Motherhood, work and children (Chapter 7, Beyond Right and Left, Allen & Unwin, 2005.)
I have only ever experienced one truly life-transforming event. It was being a house-father for six months soon after the birth of my daughter in 1981. It was transforming because it revealed a side of everyday life of which I was utterly unaware; it revealed a side of myself of which I was utterly unaware; it transformed my relationship with my daughter for many years and it permanently changed my way of looking at the world. Years later I was once asked 'if you had one wish to make a better world, what would it be?' I responded: 'that every father cares for their child at home for at least six months.'
Ilse was born in February 1981 after a longish labour by her mother at the birth centre at the old Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney. After Ilse's mother was trollied away for some stitches, the mid-wife departed and I was left alone with Ilse whom I cradled in my arms. As the minutes ticked by I became alarmed. Being supportive during labour was one thing, now I was on my own with an hour-old baby - where was the manual, the instruction kit? Apprehension combined with elation. My experience of her complete vulnerability and dependence on my care was repeated many times in the coming months. Meanwhile, Ilse gurgled and reflexively sucked the tip of my finger. Two weeks later she attended her first demonstration, International Women's Day, along with Mum and Dad.
The following six months resembled a kind of normalcy for me. I left each morning to work on a small left wing weekly newspaper. Our small collective wrote, sub-edited, laid out and printed the paper - as well as cleaned and swept the offices. I'd come home fairly tired and at the door Ilse's mother would greet me and then immediately put Ilse into my arms. She too was tired. How come? She had been at home all day, while I had been at work. I didn't fully understand until months later when I became a house father.
When Ilse was six months old, her mother returned to work and I took over at home for the next six months. Nothing prepared me for the surprise that parenting could be so demanding, both physically and psychologically. Nappies demanded constant washing and drying on the line. Bottle feeding was an elaborate ritual which began with a search of inner-city health shops every few days for goat's milk. This simple trip involved taking Ilse in a carry-basket along with a spare nappy, bottle and spare clothes. Then boiling the milk (but not too long) bottling it, checking its warmth (not too warm) and feeding Ilse. At all times, I had to be constantly aware - to develop a sixth sense - about where she was, what she was doing. How did mothers cope with two, let alone three or four children, I wondered? At the back of my mind during all this time was my nightmare fantasy was that she would one day pull a saucepan of hot water down over herself or eat something toxic as she crawled quickly around the house.
During that time and later, I became aware of unexpected emotional and psychological changes in myself. I had become more vulnerable. My sense of well being was profoundly attached to that of another, utterly dependent, small human being. She was, after, all the most stunning and precious thing that had ever come into my life. This vulnerability and sense of caring extended to unrelated parts of my life. A year or so later I realized that I was no longer taking pleasure in risky stunts while bushwalking or in eating lunch with my legs dangling over the edge of 40 metre cliff face. My walking mates thought I had become a little neurotic.
My 'world view' changed too. Most mornings by 9am, the people from our terrace share-house and those from our street had all left for work in offices and factories. Left behind was another workforce which I had unwittingly joined. After 9am I'd push the stroller with Ilse up to the shops. I noticed other people pushing strollers with small children -- my fellow workers, all women. As the first weeks ticked by it gradually dawned on me that I was observing, and had entered, a parallel world that had been hidden in plain view all the time that I was self-importantly writing articles, discussing politics and working on our little newspaper. It was the parallel world of mothers and very young children, the world of home-work, the world of social reproduction which parallels the public world of production and paid work.
In this chapter I want to examine the pressures of work and family, what we mean by equality between women and men and by the culture war over 'family values'
The flowering of feminism
History is littered with the sudden emergence of movements for social change which begin with a very small but radical core of people committed a vision which strikes a profound chord among a broader number of people and then spreads rapidly throughout the society.
The sweeping revolution initiated by what was once called the women's liberation movement has not only affected the texture of our everyday lives, it is reflected in changes in the positions of authority once occupied almost entirely by men. In 1970, when feminism emerged from the universities and from left wing circles, there were three women in the Australian parliament; at the time of writing (2004) there are 56. The first presenter on a significant Australian television program, Caroline Jones on Four Corners, was appointed in 1972. Today there are many women presenters, including those in 'voice of authority' news broadcasting. The first woman to pilot a passenger aircraft, Christine Davy, did so in 1974 while Deborah Wardley became the first pilot for a major commercial airline in 1980, after a battle at the Equal Opportunities Commission. The first female judge in the High Court, Mary Gaudron, was appointed in 1987. The first female state premier, Carmen Lawrence, was elected in 1990. In 2001 Christine Nixon was appointed first Police Commissioner in Australia. The revolution in the education of women is striking. Women students at universities now make up 56 per cent of the total and are roughly half in many medical and law faculties, once largely the preserve of male students.
