This is the transcript of the speech I gave at Oxford University’s Gender and Equality Festival last week. Is long but was speaking for 45 mins.
”Hello. I was really pleased, although quite surprised to be asked to come and speak to you all today. By yesterday at 3pm, I still hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to say.
I’ve considered myself a feminist since I was a teenager. (pause) I think I considered myself a ‘post-feminist’- part of the generation who came after feminism had done it’s job. I thought I lived in an equal society, thankful to women like those who worked at the Dagenham ford plant, those who burned their bras for women’s liberation, and the Suffragettes. I congratulated myself on understanding words like ‘patriarchy’, and devoured books with competing feminist theories, many of which were written long before I was born- and many of which I didn’t think had that much relevant to the society I lived in. (BREATHE)
Throughout my school career, I was treated as smarter than many of the boys. We weren’t consigned to Home Economics classes(although I enjoyed them infinitely more than woodwork…). I watched Grange Hill and Byker Grove specials, where the right of girls to play football was a no brainer- and plucky 6th formers overcame the attitudes of dinosaurs with a bit of reason and logic.
Equality legislation was implemented before I was born. I never questioned equality, it just was.
Misogyny something that would die out as my generation took their places in society. The first generation not to have to fight for their right not to be held back by the absence of a penis.
I developed a nuanced understanding of how the media treated women’s sexuality, of the dangers of trying to live up to the images of impossible perfection.
As I entered adulthood my perspective didn’t really shift. I was asked at a job interview whether I intended to have children, and I was more outraged by the assumption that I would have a child, than I was at the implications of that question for the women who already had.
In my early twenties, I competed in the workplace and was treated as equal. I earned more than my boyfriend, , I was suitably outraged when I was called ‘sweetheart’. I inwardly seethed, when I was introduced to a client and he shook the admin boys hand and asked me to get his coffee. I seethed at the betrayal of the women who worked around me. Women who I saw as getting preferential treatment because they were mothers. Who worked less hours than I did and demanded to be given preference for holiday entitlement- while expecting it to be ok to disappear at a moments notice.
I thought I was enjoying the fruits of the fight for equality. I watched Sex and the City, and I consumed, and through my power to buy- I showed that I was equal. I could afford my own designer shoes(with the help of my flexible friend), I could sleep with who I liked, and my pay kept pace with my male colleagues.
I knew the gender pay gap hadn’t really closed, but assumed it was naturally going to do so.
I stand here today, knowing it was a lie.
When I did my social work training, I was told that social work was a profession that was carried out by women, for women. I told my tutor I thought this was bollocks, and that it was attitudes like that that held women back.
Poverty was not related to gender, but class and the neo liberal consensus that had been in place since I was born. Poverty was the result of choices. By increasing girls aspirations to education, we would encourage them to make different choices. I had been in care, surely I was evidence that this was true?
My view was challenged when I started work, and the heads of many of the households I worked with were women- women in poverty, and women suffering the effect of generations of social exclusion.
I saw with my own eyes that violence against women was endemic. I studied the patterns of mental illness amongst women and saw that not only was there a distinct gender split- but that the majority of women’s mental illnesses are the result of circumstances. A response to abuse and poverty.
The only job I ever did with a male client group, was a drop in centre for men who had sex with men, but didn’t identify as gay. Encouraging men who were having unprotected sex, cottaging- not to put their wives at risk. I saw these women as mothers, but never considered the role motherhood played in their poverty, beyond platitudes about empowerment- and quick fix attempts to provide childcare solutions.
Still believing I was a feminist. I saw my clients simultaneously as victims of and culpable in their own abuse. When women ‘failed to protect their children’ against abusive spouses, I supported the removal of those children- confident that this was right because the rights of the child had to come first.
I saw that gender was a factor, but still saw myself as separate from these women. My choices were different. I was a professional, and I was financially secure because I chose to be. I knew that not all men were abusers, because all the men in my life are great.-therefore this was about choices. I knew that most of these were problems of poverty- and while gender and motherhood exacerbated situations- motherhood was a choice. One that should be discouraged by those who clearly weren’t ready.
