Ladies! Let’s stop fighting about our wombs.

It’s polling day here in London, and various other places around the country. I vote every single time I have the opportunity, clutching my black and white card and thinking about the Pankhursts, and Emily Davison, and the hunger strikers force fed in Holloway prison as I stride towards the polling booth.

Voting is a privilege women have had in this country for less than a hundred years. We should still be talking about it.

But today one of the first articles I read was another argument in the mothers versus not-mothers war that the press seems intent on inflaming. Having read Dr Worsley’s words (originally in the Radio Times), I’m not sure she was being sneery when she said she’d been ‘educated out of the natural reproductive function’ (I have a masters degree – was that not enough? should I have got a PHD?), in as much as she anticipated the (obvious and tiresome) question and developed a riposte (poor choice of words though, Lucy). If she’d been a man, it wouldn’t even be in the article.

Danuta Keane’s response (with inflammatory Mail headline) asks us to consider how much more political becoming a mother can make us, which is true (though not for all), and that the changes that having a child bring can be welcome, even if you’ve resisted them, even if you are educated. Even if they do, inevitably, turn you into a different person.

The key word being different, not better.

I am clearly not who I’d be if I hadn’t had my son, but then the person I would be wouldn’t know that, and wouldn’t mind (probably). Indeed, who knows what might have happened to that person in the last three years, and what changes might have been wrought? Imagine if we could meet each other, my other self and me. Would we argue with each other, try to plead our case for or against? And if so, why? Who is making us feel as if we have to justify this most personal of choices (and sometimes it isn’t a choice) one way or the other? Other women? Our culture? Society at large?

Because this is what has happened: it’s everybody’s business, and anyone can probe a woman about her reproductive status. Women who choose not to have children feel they have to justify that or be labelled as selfish. Women who haven’t been able to have children have to justify it while hiding their private sadness behind a veil. Women who have only one have to justify that or be labelled as selfish. Women who have more than one are never allowed to complain about the difficulties of marshalling toddlers, keeping a house and possibly a career. Women who work have to justify that as well as fight for their right to work part-time, or full time or from home. Women who choose not to return to work have to justify that because otherwise what was feminism about. Women who have larger families have to justify that or be labelled a drain on the planet’s resources.

Why are we doing this to each other? When did we stop looking at everything else that was happening to women?

When I was growing up we still talked about whether you should say ‘chairperson’ rather than ‘chairman’, ‘ms’ instead of ‘miss’. Somewhere in the last twenty years, because things got a little bit better, we assumed the battle was won, and we stopped talking about it. We just assumed we could say anything we liked, be anything we liked, do anything we liked. And yes, it’s truer than it has ever been, but only for some of us.

Recently unemployment went up again, and it went up most sharply for women. Job losses in the public sector disproportionately affect women because they make up around 65% of the workforce (more in some sectors). Older women are losing their jobs at a time when they are running out of time to make pension contributions, ensuring their poverty will linger for decades more. The cuts to tax credits and benefit changes will adversely affect women more than men. Women are more likely to be in part-time and lower paid jobs, in part because they are trying to juggle with other responsibilities, like childcare, or caring for elderly parents, but also partly because women are still paid less than men. Here are some figures from the Fawcett Society:

  • The full-time gender pay gap between women and men is 14.9 per cent
  • The pay gap varies across sectors and regions, rising to up to 55% in the finance sector and up to 33.3% in the City of London
  • 64% of the lowest paid workers are women, contributing not only to women’s poverty but to the poverty of their children
  • There are almost four times as many women in part-time work as men.  Part-time workers are likely to receive lower hourly rates of pay than full-time workers.

Isn’t it time we stopped squabbling about whether wombs are good or not, and talked together about some of this other stuff?

For the last word on the kids debate, I leave you with Stella Duffy, who writes wisely and compassionately. Now go on and vote.

(Deep apologies for linking to the Daily Mail, by the way. It couldn’t be helped.)


11 thoughts on “Ladies! Let’s stop fighting about our wombs.

  1. Just spent the last couple of days working on a feature about the differing levels of gov. support / varying costs of childcare around the world and the impact it has on women. My blood was at boiling point as I finished, so it was great to be able to flip over and read such a brilliant, rabble-rousing post!