In the mid 1960s, women who married had to resign their permanent positions in the Commonwealth Public Service, a practice known as the 'marriage bar' which passed into history in 1966. In 1969 and 1972, forms of equal pay decisions lead to increases in the earnings of some women workers. In 1977 the first state Sex Discrimination Act was passed and in 1984 its federal counterpart came into operation. Shortly afterwards the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission began its work. By the late 1980s equal opportunity programs, aimed at tackling deeper structural issues of discrimination in jobs were widespread in major institutions. Beneath these headline events, deep cultural changes affected ordinary people no less profoundly. Established ideas and prejudices about women's 'proper role' were criticised, cast aside or radically reformed on the basis of insights of a reinvigorated feminism.
The women's movement also detonated a revolution in intellectual frameworks, challenging the ways we saw the world. Until the late 1960s feminism was seen as an interesting but old fashioned movement largely concerned with female voting rights. After the 1960s, feminism revived notions of equality and individual rights in the most dramatic way possible,. These were central ideas of the 300 year old doctrine of liberalism. Many other intellectual frameworks flourished in the early days of the women's movement, including socialism which linked social class to women's oppression and feminist separatism which argued for all-female institutions and practices based on the celebration of women-centred values. But the main way in which the goals of feminism were socially validated and translated into public policy was through an argument about equal rights which was based ultimately on liberalism. The appeal of liberalism was wide and thus the ideals which began on the streets with a radical women's liberation movement were soon taken up by broader layers of women in established political parties, in trade unions, in business and in the professions.
So completely have feminism's aims diffused into broader society that there is today no longer a definable 'women's movement' with a single view on what constitutes feminism. Elements of feminism have been absorbed into the legal framework, into social policy, into everyday conversation, into TV sitcoms --- into the whole culture. Everyday life has been transformed, overwhelmingly for the better.
But 35 years after the first whispers of what became a roar of social change, the movement for women's equality and women's rights has run into a road block. Feminist academic, Professor Belinda Probert notes 'progress towards gender equity appears to have stalled'. Writer Anne Summers in her book, The End of Equality, argues: '[A]lthough the language of equality is still used, and despite the successes of so many individual women, the actual experience of far too many women in Australia suggests that the promise of equality has to been met. Sadly, we are actually going in the opposite direction.' The steady drift toward social conservatism has been going on for some time, summed up in the phrase 'family values'.
Some of the awkward facts which constitute the roadblock include:
• Women have not flooded into full time employment. In spite of growing levels of tertiary education, higher pay, an end to social disapproval (and legal barriers) of married women working, 'the proportion of women 15 to 59 years employed full time is much the same today as it was 35 years ago', notes economist Bob Gregory with puzzlement. Also surprising, full time employment has increased among married women and fallen among single women.
• Women have, however, moved into part time work in large numbers. Forty four percent of women in paid jobs work part time. While paid work offers a degree of financial independence it is often not the first step towards a full time job, in part because many women appear to seek work that allows them to continue to do housework and raise children.
• Child raising was one of those things that the New Age Man would share with the New Liberated Woman. But it has not happened. The gender of primary care givers for children has not changed much at all. And when paid leave is available to fathers, it is not always taken up.
• Housework is still overwhelmingly done by women. The apparent small increase in men's share of housework is largely because the number of hours done by women has decreased.
• Families with two wage earning parents find it increasingly hard to find adequate and unpressured time to spend with their children, let alone with each other. In the last three years both major parties acknowledged this largely hidden family crisis as a national problem and promised to do something about it.
• A substantial number of married women with children continue not to work outside the home. Even when the youngest child is teenaged one in four mothers are not in paid work; when the youngest is 4-5 years, it's 41 per cent. If the road to women's emancipation lies through work outside the home, then a substantial number of mothers are a stubborn part of the roadblock.
The family crisis around work and care and the fertility crisis are both somehow linked to the rise of second wave feminism, the most important and valuable social change we have seen in recent times. If we take the long view, this impasse at the beginning of the 21st century should not surprise us. History has a lesson and it concerns how social reformers over the last few hundred years have vainly tried to envisage the role of mothers and children in an imagined, future society. These utopian writings often prefigured a more equal society and a more materially rich life for ordinary people - much of which has come to pass in the wealthy West. But when it came to child birth and rearing children, social reformers have imagined the most fantastic solutions, often involving the magic of spontaneous conception in Herland (a visionary work in 1915 by American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman) or through laboratory fixes as in Marg Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and in Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex. Socialist writers also envisaged less fantastic but quite unreal schemes for the complete communal (or government) rearing of children, virtually breaking of the bond between parent and child. Needless to say such schemes have come to nought.