In a society where the ability to take part, depends on the ability to spend and buy- I knew that the so called ‘underclass’-was merely result of entire communities, living without the ability to participate. This all seemed fairly straightforward. Tackle social exclusion, show people they had choices- give control back.
Throughout my career in the public sector, most of my colleagues were women. (Not managers). My salary was low, but I felt that was to be expected because I was only a couple of years into the job. It would rise with progression which seemed fair. Besides this was public money. And when it is public money, then the wages are crap.
I ignored the fact that most of my female friends were working in the public sector- in the ‘female’ professions. Teachers, nurses, social workers, in the voluntary sector. Our offices filled with part time administrators earning less th
we were. None of the local authorities I worked for have been a living wage employer. Not one of the local authorities I worked for guaranteed to pay the mainly female workforce at the bottom two tiers- £7.50 per hour.
When I went on strike to protect the pension rights of the lowest paid women in my organisation, I was doing it for them. I was making a sacrifice for those less fortunate. Good on me.
It was only when I had a child that I truly realised how far we had to go, and how little this had to do with choice.
I had a plan when I was pregnant. I was going back to work when my daughter was 3 months old, I was going to work 4 days a week. IT was going to be great. I had well organised systems of childcare, could afford it- I was going to be the woman who had it all.
Me and my ex had an agreement drawn up, where we would share custody if anything happened between us. I respected his rights as a father, he respected me as a mother- was all going to be great. I worked in the ‘female profession’ surely here I would expect no discrimination- I had had health and safety assessments when I was pregnant, a room to express in, and flexible working was the norm. I forgot the way I had viewed those who worked part time, and quite honestly cushioned by a two salary household, I had forgotten what it was like to be skint- and had no reason to ever expect that I would be.
With an education, a profession, a supportive husband, and complete control over the choices I made.
The problem with this plan, is the same problem with the baby books I bought to help me make those plans- my daughter didn’t really read them- and she didn’t really get the plan. None the books I read about feminism told me much about what would happen when I had a baby.
Take a sip of water
The thing we forget to discuss when we are talking about equality, and the choices women make- is that once you become a mother- your choices disappear immediately.
The choice of when to sleep, and when to eat is gone. I remember when my daughter was about a week old, and I realised the major design flaw in babies is that there isn’t an off switch.
Rachel didn’t really do the sleeping thing- and refused to take a bottle at nursery- she demanded all her feeds during the night. For a time my colleagues understood I was tired, and when I fell asleep on the toilet at work- my colleagues very kindly put a blanket over my knees and left me there to doze.
Being a mother is a 24/7 job. Your child exists 24 hours a day, and when your child is young they often need attention for the majority of those hours. I relished the time I was at work, and used to schedule meetings that didn’t exist- so that I could read the paper in a cafe, and drink a cup of tea to the bottom. When my friend gave me a thermal cup as a ‘new baby’ present- I thought it was odd. By the time my daughter was 3 months old, the dishwasher had worn it out- and I needed to replace it. Drinking an entire cup of tea, is far too time consuming to happen on a daily basis.
We expect new mothers to be tired, but the novelty of recognising that wears off after weeks. After 9 months my employers patience was beginning to wear thin- as my memory lapsed, and my body struggled to adjust to this new 24/7 routine,
I was expected to be back to the person I was before she was born- and the same scathing looks that I had given to women who had to disappear because n ursery closed at 6 were directed at me. I wasn’t working for financial gain, because the money I brought in was poured straight into the nursery who cared for my daughter so I could work.
Dropping my hours, would have worked- had it not been for the fact that my caseload didn’t drop as well. No recognition that a half day meeting was a larger percentage of my working week, than when I was full time- and when I couldn’t stay on emergency calls till 11pm, while never stated explicitly- I was seen as shirking.
