This miracle of reproduction – and the tenacity of women – has ensured the survival of the human race, often against overwhelming odds. But it has meant that generations of women, instead of being revered for their life-giving abilities, have had their own life curtailed.
Throughout history, society has insisted that motherhood should be a woman’s only ambition. Poor women may have had to work in fields and factories so that their families could eat, but with swollen bellies and children at their feet. And middle class women – even those with nursemaids – were trapped at home because of their sex.
It wasn’t until 1975 – the year before I had my first child, aged 19 – that maternity leave legislation was introduced in this country, and even then only around half of working women were eligible because of the long qualifying period. It has been a long hard slog to get equality for women, and we’re not there yet.
Earlier this week, Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, was told it was against the rules for her to bring her three-month old baby to work in the House of Commons. She had the temerity to take her son, swaddled close to her breast, into a meeting in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the parliamentary estate.
This cavernous space has witnessed the trial of William Wallace and Guy Fawkes, survived a Fenian bomb in 1885 and the Blitz, and it is where modern monarchs, from Edward VII onwards, have lain in state before their funeral. But it seems the 900-year-old building is no place for a 21st century mother and her infant.
After daring to appear in the hall on Tuesday, Ms Creasy got a ticking off from the private secretary to the Chairman of the Ways And Means Committee, Dame Eleanor Laing.
“We have been made aware that you were accompanied by your baby in Westminster Hall earlier today,” read the email. “I just wanted to make you aware that the recently published rules…state ‘you should not take your seat in the Chamber when accompanied by a child’…this also applies to debates in Westminster Hall.”
So far, so Victorian. It gets worse. MPs, unlike the civil servants who work in the parliament, are not entitled to maternity cover as they are deemed to work for the public. If Stella Creasy does not attend parliament because of her parenting responsibilities, then the people of Walthamstow will not have a representative. In 2019, Creasy pioneered a system – similar to that used in the Danish parliament – where she employed a locum to cover her duties while she was on maternity leave with her first child, but she was refused permission to do it for her second baby.
Just before her son was born, she told The Guardian that full maternity cover for MPs was vital to reassure constituents while their MP was taking leave. “Either my constituents will be short-changed or my baby will lose me for six formative months – this would be illegal in any other real workplace setting,” she said.
Creasy is not your average working mother. She earns £82,000 a year. She has national newspaper editors on speed dial and enjoys all the status that being a member of parliament brings. But her experience is a reminder of how tough it still is for most women – whether senior public servant or retail worker – to combine work and motherhood.
Politicians of all parties will, rightly, point to the progress made in the provision of childcare in recent decades. In Scotland, three-to-four year olds now benefit from 1,140 hours a year of nursery education and childcare, which works out 30 hours a week if taken during term-time.
But the latest childcare survey by Coram, the UK’s oldest children’s charity, shows that childcare provision for schoolchildren is patchy, to say the least. Its survey of Scotland’s 32 councils reveals that while 81 per cent of councils report enough childcare for three and four-year-olds, there is only 14 per cent coverage for five to 11-year-olds across the country, and just 3 per cent have enough afterschool provision for 12 to 14-year-olds. And as any mother – or father – will tell you, those years can be the most challenging for working parents.
The charity recognises that the Covid-19 crisis has “both highlighted and exacerbated the issues that exist in the childcare sector”, but it describes the current system as “deeply flawed”. It recommends a reform of all childcare spending to create “a simple and efficient system that makes sure all parents are better off working and all children have access to high quality childcare.”
As we survey the economic and social wreckage of the pandemic, which is clearly not yet over, we face many competing priorities. Our NHS is in crisis. Our children’s education has been disrupted, for many irretrievably. Inflation is in danger of running out of control. And all the while, the climate crisis looms over us. Affordable, accessible childcare may not be number one on the First Minister or Prime Minister’s to-do list, but it is a priority for most women.
There is a second, undeniable, fact of life. Women are still discriminated against for giving birth to the next generation. Until our dual role of mother and worker is fully recognised and properly supported, we will not have equality of the sexes.