Both in history and in modern times, in spite of important advances the movement for gender equality has stalled and the roadblock has something to do with the complex connectedness of caring for children, gender roles and paid work. Moreover, in many major industrial countries the issues of care for children, care for the aged and declining fertility have shot to the top of the political agenda. It seems like the right time to intervene on family policy with progressive and feminist ideas, but that's the problem. What exactly constitutes a progressive and feminist response, given the experience of the last 35 years? That's what lies behind the 'mother wars' so bitterly fought out in newspaper columns in Australia and overseas. At its most positive (and this is rare) the 'mother wars' debate is about how to renew the feminist vision and in this chapter I'll try to describe the parameters of that debate and make some suggestions.
The price of motherhood
Ann Crittenden is an American feminist who could be the prototype for the generation of women fashioned by feminism. Until the early 1980s she was a reporter on the New York Times, living a lifestyle built around a deep and satisfying commitment to her job. Ready to travel at a moments notice, she and her husband often ate out and employed a cleaner. In 1982 Crittenden gave birth to a boy and the consequences for her life - and the wider consequences for modern motherhood, she recounts in the book The Price of Motherhood.
Before she gave birth, Crittenden admits to feeling 'superior' to housewives. She wondered: 'Why aren't they making something of themselves? What's wrong with them? They're letting our side down'. She went on:
I imagined that domestic drudgery was going to be swept into the dustbin of history as men and women linked arms and marched off to run the world on a new egalitarian alliance. It never occurred to me that women might be at home because there were children there; that housewives might become extinct, but mothers and fathers never would.
In her account of her experience, Crittenden concludes that in spite of the rhetoric of 'family values' the central work of most families, that of child rearing, is systematically devalued by society. Crittenden illustrates this by translating the cost of motherhood into dollars and cents. For herself, as a well paid journalist, she estimates the cost of her decision to have a child and forgo income and superannuation was between $600 and $700, 000, a cost she describes as 'the mommy tax'. For a woman on average wages, the price is smaller but relatively just as high. The point of this was not to suggest that the value and meaning of having a child can be equated with a monetary calculation but to highlight the unreasonable penalty which women bear when they have a child.
In spite of 30 years of struggle for equality it is still women who make adjustments for the sake of having children and, thinks Crittenden, it is likely to continue to be that way. Given this impasse for mothers, Crittenden concluded:
As the twenty first century begins, women may be approaching equality, but mothers are still far behind. Changing the status of mothers, by gaining real recognition of their work, is the great unfinished business of the women's movement...But revaluing motherhood will not be easy. Even feminists are often reluctant to admit that many women's lives revolve around their children... the standard feminist response to the fact that child-rearing marginalises women is not to raise its status but to urge men to do more of it. Though this has been the cry for thirty years, almost 100 per cent of the primary caregivers of young children are still women. This suggests feminism needs a fresh strategy. [emphasis added]
Questions of strategy
The women's liberation movement discussed strategy passionately when it first emerged -- in the US, UK and Australia - and one of the first and fundamental questions it faced was the 'wages for housework' or 'mothers' wage' debate. Should the new movement demand that full time housewives and mothers be paid a wage in recognition of the value of their work? In 1974, just a few years after the first meetings of the women's liberation movement, an article in the new journal Refractory Girl discussed this issue. Its author was one of the early activists of Australian feminism, Liz Windschuttle, who discussed a proposal for a 'mothers' allowance' floated by the Department of Social Security under its Labor Minister Bill Hayden. While rejecting the idea that 'all women's problems will be solved if they join the workforce', she concluded that 'the woman who stays at home, isolated from her sisters, financially dependent on a man, her ideas very largely determined by advertising agents and the other trivia merchants of the mass media, is least likely to be a force for any sort of social change.'
She posed the key question: will a mother's wage raise the consciousness of housewives 'by allowing them to see that their jobs are socially necessary and worthy of a wages' or will it enforce 'the idea that a woman's natural role is that of a housewife/mother?' She added : 'What should be the attitude of feminists to women remaining housewives/mothers? Are there any circumstances where this is desirable or should we encourage all women to work outside the home?' To the two questions in the last sentence Windschuttle answered, respectively, no and yes, and in this she spoke for nearly all of the women's movement. While isolated feminist groups took up the fight for 'wages for house work', the most convincing argument to the majority was that the road to equality lay through paid work for all. This would lead to a wider public world where women would take their place in politics, the professions, the church, corporations, trade unions - in every male-dominated institution. The article and the movement posed the choice as between paid work or housewife-mother, that is between women who stayed at home and those who worked. It seemed a simple choice.
Windschuttle's article was written in the middle of what was, on the face of it, a dramatic shift into the workforce away from the housewife-mother role. In 1966 36 percent of women were in the labour force and by 2002 this had risen to 55 percent. As a result the traditional male breadwinner family has been overtaken by the dual income family. But this is not a family of two identical income earners -- it is more complicated. Women flooded into part time jobs, three quarters of which are now held by women. Women working in these part time jobs constitute 44 per cent of working women. These changes have had a major impact on the working and family lives of Australians and are the subject of a study by someone who is supportive of feminism but prepared to ask some hard questions.