The standard retort to objecting to this is ‘why should women expect society to take responsibility for their choice to have a child’. Why should society have to change to suit that?
What would happen if an entire generation of women got themselves sterilised?
I was the first of my friends to have children- but as they followed suit- we found with dismay we we repeated the same conversations we had heard our mothers and aunts have as we grew up.
The three months I spent at home when my daughter was born, established me as the primary caregiver- With that came responsibility for being a domestic goddess. A title I am not sure I will ever live up to…
The essays by Pat Mainardi and Simone De Beauvoir on the politics of housework- which I had thought would be irrelevant to my post feminist life- would have been brought into sharp relief if I had had time to read them.
If I was coming home late- taxi drivers felt free to tell me I should be at home with my child, not trekking around Yorkshire at 11pm. Stay at home mums at playgroup felt free to express shock, that I didn’t take my daughter to 4-5 baby massage clubs a week- the forums I used to get breastfeeding advice- raged with debates about whether women should work at all. Daily Fail headlines screamed at me with the damage I was doing to my child. Unsolicited advice and judgement warranted because I was doing this massively important job of raising a child, at the same time no recognition the impact that doing that job had on my life or my ability do other things.
And all of a sudden I was failing at work, and home, and had never been as tired, or tried so hard.
In order to balance work and motherhood, I was forced, like most women, to drop my hours- and thus my earnings potential dropped. And I found out why the gender pay gap will never close.
The illusion of equality I had experience was because I had time to work long hours, I had the freedom to go away on a moments notice- and I was able to compete in a system which was designed solely for those whose only role was to earn money. Before I made the ‘choice’ to have a child- I was rewarded for not making that choice.
The equality I imagined existed- was not equality. Once you have a child you have the rig
ht to compete in a system which only changes enough to allow you to take part if an employer was generous enough to allow you to manage my working pattern and recognise the other responsibilities I had. Only then if you can afford childcare, and only then if you have the support networks which will pick up the slack if you fall. The cost of this childcare, will take most of your earnings- although I didn’t realise what this meant until I didn’t have a husband’s salary to cushion me.
I was 26 when I had my daughter- and all of sudden I looked at the women I worked with, who had become mothers when they were barely out of childhood- and I truly understood what that had meant for them- and how little few of the consequences they chose.
Motherhood had limited my choices at 26, theirs had been capped in their teens. The women who the media will tell you had babies to get council houses, who had done this 24/7 job without the luxury of the income I had, without the benefit of the education I had, and without the protection of that comes from strong friends and family network.
None of the things I have talked about are new. Women are not a minority group, and although I am no biology expert – I think we have been the ones to bear the children since time began. None of my circumstances were unique. I won’t bore you by continuing to talk about the year after my daughter was born. You don’t need to hear it from me. You can go back as far as Mary Wollstencraft- she was writing the same things in the 18th century.
NO matter where you are in the world- no matter which period of history you go to Suppression of women’s sexuality is toxic- but motherhood has been the most tool with which women are kept powerless and in poverty.
While I was devouring feminist literature, and enjoying the fruits of equality- feeling pity for those who didn’t understand you just had to make different choices- I hadn’t realised that this wasn’t about choices they made. Until we recognise motherhood as what it is, and the work it entails- we will never have equality.
I scoffed at the demands of Women’s Libbers that motherhood to be recognised and valued- and laughed at the idea they expected it to be paid. Don’t you just hate when you find you are wrong.
If I thought that becoming a mother was difficult, I was completely unprepared for what happened when I left my husband. And I am guessing that the articles I wrote about the effect of the budget on me, are why I am here. So if you have managed to stay with me this long= I will explain.
