Sometimes I feel I’m going back to the 1950s. There seems to be an endless parade of mostly women in the media telling us that we can’t have it all, and that women who choose careers without giving due thought to how and when they will have children will regret it. You really wouldn’t be surprised to see a young Doris Day pop up with advice on how to keep your man, or a new game show on how to beat your biological clock.
There is almost a vicious pleasure at others’ misfortunes in some of these pronouncements, as if to say, “We said you would have to pay for enjoying yourself, being educated, going for a decent job, and having sex outside marriage. Now your punishment is not being able to have children at all.”
Paradoxically, one of the issues prompting these concerns is the latest figures projecting that a fifth of women who are young adults today in Britain will not have children. Most of these women will choose to remain childless. “What’s wrong with that?” you might say. It is, after all, a choice which in an ideal world women should be free to make without coercion.
But this argument isn’t about free choice for women. Rather it is part of an ideological debate which has raged on and off for the past four decades about women’s equality and how to win it.
For it was back in the mid-1960s when women in the US student movement – committed to fighting racism and war – began to question why they were marginalised and sometimes derided by men. Women’s liberation came out of the great movements for change in the 1960s and was influenced by them. Its very name imitated the national liberation struggles from colonialism. In Britain, the early women’s movement campaigned around equal pay strikes.
But ultimately the movement failed. While it made important changes in terms of raising the consciousness of some in a generation of women, it did not confront the oppressive structures of capital itself, especially those of class.
It was always as much a reflection of the changes in women’s lives as a theory of change. Women were working outside the home more than ever, were being educated to higher levels than ever, and were controlling childbirth, marriage and sexuality more than ever. The early demands of the movement attempted to overcome the inequalities highlighted by this situation.
Women are now expected to work outside the home and be mothers. Their personal freedom tends to be much greater than their grandmothers. But the changes have been far from cost-free. Women and men now work longer hours than 20 or 30 years ago. Flexibility means the right to be exploited on the same basis as men. Sexual liberalisation has meant turning every aspect of sex into commodities for the market.
So the fleeting glimpses back to the 1950s don’t really tell you the whole picture. It is impossible to turn the clock back so women are in the home primarily as housewives. But they do tell you that the ideas around women have gone backwards in recent years. We have neoliberalism to thank for that.
Women are expected to compete on the same terms as men, and not allow motherhood to get in the way. Women whose livelihoods are destroyed by the reach of global capital are given the choice of emigration to care for other people’s children or clean their houses in the richest parts of the world, or joining the growing number of women forced to sell sex.
We now blame the victim for everything that goes wrong, rather than the system which creates so many victims. Feminist government ministers regard as their finest achievements raising women’s pension age or forcing single parents back to work.
Yet the ideas of liberation are not forgotten. International Women’s Day is on 8 March. It was originally organised by European socialist women before the First World War to commemorate a huge uprising of women factory workers in New York.
Their counterparts today are in the shanty towns of Caracas, the factories of the Philippines, and in the anti-war movement. And when they fight for their rights they are increasingly likely not just to demand equality with the men of their class, but to position that fight as part of the wider struggle for social justice and an end to exploitation.
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