The work-life collision in Australia
Apart from producing one of the best studies of work-family issues, Barbara Pocock has the distinction of creating a new phrase in the language, 'the work-life collision'. It's the title of her book published in 2003. Using extensive social science data and nearly 200 interviews, Pocock investigates the transformation of work and care in Australia over the last 40 years. The transformation has not been easy, nor has it turned out the way it was expected.
Paid work, Pocock argues, was not the only goal of feminism but it was a key goal for women's entry into public life and much progress has been made toward it. But 'this goal has found its happy co-conspirator in a market greedy for women's labour, its 'flexibility' and enthusiastic for the spending power of women's earnings. Of all of feminism's goals, entry to paid work has been the most compatible with the globalising market.'
But at the time more women were entering paid work, the workforce was undergoing a transformation. Gains made in previous decades were being rolled back. The price of efficiency and competitiveness meant that Australians started to work longer and longer hours, often unpaid overtime, and significantly, women's share of these longer hours grew and is still growing. The proportion of workers spending more than 45 hours a week at work increased from 18 per cent in 1985 to 26 per cent in 2001. In many workplaces, work has intensified and working hours now often cover weekends and unsocial times of the day. Australians, says Pocock, have a 'long hours culture'.
All of this has consequences for the two million couple families with children and the over 750,000 single parent families, all juggling work and care responsibilities. As Pocock points out: 'Changes in workplaces have reduced the number of hours we have available to spend on our homes, communities and care. Activities that were once mostly the province of women at home -- cooking and care of small children for example - are increasingly provided by the market.' Spending on child care has increased four fold between 1984 and 1998-99 and between 1993 and 1996, the proportion of children under the age of three who were in formal child care rose by 27 per cent.
Within the home, women still do far more housework than their partners. Women on average do 33 hours a week of housework, child care and shopping compared to men's 17 hours a week. The surveys which suggest that the gender gap on housework is decreasing largely rely on the fact that women are now doing less housework, rather than men doing more. . While much has been written about the super-mum who can 'have it all', Pocock discovered this belies angst and unhappiness. Working mothers are often full of guilt at not being a 'proper mother'. There is enormous pressure to be a 'super mum' and to develop an intensive style of 'super mothering' alongside paid work. 'Most women spoke of the remorse they felt at not being able to do it all - be there for the kids and meeting the family's financial needs, the expectations of motherhood and their own ambitions or experience.'
Moreover, women are divided. 'Interestingly, women with jobs feel criticised for being working mothers (called selfish and 'money hungry') while on the other hand, women at home feel criticised for being lazy, incompetent or unable to "get a job"'. Despite the sentimental valorization of motherhood in society, the mother at home is often regarded as a 'non person'. Comments Pocock: 'Those who respect full time mothering and those who do it, work against the grain of society where so much of personal worth, value and self is shaped by a worker identity established through the market.'
This taps into a wider paradigm in which the family is functioning. One of the answers for many families is commodified, market-supplied care and some of us prefer this rather than engaging in the more complex emotional exchanges with grandparents or friends which non-market care involves. The market sets a clear rate for the job, free of this kind of reciprocity. But the long term problem is that non-market exchanges - -reciprocal favours, donations, help, care - are what builds personal and community relationships. 'Mutual non-monetary exchanges have embedded with in them - indeed create - personal and community relationships. These obligations are the stuff of community and generalized reciprocity. They create trust and long term witnesses to one's life.' One of the deeper processes occurring in the work-life collision is a competition between two kinds of life-world. 'While the market hungrily offers its commodified supports (food and all kinds of services delivered to the door) where the prospect of profit exists, the engine for non-monetary community creation ... is a weaker machine, one that is starved in the face of time pressures in streets where work sucks both time and place.'
This collision between the demands of work and home is quite historically unprecedented and the crisis created, which might have once been regarded as a private matter, has become a matter for national political debate. Prime Minister John Howard referred to the problem as the 'barbecue stopper' - the sensitive discussion which dramatically brings to halt the normal small talk of that most ordinary of social occasions. Women, it seems, can be anything: high flying lawyers, corporate chiefs, government ministers, but they are finding it much harder to be mothers these days.
What do women want?
One of the most influential figures in the debate is Canberra demographer Peter McDonald who characterizes this debate as dealing with the transition from the 'male breadwinner' model of the family to the 'gender equity' model. He defines 'gender equity' as a situation in which 'there is incoming earning work, household maintenance work, and caring and nurturing work, but gender has no specific relationship to who does which type of work.' (Like others in this debate, McDonald states that his definition of 'gender equity' does not 'imply exact equality' between the man and the woman' but then defines it in terms of 'equality of resources and capabilities' of men and women. Yet men and women are not equal in one vital capability - that of giving birth to children.) He believes we are on the road to a gender equity family, and that 'a large majority of Australians have adopted the gender equity model'.