When I left I assumed that as I was working, I would be able to support my daughter. I was grateful that her father still involved in her care- and respected that in order to do this he also had to run a home on one salary- and like many couples nowadays our separation was amicable
I was stunned to find how difficult it would be. I increased my hours, and with my salary, housing benefit, and tax credits- I received £1600 per month to live on. After I had paid £500 childcare, £500 rent, utilities, student loan, and a credit card payment- I was left with £100 for food and clothes. The benefits I received, enabled me to work, but overall the net cost to the state of me working was the same as the cost to the state of me staying at home. And there was absolutely no difference in income. I understood this to mean that the state recognised the impact motherhood had on my life, and made an attempt to redress that. The sense of shame our society instills in those who need state support, ensured that I did not complain.
The Coalition will tell you about the dangers of living with a deficit- well I am all to familiar with the effect of having to make numbers add up that don’t- and I can tell you it is a time consuming, shaming, exhausting excercise- running the gauntlet of accumulating arrears and spending hours a week negotiating with creditors.
When your children are pre-school age- whether you are married or not- you work for the sake of working-not for financial gain- and the challenges of motherhood that I have already talked about do not go away.
Single parents are overrepresented on housing benefit claim lists- for very simple reasons. They earn less. Much less. The effect of motherhood on your earnings potential. Especially when you have young children is recorded everywhere. It is common across ALL sectors- it is the same for women with partners, and for women on their own. Children do not have this effect on men’s earning potential. Not on the same scale, and not even when they are single., (Anecdote about James at job interview)
Single parents are more likely to live in rented accommodation-But the key thing- the one thing that the Centre for Social Justice deliberately omit from ALL the research they have been providing to Ian Duncan Smith- childcare. If you are paying £500 per month per child, you would need to earn way ABOVE the national average to be able to survive without state support. Not just poor women. Not just people conditioned by welfare dependency- it is basic maths. If you are paying for childcare you need to earn more and are less likely to actually do so.
Housing benefit, contrary to what the coalition government would like you to believe is not, and never has been an unemployment benefit. It is calculated to ensure that when you have paid your rent, and your childcare you should have the equivalent of income support rates to live on. Plus £15 per week. It is calculated according to the median rent in your local area. In my area the average rent is £500 per month. Local Housing Allowance is £400 per month. It is not possible to live in a large house that you don’t need- because any extra bedrooms result in a deduction of the amount payable. It isn’t possible to live in the nicest houses in the area- because only 1 out of 10 landlords will accept housing benefit. Your chances of passing the standard credit check that comes with a tenancy application- very small if you are living on the kind of money that requires housing benefit.
Out of that benefit level income, approximately £150 per week- I paid the £100 difference. No matter how much, or how little I brought in it was not possible for me to increase my income. In order to not need housing benefit, I would have had to earn £22000 per year, net. That would be over £25000 a year gross.
In June, I watched George Osborne completely remove the link between working and supporting your child, and justify it by describing those who use housing benefit as scroungers, and and ‘incentivising marria
ge’. When you have women working for absolutely no financial gain for months and years on end- the one thing that that does not indicate is a culture of welfare dependency.
I have read every word of the Spending Review, and I have read every word of the budget. As part of a social policy designed to incentivise marriage, and tackle ‘worklessness’- the coalition have ensured that the ONLY way out of poverty that remains for mothers with young children is a romantic relationship. We are now expected to fuck our way out of poverty.
The budget and the spending review were not just an attempt to cut the deficit. They have targetted single parents, the majority of whom are women- at EVERY income level- as part of a stated aim of incentivise marriage, and have ensured that no matter what you do, unless you are getting a substantial amount of maintenance or find a new relationship you will never get out of poverty.
A single women with one child who doesn’t work-will live on approximately £127 per week Income support, tax credits. The average £100 difference between rent and housing benefit has to be found from this. The change to housing benefit means that women in my area will have to find on average an extra £60 per month. The change applies to LOCAL areas- so moving will not change it.
If they manage to survive on this amount of money until their children hit 5, they will be forced onto jobseekers allowance- A benefit with complex conditions and little chance of maintaining a claim without interruption for more than 3 months-they will lose another 10% of their housing benefit. They will also be forced to do one months unpaid FULL TIME labour to justify their benefits. To get them in the habit of getting up in the morning- like you need the jobcentre to teach you that when you have children?
