Feminism and the terrifying dependency of children

For Australian women of my generation, many issues of structural gender inequality can seem far removed from their daily experiences and, thus, difficult to relate to. Many civil rights, which were only recently (and only partially) achieved, are easily taken for granted when you have grown up assuming access to them. For this reason, it is not uncommon for women to feel shocked when confronted the ongoing reality of structural inequality when they become mothers and they suddenly find themselves falling into gendered roles and suffering from gendered disadvantage as a result. Given this fact, it is a shame that the dominant form of feminism in Australia – liberal feminism – does not deal particularly well with the structural inequalities faced by mothers.

Liberal feminism has failed to adequately respond to the realities of motherhood, because it has primarily focused on helping women to overcome their historic status as second-class citizens by becoming independent. This vision of equality has led to the struggle for a range of positive measures for women, including:

  • the rights to education, to work and to receive equal pay;
  • the right own property;
  • the right to participate in public life by voting and running for political office; and
  • the right to bodily autonomy, including the right to refuse to consent to sex and to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

All of these rights are important prerequisites to equality and all of them have historically been denied to women, particularly after marriage. The struggle for these rights is also an ongoing one, as they continue to be denied to the majority of women across the globe and remain under threat even where they have been achieved. Nonetheless, this vision of equality falls down when the reality of dependency enters the picture. For women who are, or become, dependent on partners, families or the State, liberal feminism’s vision of equality through independence becomes unattainable.

The right to education, to work, or to participate in public life is of limited value, for example, when participation requires that you disencumber yourself from dependents of your own. Just witness the treatment of female politicians who have tried to breastfeed on the floor of Parliament or brought their toddlers with them to a last minute division. Similarly, the right to bodily autonomy is rarely articulated in favour of women once they have chosen to carry their pregnancies to term. It is rarely used, for example, to fight for the rights of women in labour to control their own experience of giving birth, nor is it often extended to promote the idea that they ought to be supported by the community in caring for the baby once it has been born.

As a younger woman, my vision of equality was shaped in good part by the liberal feminist concept of emancipation through independence. I recognised my privilege in being able to access to many of the civil rights made possible through the feminist movement and didn’t expect to experience any significant barriers to achieving equality with my male peers. In this context, the experience of becoming pregnant and the impact that it had on my life took me completely by surprise.

From the first stages of my pregnancy I was alarmed by feelings of dependency on my partner that I had never experienced before. As my pregnancy progressed, my sense of physical vulnerability increased and my capacity to maintain my equality through independence was repeatedly challenged. Finally, when my daughter was born, her utter vulnerability shook me to the core and I realised that I could no longer operate in the world as a wholly autonomous unit. I was encumbered by this incredibly dependent little person who needed me for her very survival. My understanding of myself and of what I needed from the world shifted completely, as did my understanding of the feminist project. I could no longer relate to the ambivalence of liberal feminism to the needs, indeed rights, of dependent women (and children).

This ambivalence of liberal feminism to the rights of dependent women is one of the reasons that it finds favour with some areas of right-wing politics. The individualism and market focus of the independence model of equality dovetails neatly with economic liberalism (or neoliberalism) and the belief that the market is the best arbiter and distributor of value. Single mothers, for example, are readily vilified as ‘welfare queens’ greedily bludging off the State.

Left-wing liberal feminists responds differently to the issue of single mothers and are more likely to support their right to government assistance. Nonetheless, this is rarely framed in terms of payment for the unpaid work of caring for children. Instead, it is viewed as a safety net to assist women to survive until they can rejoin the path to equality through autonomy. This is because left-wing liberal feminism still envisages liberation through market participation and, thus, tends to focus more on the issues of affordable childcare and (occasionally) flexible work arrangements in order to support women to more easily become independent post-motherhood.

You can see this attitude towards dependence reflected in many of the Gillard government’s policies. Single-parenting payments, for example, are paid to single parents (the majority of whom are women) until the youngest child turns eight, but at that point they are forced on to the (inadequate) Newstart allowance in order to ‘encourage’ them to join the paid workforce. To their credit, the government is consistent in that it does subsidise childcare and is working to increase both pay and standards within the sector. It has also introduced new measures to protect the right of employees to request flexible work arrangements (toothless though this right may be at present). Nonetheless, under this approach, dependency is treated as a temporary, largely avoidable state. As a result this approach has little to offer in terms of framing a vision of equality for those who exist within this state of dependency.