His evidence for this is a survey which shows 95% of men and women agree that 'if both the husband and wife work, they should share equally in the housework and care of the children'. When asked about the statement 'It is better for the family if the husband in the principal breadwinner and the wife has primary responsibility for the home and the children' then 34% of men and 31 % of women agree. Around one third agreeing with a 'traditional' family is not inconsiderable but McDonald seems to believes this is a temporary situation and that the tide will continue to run the way of 'gender equity' as he defines it. He argues that the problem lies in the fact that social institutions have been subjected to the goals of feminism but the family is lagging behind. 'The core change required is the one which is the most difficult. Gender equity needs to be promoted within the family itself. Changes in cultural values are slow and idealized family morality is resistant to change.' McDonald suggests that 'a different socialization of children can lead to change in the next generation' perhaps with more gender equity content in school curricula. McDonald's statement should give us pause. He says the institutions have changed but the people are lagging behind. One could ask, on whose behalf and in whose interest, have the institutions changed? No wonder the ideologues of the Right talk about feminists and the Left as 'cultural elites' engaged in social engineering.
But McDonald's view that we are on the way to a family model in which work in done regardless of gender is contested by contrary results from other surveys. Two other researchers, Mariah Evans and Jonathan Kelley, have written a series of articles based on large scale surveys reporting that the overwhelming majority of mothers (71 per cent) think that mothers should not work when their children are of pre-school age. A substantial minority (27 per cent) think part time employment with young children is good, while a tiny two percent favor full time work.
Another critic is feminist writer Anne Manne who has often written about the dilemmas thrown up by employment-defined equality. She points to one of the most sensitive issues of all which is research which suggests that certain kinds of institutional child care may have detrimental effects on children, especially on the very young and on children who spend long hours in care. In particular that 'children in over 30 hours of care in all ranges of care and including father care, showed three times as many aggressive behavioural problems as children in care for less than ten hours'. The research, some of the most sophisticated and extensive ever carried out, usually brings the response from some feminist critics that the detriment is due to poor quality care but as Manne points out all variables such as 'quality of care, type of care, mother attributes and stability of care were carefully taken into account. Quantity not quality was the issue.' Perhaps reservations about child care explain women's preference for caring for their child themselves in its early years, she suggests. Manne may well be right but the problem for many people committed to extensive child care to underpin their work choices is that it is difficult to discuss such results in a detached and calm way. This research simply cannot be true.
Anne Manne also points to the work of British sociologist Catherine Hakim who has been demonised as if she is a rabid moral conservative. But this is misleading and simplistic. The basis for this attack began with her outspoken criticism of what she called 'feminist myths' in sociological research. Hakim criticised was the denial of certain facts because they were assumed to undermine employment-oriented feminism. Hakim is best known for what she calls 'preference theory'. She uses opinion surveys to ask men and women to express their personal preferences for one of three different family models. The first, the egalitarian, was a family where 'two partners have an equally demanding job and where housework and care of children are shared equally.' The second model, the 'compromise', was one where 'the wife has a less demanding job than the husband and where she does the larger share of the housework and caring for the children'. The third is the 'separate roles' family where 'only the husband has a job and the wife runs the home'. She argues that none of these options has overwhelming support although the traditional 'separate roles' model has clearly lost its dominance.
On the basis of her analysis of men and women's expressed preferences and other data , Hakim concludes that government policies should be neutral, supporting a diversity of preferences on how to arrange the work-life balance. Ultimately, she says, part of this diversity involves paying 'all full time mothers a wage for their time and efforts while their children are small.' Where such a policy has been tried the allowance could also be used to pay for childcare services but most mothers take the allowance for themselves. Apart from anything else, this is a good anti-poverty measure, as Manne argues.
By contrast analysts influenced by employment-oriented feminism look at the rise in the number of women working part time and see the positives - a chance to broaden their outlook, be financially independent, participate in the public world and essentially take steps towards equality. They conclude that more steps along the road to equality could be achieved if only more women could work full time and they conclude that this depends on government policies supporting child care, maternity leave and similar supports. But they rule out financial support for full time mothers.
Hakim can be criticised because her categories of preference are drawn too rigidly whereas the lived reality is blurred as many women make transitions in their life from full time work, to full time care then back to part time or full time work. What this means is that most women value the benefits of a paid job and also recognise the value of caring. Their preferences vary at different times. Barbara Pocock points to such a 'three-stage transition [which] is common for women' but warns that this is only an 'average pattern of the majority. There are many variations around the mean. Many women spend extended periods at home especially with multiple children. On the other hand, a third return to paid work relatively quickly after having their last baby'.
