I DON’T know if it’s because it’s July and the house is constantly full of children and I am forced to sneak into the office at antisocial hours if I want to get any work done, but I was upset by the reaction to the New Statesman’s front cover which showed four miserable-looking female politicians under the headline “The Motherhood Trap – why are so many successful women childless?”
It’s not that I don’t get why the likes of Nicola Sturgeon (who was pictured) and Ruth Davidson were angry; if I were them I would be hacked off by references to the productivity or otherwise of my uterus and particularly by the implication that not having children meant my life was in any way diminished. I know male politicians would never be referred to as “childless” or judged for their failure to procreate.
But in expressing their ire, critics of the New Statesman cover seemed to question its right to point out that a disproportionate number of top female politicians – Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Liz Kendall, as well as Sturgeon and Davidson – don’t have children when, in fact, the barriers facing mothers should be right at the top of the feminist agenda. Of course, we don’t know if these particular politicians have no children through choice or because of biological or social circumstance and, on an individual level, it’s none of our business. But if it’s a trend; if the glass ceiling is only (or even predominantly) within reach of the childless/childfree, then we should be asking why, and what can be done about it (as opposed to allowing ourselves to be distracted by a deliberately provocative magazine image).
Anyone who took the time to read it, would have discovered that Helen Lewis’s piece is a nuanced study of how female politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t reproduce. Having established that mothers – and not just women – are under-represented at Westminster, she suggests women without children are perceived as selfish, while those with children are perceived as unclubbable. She also explores the practical obstacles (long hours, lack of childcare) mothers face.
But it seems to me the response to the cover exposes another double bind. Our commitment to gender equality means we believe the parental status of a successful woman should not be highlighted (especially as it may be a source of pain). But by refusing to address it, we risk sweeping a key area of discrimination under the carpet.
For example, Lewis points out that when Sturgeon was asked during a TV interview if she had chosen not to have children, she answered: “Alex Salmond doesn’t have children. He might tell you differently, but I am not aware of seeing an interview where he is asked that question.” This complaint is justified; no politician – male or female – should be subject to such intrusive interrogation, but the two scenarios are not interchangeable. The reason Sturgeon is asked and Salmond isn’t is because having children is likely to affect a woman’s prospects in a way it doesn’t affect a man’s. This might not be the world we want, but it’s the one we’ve got. And if we have to pretend it isn’t different for girls – or that motherhood presents no greater professional challenge than fatherhood – then there’s little chance of us changing it.
We risk sweeping a key area of discrimination under the carpet
One of the reasons I believe we need to talk about this issue is that the rise of female politicians is being used to suggest women are on the brink of achieving equality (and as a corollary that we don’t require quotas, or structural changes). Indeed my complaints about continued discrimination are frequently countered with the words: “Women lead three out of four of the parties at Holyrood: what more do you want?” As columnist Chris Deerin pointed out last week this shift is a cause for celebration. But if it comes at a cost; if many women – but few men – are having to choose between realising their professional potential and having children, then it’s not really equality at all.
Meanwhile, writer Camilla Long said she was “astonished by the constant assumptions that childfree women in politics wanted kids but felt they couldn’t have them,” and, yes, it’s possible none of those pictured have the desire to be mothers. But enough successful women have spoken out for us to know that there is a tension between having children and a high-flying career. It is not impossible to combine the two, but those who do have to be ultra-organised. Some may feel it is too much to ask of themselves, while many more will make no conscious choice: they will just keep on focusing on their work until suddenly they realise it’s too late.
Even if Long is right – if most childless/childfree female politicians are not interested in having children – they ought to be concerned about the plight of women who are and who appear to be finding it more challenging than them to make it to the top. It would be sad if a resentment between the childless/childfree and mothers, or an unwillingness to talk about reproductive choices, resulted in a failure to understand the different challenges faced by each or to work together for the betterment of all.
One day, whether or not women have children will have so little bearing on their chances of success, this discussion will be redundant, but we’re not there yet. So while the New Statesman cover is offensive – the question it poses is not. I’m glad it was asked. And I hope the quest to make politics and motherhood more compatible is stepped up as a result. «