    I have become so much more political since becoming a parent. It’s like my blinkers have come off and I can finally see the cold harsh spotlight on all that still needs to be done to ensure equality / equivalence for women.

    As you so rightly point out, so much more could be achieved if we worked together.

    Oh and apology accepted re Daily Mail, though I will now go and soothe my scorched eyes.

    1. That would be an interesting article to read! I do think getting us to wag fingers at each other, for making the choices our mother’s generation fought for, is a great distraction technique for the folk in charge.

  2. I have been thinking of this very topic a lot lately. As an ex opera singer (read: poor person), and now admin asst, my income does not allow me to save for retirement really and I wasn’t able to save at all when I was a singer. I can now look forward to working until I’m at least 70 years old; I am now 43. But in our agist/sexist society, who is going to hire middle aged woman much less a 70 yr old woman to be their assistant? I look around my firm, a rather large Wall St firm, and I see very few people over 50 at any level, be they assistants or Managing Directors. Hiring managers are looking for the cheaper, younger people for my position. As an older more experienced asst, I am much more expensive than a newly minted college grad. I am much more than my gender or my age. But hiring managers can’t seem to see beyond those two qualifications (if you can call them that). With a little boy at home who is just turning 5, I sometimes lie awake at night wondering how I will retain my marketability in the workplace so that I can pay for his college education. Can I start a new career at age 43 that would be not so age-less as it were in the future? What would that fantasy career be? Can I afford to take a paycut now to follow this uncertain but hopefully more stable work solution?

    All these questions I have and the realities I face now and in the future are due to gender and age inequalities in the workplace.

    1. It’s scary to feel as if you’re heading down a rabbit hole when you’re as young as we are. I think I was most shocked by the statistic that the pay gap is so big in the finance sector and the City – that’s where the money is supposed to be! In general I think you’re right about employability and the link with affordability for bigger companies, but there’s hope that newer companies will see the value in hiring someone with experience. My friends have a company and have now started hiring older women, because they are reliable, unflappable and have seen it all before. This is the sort of thing we should be shouting about.

      (I really do wish I’d been able to get into town and meet you when you were over. next time I get to NY…)

  3. Yes, I know what you’re saying, and there is plenty of other stuff to be debated and worked on together. I’ve seen the sorry facts about female poverty (here and worldwide), and there are some really horrific statistics if you go looking for them about convictions and sentencing for women who kill male partners (usually after years of being abused) vs men who kill female partners (often after years of abusing them). Just for starters.

    I do feel that (over-)population is an issue that needs to be talked about, though, because the earth’s resources are finite and there’s a hell of a lot of us. It’s not a purely personal matter. I’ve heard people say that the population debate is racist, and I didn’t understand what they meant until a friend in Oslo told me that the Norwegian govt actually encourages couples to have lots of kids – while I’m sure part of their overseas aid/development budget is spent on family planning/reproductive education in developing countries. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it at all, it just means we have to recognise that population control is as much about rich white people in the Northern Hemisphere as anyone else.

    One other thing that occurs to me immediately is that, if and when we do talk about children and families and reproduction, we only talk about women/mothers. We need to stop thinking of children as women’s business. Yes, it has a to be a woman that bears a child, but there’s ALWAYS a man involved, even if only as an anonymous sperm donor. Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding are the only parts of child-rearing that are necessarily female. Men also choose to have children or not, or have them without planning to, or want to have them but can’t. They don’t seem to get judged for those things in the same way, but I think that’s partly because we all see children as women’s work, which is to everybody’s disadvantage. Any talk about reproductive choices and responsibilities should include men – that’s a shift in thinking that has to take place in each of our minds as well as in society generally.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Nina. My dissertation was on battered women who kill, and the inadequacies of the law of provocation, so I can well believe the statistics are still hideous.

      And while I agree that talking about population control is something we ought to be doing, and that isn’t a personal matter, I think asking an individual woman about her own reproductive status is, and creates tensions where there ought to be none. It’s linked with your point that we see it as women’s work, and yes, that’s exactly what has to change. After all, I didn’t expect any less from my husband than full involvement in raising our child, and yet, our decision to wait was seen as solely “my fault”.

Leave a Reply