All commentators agree that the popularity of the traditional male breadwinner family with dependants has been overtaken by the dual income family. But this conceals as well as reveals. Today's traditional family is tomorrow's dual earner family and vice versa. As well, most dual income families are 'modified traditional households with one and a half workers in many cases.' And in any case about 30 percent of families with children still fit the traditional mould of working father and home-based mother.
Recognition and support for diversity should surely be the foundation of family support policies yet this conflicts with the definition of equality centred largely around fulltime paid work. One of the great acheivements of modern feminism was to struggle to broaden women's choice by breaking down legal and cultural barriers to wider fields of employment and to authoritative positions in society. But having achieved much of this and having expanded choice, somehow we are reluctant to accept that women who chose to stay at home for extended periods after the birth of their child are in fact freely choosing. We blame only ideological blinkers or structural impediments such as lack of child care. Lack of affordable childcare is indeed a problem preventing some women from working but it does not wholly explain the choice by many women to care for their child(ren) themselves. Some feminists may feel privately, as Ann Crittenden did, that such women were also 'letting the side down'. But perhaps we should look again at the meaning of equality and choice.
Separating motherhood from patriarchal values
The paradigm of feminism which assumes the equality (and liberation) of women mostly depending on long term, full time participation in the paid work force is not succeeding for two reasons. First, it cannot explain the actual behaviour and diverse choices made by many women who become mothers. Second, philosophically, it is an expression of a kind of liberalism which, while it has many virtues, imposes an inflexible model which fails to capture the major ethical and emotional dimensions of human lives. It also fails to cope with the felt needs of many women centred around the notion of love and caring. Prizing these qualities has been a submerged current of feminist thought which has recently re-emerged in the work of a number of feminist writers who cannot be dismissed as mere 'conservatives' or enemies of feminism.
One such is Germaine Greer who describes her 1999 book, The Whole Woman, as the sequel to feminist classic The Female Eunuch, first published in 1970. Greer says she was also driven to write The Whole Woman because of her alarm at the fate of feminism and her rejection of what was being claimed in the name of feminism. Women might well have broken barriers to join male institutions but rather than transforming them, they simply accepted their values and practices. The renaming of the women's movement from its original title, Women' Liberation to feminism masked a deeper change.
What none of us noticed was that the ideal of liberation was fading out with the word. We were settling for equality. Liberation struggles are not about assimilation but asserting difference, endowing that difference with dignity and prestige and insisting on it as a condition of self-definition and self-determination.... Seekers after equality clamored to be admitted to smoke-filled male haunts. Liberationists sought the world over for clues to what women's lives could be like if they were free to define their own values, order their own priorities and decide their own fate.
Motherhood is a central concern for Greer. Where once the social ideal of motherhood acted as a straight jacket for women's potential and identity, today motherhood is scarcely understood and sometimes reviled. Breast feeding mothers cause a panic and children are regarded as a 'personal indulgence'. The ideal of feminine beauty has become 'boyishly slim and hipless, the broad hips and full bosom of maternity as monstrous as motherhood itself.' Mothers' experience of raising children is intense and unlike that of most fathers: 'The experience of falling desperately in love with one's baby is by no means universal but it is an occupational hazard for any women giving birth.'
Germaine Greer acknowledges that her views on motherhood have changed. She disentangled the experience of motherhood from the oppressive practices which devalued it and which forced women to limit their horizons to it. In The Female Eunuch she had argued that motherhood should not be treated as a 'substitute career'. She now believes that motherhood should be regarded as a genuine career and as paid work. 'What this would mean is that every woman who decides to have a child would be paid enough money to raise that child in decent circumstances. The choice, whether to continue in her employment outside the home and use the money to pay for professional help in raising her child or stay at home and devote her time to doing it herself, should be hers.' In her conclusion she says, with characteristic over-statement: 'Women's liberation must be mothers' liberation or it is nothing.'
Greer does not have the last word on the meaning of feminism but she is an important participant in a growing debate which is re-discussing women, employment and the family. With a healthy contempt for politically correct restraints on debate she reminds us that an original component of feminism challenged not just the overwhelming institutional power of males but also the patriarchal values which pervaded the culture. Underlying much of The Whole Woman is a concern with how different women are to men, both physically, psychologically and in the values which women tend to express. She is aware that to many feminists (particularly in academia) this commits the crime of 'essentialism' i.e. believing that men and women are born with different psychological qualities as well as physical chacteristics. On the basis of essentialist ideas, it is said, women have been regarded as inferior. But to reach that conclusion you have to assume that the 'female' qualities are of less value.