Tax credits have been cut. Research by the Centre for Social Justice seeking to identify a couples penalty in the benefits system, have deliberately omitted the cost of childcare from research-and assessing only the net state support received by single parents- cut childcare allowances in tax credits- to achieve this,. The income that I described to you as a social worker- would have had an extra £1800 per year taken out of it.
If you managed to reach the holy grail of earning the £22k a year you would need not to need housing benefit- you would find your tax credits STOPPED – even if you were earning £25 ka year, and paying £12k a year for childcare(which is not unreasonable if you have more than child)- ALL state support stops= regardless of how many children
If by some miracle, you have a child and you are on your own- you manage to earn £44k a year- your child benefit will stop because you are one of the richest women in the country. Regardless of having to run a household, regardless of paying childcare- regardless of the cost of having children.
The tax credits cap does not only affect single women. For women who are still married, who pay childcare – if their husbands earn more than £15-25k a year- are finding they have to question whether it is selfish to return to work- with that return guaranteeing their family will be worse off. Retaining economic independence now something that can only be achieved at the expense of your children. This budget and spending review has pushed women back to the home, removed their jobs, and is dependent on them stepping forward to do those jobs for free- while being castigated for doing so.
The only difference between a single parent and a married parent is a husband. And this government are VERY keen women have a husband. When I asked Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP about this- her only response has been ‘fathers should pay for their children’.
Questions about how they have obtained social policy which shows women being financially dependent on men, is preferable to women working have met with silence.
Economic liberalism, with ‘choice’ reserved only to those earning, ignores that it is the state support which gave women choices. It is state support which was designed to bridge the inadequacies of our market economy. I don’t see any moves to force those things to change.
The main beneficiaries of the welfare state, were not jobless men- but women whose contribution in terms of caring for their children, and their relatives- had never been measured- had no financial value- and the so called ‘dependence’ that the coalition talk about is the means by which we, the people, elected to use our taxes- to create a safety net which allowed us to move towards some kind of equality.
Removing the safety net that ensures that a period caring for your child or relatives is not a path to helplessness and dependence on state help- and replacing it with charity to be ministered to helpless victims- is not increasing people’s choices.
It is the benefits that allow women to continue to work, to stay in their homes and communities- when the market economy fails them and traps them. It is benefits that mean women don’t starve when they look after their ill relatives. Poverty is the trap. Not benefits. We know that women act as shock absorbers of poverty within families, we know that when it comes down to choosing to feed your child or yourself that most women feed their child. We know the pressure of of living like this breaks women, physically and mentally.
Nick Clegg talked about a ‘fairness’ premium- where he seemed familiar with the effects of poverty- alongside policies which throw hundreds and thousands of women into destitution, away from their jobs, away from their communities and to areas with no routes out of poverty remaining- he is introducing childcare for two year olds. Not to assist mothers in retaining their economic independence, but to lift children out of the poverty his government is creating for a few hours a week so they can have someone else raise their aspirations- apparently poor mothers less words to their children, than those from the nice middle class homes with a husbands salary. Our children are to be protected from us, and the poverty we are ‘choosing’.
Still, I suppose sending your child being lifted out of your home for a few hours, gives you a chance to ring debt collectors.
If I had been asked to speak to you 6 months ago, I would have spoke in much gentler terms about how far we have to go. About the need to recognise and value motherhood- but in things have now changed.
of ‘marriage’ or poverty, may fit with the 19th century economic liberalism espoused by the coalition government- but that is not any kind of a choice in a 21st century society with any pretense at equality.
This is not an attack on single parents. This is not an attack on welfare.
This is an attack on the hardfought changes to traditional gender roles that have made our society better.
It is an attack on ALL women, whether they choose to have children or notwhether they are married or not. Whether they are working or not. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on all the fathers that have fought to play a greater role in their childrens lives, and it is an attack which enshrines in social policy that a woman’s place is in the home, dependent on a man- and that men should be tied to being the sole breadwinner.
