Monday, 8 March 2010
That's right, it's the 8th of March again when we all stop for a minute and think about being a woman, rather than the other 364 days of the year where we just get on with being women. I'm interested to see that (here in the UK) it is also Mothers' Day this weekend, meaning that both women-centric days of the year fall in the same week. This piques my interest because if the media is to be believed right now being a woman is synonymous with being a mother these days.
What happened to create this fetishization of motherhood in the past decade? When I was coming of age in the 90s, having children was just one of the things women happened to do. These days, despite reports that say up to 20% of British women will remain childless by the age of 45, motherhood appears to be the apex of a woman's achievement and worth according to newspapers, celebrity magazines and politicians.
You may have noticed that the UK is gearing up to a General Election in the next 8 weeks and with a hung parliament looking like a real possibility, politicians are particularly keen to reach out to women voters to gain an edge. Yet all the talk of women's issues I have encountered in print, on radio and on TV so far basically focuses on the work/life balance of women and the provision of childcare for working women. If you beamed down from space, you'd think there were no other issues affecting British women at all. Yet women still earn at least 17 pence less on the pound than men for comparable jobs, two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, the rape conviction rate is less than 6%, the majority of full time carers are women and all women are feeling the effects of over-sexualisation in the media. So why do we only seem to hear about childcare provision as an issue in between our party leaders telling us what chocolate biscuits they like best?
Obviously childcare is a vitally important issue for society at large (biscuits are more personal). Well raised children benefit everyone and I am not denying that there are major problems with childcare in the UK. I do have issue with two main points on this political hot potato. Firstly, the preoccupation with nursery places as the main form of caring ignores anyone who has older disabled children who need help with caring and excludes the vast number of people who care even part time for an adult in their life. Secondly, childcare is always talked about as maternity leave and 'working mums' rather than as parental leave. While I understand not wanting to exclude single mothers, I don't think only addressing childcare as a women's issue is beneficial to anyone.
It has led to fathers seeming unimportant beyond being sperm donors when it comes to creating kids. It makes children miss out on spending time with their dads who are often absent, either entirely from their child's life or temporarily, because they are stuck in the office all the time. And it makes women appear to have no other role in life but as mothers so everything from puberty onwards appears to be aimed at balancing work and children in the future, as many would of course choose to do. Women are not workers, but potential wombs due to this policy.
This preoccupation with all women being mothers is very much driven by our government who in their urge to appear family friendly have become obsessed with regarding all women as mothers or potential mothers. Nowhere is this more apparent than if you have to deal with the Department of Work and Pensions who are currently unable to grasp that I am a 31 year old childless woman on benefits. They keep sending me to the Lone Parent Back to Work advisor and offering me re-training in either childcare or as a Teaching Assistant. No amount of explaining that I'm childless because I don't like children convinces them to send me to whoever deals with the out of work men who presumably get offered call centre work and barista jobs that deal with adults each day. Instead they extol the virtues of working with children as the hours fit in with the mythical children they expect me to produce in the next 9 months or so. When I explain the concept of contraception to them, they simply sign my forms and send me away to be ignored for the next 6 months before repeating the experience again. Thank god my mother doesn't nag me to make her grandmother with the pressure the DWP puts on my reproductive system.
I find this genderised attitude extremely patronising. The government is essentially telling us boys wear blue, but girls like pink. By only ever mentioning broad based issues around the 'family' it is the equivalent of telling us ladies not to worry our pretty little heads about things that don't concern us. Meanwhile the Labour government's systematic cutting of local and central government funding of Rape Crisis centres goes unmentioned and unchallenged, pay and pensions for women remain shockingly inequal, misogyny runs rampant through the judicial system and a significant minority of young women see life as a footballer's wife as the height of achievement they can obtain. For all that modernity and feminism has achieved, women are still unsafe physically and financially, unprotected by those in place to help and assessed primarily on their worth as a wife and a mother.
While I'm enormously grateful for the changes in society that allow me to choose being single, independent and childless, I'm extremely concerned by the way things are going for women, particularly those younger than myself. I'm not entirely sure what is the best way to move forward, but I think the government, the media and by extension, society, starting to see both men and women as something other than a homegenous mass with exactly the same concerns as the next person would be an excellent jumping off point. I'm not sure which party come May could be trusted to do this though...but this is why I will be urging everyone I know who can vote to use that privilege and see if we can't start to address all the issues that impact on women's lives instead of being distracted into focusing on just one at a time!