The politics of care
Behind the 'work-life collision' and the fertility crisis are a series of knotty problems around motherhood, the family, equality for women and women's' values that have been debated within feminism for many years. Greer's recent work reminds us that in the mid-1970s a strong tendency existed within feminism which valued women's special attributes, including the ability to give birth and a nurturing temperament. This 'cultural feminism' prized traits that might be described as maternal, 'a certain consciousness of care for others, flexibility, non-competitiveness, cooperation ...' As a tendency within feminism, cultural feminism subsided partly because it became associated with an inward-turning separatism and partly because, whether this had occurred or not, it could not operationalise its aims into a practical political strategy around work and mothering. The latter required linking the abstract and ideal aims of the movement with the practical reality of many other women, through a series of campaigns to improve their lives. The only attempt at such a strategic demand was 'wages for housework' or 'a mothers wage', but at that time this demand struck a resonance with neither the young feminists nor with the mass of women and was largely rejected, as we saw earlier. By contrast, a different current within feminism which was based on equality within the framework of paid work, became very successful. It coincided with a pre-existing tendency of women to enter paid work, it appealed to the ideals of fairness and equality and it offered women the financial independence. Traditional 'women's work' such as child raising and housework, it was envisaged, would be shared equally between the two employed parents.
Philosophically, this current of employment-focused feminism was a form of liberalism and was part of the re-energizing of liberalism that occurred from the late 1960s onwards. Like all liberalism, its great strength was a recognition of equality in the face of backward-looking, ancient prejudices. It asserts a common humanity between men and women which gives this current within feminism a continuing relevance. Its weakness was that it tended to go further than this and insisted on an identicality between men and women. Moreover its rise coincided with the rise of another kind of liberalism - neo-liberal economic thinking - which assumed the supremacy of the market and the public economy of production and which deepened the devaluation of the world of care and reproduction. This neo-liberal devaluation of care and the limitations of liberalism are among the reasons that this interpretation of feminism has reached the road block acknowledged earlier.
But cultural feminism which identified women's special attributes was not quite dead. For some time it has been enjoying a rebirth in the wake of research by feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan. In 1982 Gilligan wrote a book, In a Different Voice, based on research on people facing difficult moral conflicts or choices (one conflict concerned abortion). Gilligan argued that she had found a 'different moral voice', which she called an 'ethic of care' and which she contrasted to the traditional ethic of rights in political philosophy. The former was found largely among women and the latter among men. The naming of caring as a vital human activity based on attentiveness to needs and to sustaining relationships was an important conceptual advance which crystallised a widely recognised but 'invisible' social phenomenon.
Arising from Gilligan's original research has been an ongoing academic debate about the meaning of 'an ethic of care' largely applied to the fields of nursing, education and welfare. It has not yet been articulated in a political outlook in the wider society. Critics of the 'ethic of care' fear that it will undermine the advances by women by reinforcing the idea that women are naturally disposed to caring. This is seen to entail the risk that women will revert to denial of self, will lose financial independence and continue to over work. But what if women are biologically inclined to be empathetic and to value relationships more than men? This is, first of all, a question of fact, in the sense that either it is the case or it is not. Eventually knowledge of the make-up of humans will settle this question. If it proves to be the case then it needs to be faced and discussed. Second, the devaluation of caring and the assumption of male norms is surely a significant part of the cause of women's oppression and if this is so, then the struggle is to initiate major social and legal reforms which value caring and empathy.
Is it possible to use an 'ethic of care' as part of a political philosophy without risking all the gains for women and plunging them back into performing compulsory care? Is it possible to spread the values embodied in nurturing and caring to men, indeed further, so that they imbue social structures, politics and our culture? This is indeed possible (though it will not be easy) and, in my view, represents a vital element in fashioning new ideas beyond Right and Left. Many creative and valuable ideas in this direction are now emerging from feminists who have confronted the problem.
Part of the answer lies in tackling those awkward questions: in the wake of women's entry to paid work, why have men not stepped in to do their share of caring work? There are many possible answers to this question. Some are concern the structure of jobs and careers, others concern the values and privileges of men who refuse to do caring work.
One of the clues comes from what Ann Crittenden said earlier in this chapter. 'The standard feminist response to the fact that child-rearing marginalises women is not to raise its status but to urge men to do more of it.' Only a few men have responded and it is unlikely that the majority will do so unless changes are made to entrench the value of caring in out culture and laws. Like a growing number of people, Crittenden argues that child-rearing is an extremely valuable - but under valued - human activity. It is the foundation on which sits 'human capital'. But even economists who recognise that the skills and knowledge of a workforce have a major value, often do not recognise that the formation of this 'capital' begins in the first years of child's life and not simply through learning skills at school or in universities which is mostly what is meant by the term. Most countries do not collect statistics about the labour of women in the home and with children. Where they do, such as Australia, it is found to constitute roughly half of the Gross Domestic Product.
In spite of its actual value, the raising of children is largely unvalued by the New Capitalism and done at a cost to mothers. One of the major reasons why men still dominate the upper rungs of many institutions and organisations is not because they discriminate against women in some simple sense but because they these organisations assume their employees are care-less and because most men act as if they are care-free (even though many are fathers.) This prejudice against care means that those women and few men who give priority to care are penalized when they try to assume positions of institutional authority.