It is an attack which hopes, that the mainly female jobs which are cut from our public service don’t show up on unemployment figures- as they retreat back to the home. And an attack which depends on those jobs being covered for free by the very women punished by this toxic economic agenda.
It is a dangerous attack- which means that right now, women I know are approaching men who beat and abused them- because they know the alternative is losing their homes and their jobs- and being pushed away from their communities for good. It is an attack which is leading to women having to consider whether they can continue to care for their children- and leading several of my friends to consider the option of giving up their homes and move back in with parents. Those who are lucky enough to have parents to move back in with.
It is an attack justified by rhetoric that ensures that at least twice a week, my daughter is described as a mistake, or I am told I should have kept my legs shut.
It is an attack which portrays any women who leaves her partner as a slut, and a scrounger. It is an attack made by a government who know fine well the effect of these policies.
Keeping financial control of your partner is a cornerstone of most abusive relations- and the government with their rhetoric of ‘choice’- have just handed control of mothers to their partners- and left them with no alternative but to stay-whether it is the right thing or not. The Big Society is one without women who are independent from men-and one where those are- are to pitied and punished.
I watched the housing benefit debate in the House of Commons last night, and even though I have heard Yvette Cooper talk about these issues- heard nothing in that debate about the implications for equality. We now live in a society where mothers poverty is just deserts for having sex, and children’s poverty is something to blame the mothers for.
I spent time reading through all three parties manifestos, and policy announcements- and there is little discernible difference and little political appetite to acknowledge the effects this budget. All parties are engaged in discussions around deserving and undeserving poor-and all intended to take the biggest chunk from welfare budgets. None have recognised the unpaid invisible work, which allows the rest of our economy and society to function.
It has become clear that this is not a fight which will be fought in the House of Commons.
If an employer used my ‘reproductive status’ to discriminate, I would have legal redress- because it is government= no such redress exists. Legal aid being slashed has ensured that the Fawcett Society’s legal challenge is likely to stand in isolation, and rhetoric of choice shuts down those who try to defend themselves from unfair accusations of moral deficiency.
It is time now to stop looking at feminism in the abstract. The academic debates, and subtley different ideologies are irrelevant. Using language that others do not understand is not going to help address the very real assult on women which is happening. This is not just a declaration of class warfare.
We now need to address why we didn’t win equality, how we were so easily convinced we had, and to look at how we make sure the next time we win.
This does not require academic debate= the effects of this budget are real- and are happening now. I was the first generation to believe I would never have to fight for my gender- and I know see that the battle feminism never won- the battle to have motherhood recognised, is the thing that will mean my daughter will never experience the illusion of equality I did.
Women are going to start losing their homes, and their families, and their jobs- and have their futures and those of their children shut down. You probably will not see these women on the top of Milbank throwing fire extinguishers. Not when it can take weeks to sort childcare for a dentist appointment. Most of them will be too busy trying to survive.
These women are not separate from you, and the attacks on them are attacks on you- even if you are currently earning, or have a family who will ensure that you will never face these choices.
We, as a society need to stand up adn say that an attack on mothers and carers is an attack on all of us. Even if those mothers and carers do not recognise the value of feminism. We need to demand that equality is retained. Use whatever we have. Our voices, our jobs, our businesses= to fight to ensure that the equality we thought we took for granted is protected- and stand up for those women whose powerlessness is being exploited to attack equality as a whole.
But it is not enough to protest. Direct Action is needed, but not just the direct action of sabotage- the direct action of stepping into ensure that women whose only crime was having a child- do not fall by the wayside. Big Society is a crock of shit designed to mask rolling back the welfare state- and in doing rolling back equality.
For years I talked about feminism, and failed to notice the truth. Far from being the first generation NOT to have to fight for equality- WE have to fight for equality, harder than any generation have fought before- because now we have to fight the pretense that the battle was won. And we have to fight it now.”