doing disproportionately more ‘childcare’ and domestic drudge than her male partner. I don’t claim to handle the triple burden without moaning or occasionally sniping at my husband but I do get on with it as so many women do all across the world every day of the year. To all of you I say, you deserve a medal and if we want to change the world, we need to shape the cultures of the places we work to help men feel able to be active fathers. If you’re curious, read my thoughts on fathers here: Paternity Perspectives – Businesses Benefit from Active Fathers. Whilst you’re at it, you might appreciate this piece on how to ask for a job-share.
Jessica Chivers is the author of Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work! (Hay house, 2011). She is the founder and managing director of The Talent Keeper Specialists (www.talentkeepers.co.uk) and blogs at www.jessicachivers.com (@jesschivers)
There are free maternity comeback workshops available. The next one is Monday 30th June:
The gender wage gap has long been an issue of importance for feminists, and one that consistently finds itself on the UN and government agendas. Despite this, there is a persistent idea among many in mainstream society (mostly men, and some women) that the gender wage gap is simply a myth, that women are paid less on average because of the specific choices that women make in their careers. Everything, they claim, from the industry a woman chooses to establish herself in, to the hours she chooses to work, to her decision to take time off to spend with her children, and so on, leads to lower pay, for reasons, they confidently assure us, that have nothing at all to do with sexism. Now we could delve into, and rebut, these points at length, but in this post, I will focus only on the assertion that the wage gap exists partly because women choose to go into industries that just happen — what a coincidence! — to be lower paid.
So here’s how the argument usually goes. Women, they say, gravitate towards lower-paid industries such as nursing, cleaning, teaching, social work, childcare, customer service or administrative work, while men choose to work in politics, business, science, and other manly, well-paid industries. Those who propagate this idea usually aren’t interested in a solution, since they see no problem, but if asked to provide one, they might suggest that women behave more like men, one aspect of this being to take up careers in male-dominated industries that are more well-paid (and respected, but they seldom say this out loud).
Read more Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value, by @CratesNRibbons