In a recent article on so-called ‘Retro Housewives‘ Alexandra Carlton quotes Anne Summers as being ‘exasperated by the domestic revival.’ According to Carlton, Summers is scathing of young women for walking away from their rights to ‘keep their jobs, to have equal access to promotion, and to be paid the same as men’ in order to become ‘yummy mummies.’ Similarly, Clementine Ford argues that ‘giving up everything to devote oneself to unpaid domestic work is self-sabotage.’

However, staying home to care for your children is only ‘self-sabotage’ if society is organised in such as way as to penalise you for doing it. Vilifying women for choosing to do so also fails to account for the reality of maternal desire and the very real needs of children. Focusing on the individual ‘choice’ of these women (who represent a very small percentage of society) also fails to account for the fact that staying home to perform unpaid domestic labour is the only realistic option available to many women, given the fact that affordable, accessible and high quality childcare, and working conditions that are flexible enough to make use of this care, remain a more of a dream than a reality for most. In this context, equating equality solely with autonomy will always result in a very large group of women being denied access.

I’m acutely aware that these arguments will be met by a chorus of claims that I am being sexist. What about fathers? Don’t these issues affect them as parents just as much as they affect mothers? This argument is put forward by Leslie Cannold, for example, who argues that ‘baby leave is not a women’s issue,’ because men should (and want to be) doing half of the unpaid childcare work.

However, this argument contains two separate assumptions, both of which are problematic. The first is that autonomy is the only path to equality. The second is that the dependency burden that goes along with parenthood can and should be equally shared. My major argument is with the first assumption (and I have partially set it out above), but I think the second also has flaws – primarily because it is fundamentally grounded in the first, but also because it denies biological realities.

Maternity leave is a women’s issue because it is women who get pregnant; who carry their children inside their bodies; birth them; and who are able to breastfeed them. The vulnerabilities and burdens that go along with these biological realities cannot be shared equally. Using the language of gender neutrality in relation to these realities only serves to obscure the highly gendered inequalities that currently result from them. Similarly, the value accorded to care work and the rights accorded to people in the midst of this dependent status are also women’s issues because the reality is that it is overwhelmingly women who do stay home to care for children and who do bear the burdens of dependency. Furthermore, when given the choice, many women still want to bear these burdens and there is no reason that this choice should have to equate to ‘self-sabotage.’

As Julie Stephens* has pointed out in response to Cannold,

a feminism promoting gender neutrality (in the name of equality) denies the bodily experience of women after they have given birth. Though a boon to the productive workplace, the breast pump may not necessarily protect the emotional needs of women and babies. To deny that baby leave is a women’s issue, to decouple ‘maternity’ from ‘leave’, is also to conceal human vulnerability and dependence. It reproduces what Iris Young has called ‘the normalising but impossible ideal’ that we are autonomous, unencumbered self-sufficient individuals, somehow beyond human dependency.

A further issue relates to the idea that the inequalities currently associated with performing unpaid domestic labour – particularly including caring for children – will somehow be erased if men take up half of the burden. People who perform paid care work, such as nurses, childcare workers and age-care workers, are also discriminated against and undervalued by society. Not coincidentally these are also professions that are dominated by women. However, it is rarely argued that the women who work in these professions have ‘chosen’ to be discriminated against and that their only path to equality lies in convincing men to take up careers within their sectors. Instead we understand that they are entitled to equality regardless of the number of men in their ranks. That even a highly feminised workforce should still be treated with respected and accorded equal value. Similarly, while a more equitable distribution of the burden of care work between men and women is a laudable goal, it doesn’t actually resolve the underlying inequalities and discrimination faced by those who do carry those burdens. It only serves to entrench this discrimination when we blame women for the inequalities they face, because somehow it isn’t a valid choice unless it is one that is also chosen by men.

What if instead of limiting our vision of equality to one of emancipation through independence we articulated one that accounts for both dependency and maternal desire? Such a vision would have to decouple our understanding of value from the market and acknowledge that the path to self-actualisation might sometimes entail willingly encumbering ourselves. It would also have to move beyond individualistic first generation rights to recognise our need for community support and our obligation to support others. Above all, such a vision would respond to the needs of all women, rather than only those who are willing and able to disencumber themselves and strive for independence.

For many Australian women, motherhood is a wake up call that confronts them with the ongoing reality of gender inequality in our society. Wouldn’t it be great if feminism was also there to greet them with a vision of equality that acknowledges their present reality?


*[Via blue milk]

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