Sisters! Some of us are mothers, too!

Mothers' issues are feminist issues, argues Ruth Moss

Ruth Moss, 19 August 2008

Some mothers feel alienated by what they see as "feminism". They feel that feminism is right in there fighting their corner, until they decide to give birth and raise a child. They feel feminism either has no part in their life until they want to return to the world of paid work, or even actively lets them down ("feminism's gone too far now I don't have the option to stay at home with my child/children").

I think this "feminism" is probably a sort of "straw man"... but I also think that, if this is the case, many feminists have done nothing to dispel this image and have even perpetuated it at times.

Let me explain.

It's a sad fact that so-called "women's issues" are often ignored by the mainstream media; pushed into "women's pages" or at best confined to a small lineage column in the middle pages of the liberal broadsheets. It's frustrating when so many important issues are passed over isn't it? Especially when you know they are of the utmost importance to at least half the human race.

Mothers' issues are feminist issues. Let's see them raised and discussed

Yes. It is. But are the "feminist media" (such as the feminist blogosphere, feminist internet news outlets, feminist columnists within paper newspapers) guilty of something similar?

For example, did you know that in July, women from all over the UK traipsed down to Parliament Square (and various other locations in the UK) to protest against the lack of legal protection in England and Wales for a kind of activity exclusively undertaken by women? No? But you read all kinds of feminist blogs and news web sites, right? Surely you'd have heard of something this big and so obviously on the feminist agenda?
If I tell you that the activity was public breastfeeding then maybe you'll understand. "Ah, it's a mothers' issue. Not a feminist issue at all."

Sisters! Some of us are mothers, too! Mothers' issues are feminist issues. Let's see them raised and discussed.

Isn't it awful when, on the rare occasion a "women's issue" does receive attention in the mainstream press, you read a male columnist writing about it and often making pronouncements about what he would like to see happen and how women should or shouldn't feel about the issue?

Is there an equivalent within feminism?

Well... in the recent story about how extending the portion of maternity leave that received a basic level of pay from six to nine months (while the actual length of maternity leave - one year - remained the same) might be detrimental to women's career prospects I read quite a bit of the commentary and comments with interest.

Quite a few had some interesting pronouncements on what they'd like to happen if/when they had a child. For example some felt that if/when they had a child, they'd like a portion of the maternity leave accessible only to the baby's father, on a kind of "use it or lose it" basis (therefore unavailable to the mother even if the father refused to take it). This extra bit would come off the mother's current year of maternity leave.

I also read a commentary recently about a sixty-three year old woman who had given birth. Amongst other comments, one or two mentioned what a shame it was that she'd had such a wonderful career, but only felt validated by having a child and how terribly sad it was she felt this way.

Language that attacks birth, trivialises it, or shows disgust towards it can certainly come across as crass or insulting when it's written by someone who hasn't actually done it

Sisters! Some of us are mothers, too! You risk alienating a huge number of women when you make pronouncements on how mothers should be treated within law, and how they should or shouldn't feel.

The mainstream media is guilty so often of anti-woman bias, from the very subtle use of language to erase women (e.g. "he" rather than "they", "he/she" or "ze") to the blatantly misogynistic and everything in between.

Surely feminists aren't guilty of using anti-mother language?

Language that attacks children ("squawking brats" was a phrase used by a very famous and well-respected feminist in an article in a national newspaper to describe her [female] friends' and colleagues' children) you may be surprised to learn is actually very offensive to some mothers. Language that attacks birth, trivialises it, or shows disgust towards it can certainly come across as crass or insulting when it's written by someone who hasn't actually done it. Language that portrays childbirth or child-rearing as demeaning might help you get your point across, but unless you're writing from the perspective of someone who has actually done it then you're devaluing the experiences of mothers everywhere without having any idea what it's like.

Sisters! Some of us are mothers, too!

Please:

  • Treat mothers with the respect you would afford any other subgroup of women
  • "Mothers' issues" are feminist issues. Let's see all those issues taken seriously. A "token feminist mother" blogger is not an ideal solution, and of course one mother cannot speak for all mothers (just like one feminist can never speak for all feminists). But it might be a start.
  • Don't assume that because you feel a certain way about motherhood, all mothers do, too. Especially if you're not a mother yourself.
  • Don't tell mothers what they should or shouldn't think or feel.
  • Don't assume that because a mother is a feminist, she should feel a certain way about motherhood.
  • If you think that motherhood is just a cultural construct and that mothers and fathers have no intrinsic difference that's your call. Some mothers think it too. And some others don't. It doesn't preclude them from being feminists.
  • Assuming, or using language that implies that mothers - especially those who do not do paid work - are sad, deluded creatures who are wasting their lives - is patronising and arrogant and is every bit as bad as the mainstream media assuming that those women without children are wasting their lives.
  • Watch your language. Be sensitive. And be careful. Just because you might not think something is offensive, doesn't mean it isn't.
  • Many "mothers' issues", for example, vaccinations, breastfeeding, birth choice and access, schooling and many, many more, have seen mothers having to look beyond the mainstream paradigm and come to a different world view. Isn't this ability to paradigm shift and see beyond the mainstream an incredibly important part of feminism? You may discover mothers as allies!

And then, slowly, we might be able to remove some of this alienation that some - not all, but some - mothers feel towards feminism. And then - just think of how strong we will be!


About the author

Ruth Moss

Ruth Moss dreams about an incredibly flexible world of work where she has plenty of options to earn her own money without having to leave her child with another woman (who is paid even less than her). She hates that unless she is willing to pay a small fortune she has to choose between sparkly pink or clunky navy when it comes to her child's footwear

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