The promise of feminism

There’s an old joke:

Guy 1: My mother made me a homosexual.
Guy 2: If I get her the wool can she make me one too?

My mother made me a feminist.

I come from a long line of unwed mothers. My own mother was an unwed mother, as were both of my grandmothers. Unplanned pregnancies have dominated the lives of generations of women of my family. Daughters raised as sisters. Mysterious disappearances. A sister was one, so was an aunt. There are cousins that were/are too, but of course, there’s far less stigma nowadays.

Both of my grandmothers, one from England, one from Mexico, had a child in the forties, years before they married my grandfathers after the war. Both of them were forced to give up those children, and both of them felt compelled to keep their motherhood a secret from their new families on the other side of the world. They both died without ever re-connecting with the children. It’s a common story amongst the poor. I’m sure every family has its stories.

My Mum fell pregnant at 15 out of ignorance. I wish I could ask her mother (the English grandmother) why she let her daughter be ignorant: she was a nurse in the war, and midwife. She didn’t even prepare Mum for menstruation, Mum thought she was dying. When it finally became apparent she was pregnant late in the pregnancy — she was ignorant about that too — she was sent to a church-run home (she calls it the Naughty Girls Home) to have the baby, and there forced to give the child up for adoption. The home kept her in ignorance of the causes and preventions of pregnancy, and shortly after she and the father were expecting a second child. Me. She fought to keep me. He was sent away to England.

The Pill was available in 1969, when I was conceived and born, but denied to my mother because of “morality”. It was only available, by prescription, to married women. On my thirteenth birthday Mum sat me down and told me about the sister she’d had to give up. She also told me that ‘if I liked a boy that much’ I should tell her and she’d take me a doctor to get The Pill. I don’t know which astonished me more. I now know that the mere fact she could offer me The Pill is astonishing.

My generation is the first who truly have choice over our biology.

Roe vs Wade and the assertion that women have rights over their own bodies happened after I started school.

Denied knowledge herself, Mum made sure me, and the sister that came along after me, did not suffer the same fate. I knew the basic mechanics of sex leading to child birth aged 4 (I was disinterested in the information). Around aged 10 she started a concerted campaign to ensure I knew ‘the facts of life’. I had already learned at school that ‘sex is rude’, so I artfully dodged all her attempts to ‘have the talk’ with me, changing the subject, leaving the room (my much-younger sister clung to every word, leading to some of our most hilarious family legends). So Mum bought me books and left them in my room. I read them by torchlight after bed and carefully replaced them as she left them, so I had plausible deniability if she asked if I’d read them.

Then there was the ambush/talk on my thirteenth birthday. She genuinely said, “I’d rather see you come home in a police car, than come home pregnant.”

My mother made me a feminist (call 1800 SHE ROCKS for the pattern) by telling me age 8 that I was going to university, and working hard to get me the education that would make that possible. She made me a feminist by giving me The Women’s Room and The Feminine Mystique (and letting me sneak Fear of Flying and The Happy Hooker from the bookshelf in her bedroom).

Mum made me a feminist by making sure I knew motherhood was a choice. She’d tell my sister and I and all the time, “I love you and I wouldn’t change a thing but live your lives before you have children.”

“Once you have children, that’s what your life becomes about.”

She also said “I hope you have children just like you.” This was usually shouted at my sister and me because we were being horrible. It’s a toss-up which talk had the most impact. Neither of us have children, by choice.

One of the reasons for my choice not to have children is that not much has changed: it is still women who do the bulk of the labour in the home. Parenting impacts career prospects, lifetime earnings and pension for women, but not for men. If the relationship ends the woman will most likely take on the lion’s share of child rearing. The cost of child care, and inflexible workplaces, mean it’s hard to combine work and motherhood, but few couples can make ends meet without two incomes.

There’s a post titled When I Became a Mother, Feminism Let Me Down striking a chord in some quarters on Facebook and Twitter. It argues that feminism is doing women disservice by under-valuing motherhood.

Feminism, it’s time to catch up. Our women deserve better.
Let’s tell them they can be anything they want — including a Mum, and let’s start telling them just how important that is.

Motherhood is worshipped in our culture, in theory at least, but it’s not valued. But that’s been true for a long time. If motherhood was valued, Mum would have been supported to keep my sister, or at least given the option of avoiding a second child. There was no single parent benefit then. She worked in another city during the week while my grandparents cared for me, and came home on weekends. She was unemployable because of the shame of being a mother. At the same time, married women were banned from many jobs.

And by God (and usually in the name of) aren’t certain parties working hard to keep it that way? Single mothers to prove they are single in Australia. Women denied child support for any more than 2 children in the UK, unless they prove they were forced to have the child through rape. The defunding of Planned Parenthood in the US.

It’s not feminists forcing single mothers to go to work. It’s not feminism denying women maternity leave. It’s certainly not feminism denying proper sex education in schools.

Men, especially religious men, have used our biology to control us for time immemorial. For the first time, some of us have gained freedom from that control, but they are not giving up without a fight. The work of getting mothering valued is not going to be done by anyone but feminists. The promise of feminism is that it will fight so we get to have a say over our lives, so that our lives are not dominated by one aspect of our biology. Nobody’s promising that we’ve won.

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