Nevertheless many mothers care for their children when young. In so doing they make a 'huge gift of unreimbursed time and labor', argues Crittenden and this is a major reason why adult women are so much poorer than men - even though they work longer hours than men in almost every country in the world. 'In economics, a "free rider" is someone who benefits from a good without contributing to its provision: in other words, someone who gets something for nothing. By that definition, both the family and the global economy are classic examples of free riding. Both are dependent on female caregivers who offer their labor in return for little or no compensation.' Barbara Pocock, who analyzed the work-life collision, agrees and points out that neo-liberal economists barely recognise this with their myopic focus on market relations. In fact, 'the paid workforce and its entire product actually swims unconsciously atop, and wholly dependent upon, an unrecognized world of the unpaid -- where workers, and their managers and employers are reproduced and sustained.'
Crittenden identifies this large sea of unvalued labour and points out that it also has another characteristic: it is largely selfless, and forms a reservoir of altruism in the world. This is not an economic fact but a social fact of the greatest importance. If we want to shift the unfair burden of care from being largely a female responsibility how can we do this without simply decreasing the overall amount of altruism in the world? More than that, how can we ensure that care for our children, our aged parents and our friends remains genuine loving care and is not wholly supplanted by marketised and commodified care?
One of the most exciting thinkers in the new politics of care is the feminist economist, Nancy Folbre, whom we met in Chapter Two. Like Crittenden she believes care is massively undervalued in contemporary society. And that goes not only for the devaluation of maternal care for young children but also for caring labour in the paid workforce. Child care workers, nurses in hospitals, in aged care and other personal service jobs often bring a dimension of genuine care to their job which is qualitatively different from the instrumental and rational functions which exist on the surface. In my own experience, I recall the last two years of my father's life in a nursing home were materially and emotionally improved by a dimension of warmth given freely by nurses and nursing aides. They could have adequately fulfilled their tasks without such involvement, but they did not. As Folbre says: 'Just because care is paid by a wage doesn't mean that it isn't motivated by love as well as money.' But caring jobs, of course, are poorly paid.
But this caring labour works against the grain of a market-oriented society in which all values are increasingly reduced to commercial values. This insight that an economy based on self interest tends to corrode the virtues of altruism is not a modern discovery. Conservatives have worried about it for the last 200 years and have romanticized mothers and their selfless labour. But as Folbre says the conservative argument which idealizes motherhood depends crucially on an argument about the 'separate spheres'. Men were fitted for the public world of production, and women for the private sphere of reproduction. But the separate spheres of home and work have radically changed forever.
The conservative desire to return to a past of happy families based on quite separate gender roles will be achieved. But neither has the vision of employment-focussed feminism because men have not stepped into caring work as women stepped into work and the public world. The consequence is the 'work-life collision', especially for women.
Trying to resolve this dilemma has lead me to two conclusions which I did not expect when I began researching feminism and the culture war. First, that caring must be now foregrounded as a vital quality in society but not in the way conservatives have usually seen it -- as largely the contribution of women. Rather, caring is a vital human activity in whcih men should engage far more deeply. But this will not occur until the value of care is radically raised in soceity generally. To achieve this a massive transformation of the structure of work is needed. Shorter working hours and parental leave are needed along with flexible working hours and financial support for carers at home. Underpinning this, a cultural revolution in values in needed to ensure that caring is genuinely held in much higher esteem by society.
This relates to the second conclusion which is that protecting the family from the inroads of the market should now be seen as a vital progressive cause. The family is part of a parallel world of social reproduction characterized by altruism, trust and non-rational (but not irrational) values which are vital to human well being. The family is now the focal point of social and cultural contradictions precipitated by the New Capitalism. It is becoming more apparent that 'family values' can be a rallying cry against the instrumental logic of an increasingly commercially-driven society. And this involves both protecting individual families but also ensuring that social supports are available.
Is a new strategy possible which asserts that women can do more than 'care' and which values care much more highly and spreads it to men? I believe this is possible. It will not be an easy struggle since powerful vested interests benefit from the current arrangement, not just many men but also all major private and public institutions. This involves waging a culture war to regain the initiative for the original ideals embedded in feminism. The foundation of such a culture war is the development of a new set of ideas and values which are grounded in the problems of the 'work-life collision', which are convincing to many people and which project social change for a better future. This involves reconstituting what is usually meant by 'family values'. It also involves reconfiguring what we mean by equality so that it is not largely defined by full time, long term paid employment. A crucial issue is collective financial support for full time parenting for the early years of childhood.
Almost forty years ago the British feminist, Juliet Mitchell, wrote a pioneering article entitled 'Women: The Longest Revolution' and so it has proved to be, in twists and turns and ways unseen even by many supporters of that revolution.