The breast v bottle debacle for health groups and the Health Department delighted me. Women across the board stood up for themselves. And others. They defended their right to choose and common sense. Pity there is not the same outcry over unfinished women’s issues.
Instead we are bombarded with complaints about the burden of motherhood. Are women being bullied into breeding? How? By whom? Are all women vulnerable or is it a mainly middle class affliction? Or a ready to hand topic for women columnists beating the clock? Are these usually partnered but browbeaten mums the first ranks of the excited school leavers and students who boasted their empowerment, rejected victim status and disassociated themselves from feminism?
Previous generations were put upon too. But with none of the advantages (contraception, safe abortion, labour saving devices, subsidies for child care, parental leave) they tried to do something about it politically. They changed the culture that confined women to the domestic sphere for life (unless you were poor and had to work).
Here follows a potted history based on memory, sometimes defective, and often oversimplified! Prior to industrialisation women held an integral role in the agrarian/household economy. There would have been more flexibility in field/household work than in factory jobs but it was hard and often grim existence. After industrialisation many went to work in the factories and not by choice. Younger children raised by older sisters earned the title ‘little mothers’.
Motherhood, if memory correct, was a concept that surfaced during the nineteenth century when middle class women found themselves lying on chaises longues diagnosed with neurasthenia. It gave their lives meaning, drove up consumption. In what became an infernal brew the role expanded to include producing soldiers for advancing civilisation and ensuring survival of white races.
In response to the temperance movement weak-willed men gave women moral guardianship which was to be implemented through their ‘sacred’ role of minding hearth and home. Handing over the vote, sharing power and resources was quite another matter. Women who had worked for the abolition of slavery noted their own status wasn’t greatly superior, if at all. The vote was slowly won. And however high-minded breeding was made to sound there was considerable enthusiasm for new methods of contraception in spite of restrictive laws.
Campaigns for safer working conditions and unionisation provided better jobs than domestic service. Middle class women had to do the work abandoned by servants. War proved liberating. Rumblings began when they were hustled back home at the end of the Second World War. Simone De Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Doris Lessing and later a host of others wrote influential books that explored the nature and role of women. Women’s groups and unions campaigned for equal pay, more support for widows and solo parents. Then came defiant women’s liberation, building on earlier efforts. It demolished (almost) the minding hearth and home imperative. (See also Pohutu’s post on this blog, Mixed Up About Motherhood.)
In New Zealand the ferocious battle for a woman’s choice in respect of abortion was lost yet it is wrongly thought of as ending in victory. Two consultants still make the decision! Access to services improved slowly but is not assured across the country. So much for empowerment. Would we tolerate two consultants – say a philosopher and political scientist – checking out personal details and signing off our voting paper?
Women’s liberation gave way to a wider, more middle class and divided women’s movement, notions of respectability resurfaced. Some new directions and supporting arguments seemed barking mad. Younger women challenged the victim culture. Identity politics was seen as harming the left. Mainstreaming of ‘feminist’ goals has seen many women fare none too badly. But the poor and Maori (not always synonymous, wealth distribution amongst Maori is very uneven too) weren’t so blessed. The new right agenda was unexpected, not understood. Jobs of the less skilled were outsourced. Government subsidised and training jobs took a hit. We racked up countless cheap tee-shirts while unemployment and job insecurity racked up family breakdown with DPB annual takeup numbers doubling at the end of the 80s.
Youth unemployment sabotaged early family formation. The DPB became linked to a lifestyle choice for teenagers and still is. Inexcusably the halving of teen birthrates from the early 70s (post DPB introduction) till mid 80s and level thereafter was completely ignored.
Come on brow-beaten middle class mums. You made a choice to have kids. Make others. You don’t have to buy houses in the inner city, purchase lots of advice books, educational toys, chauffeur brats to a plethora of enriching hobbies. Get political and learn about women’s history. Thank predecessors who made your lot so much better. Sort out real needs. Seek change where needed. Take up the cause of less privileged mothers. Publicise the plight of young couples trying to establish a family. Campaign for full employment, job security, against casualisation. For free child care, more equal distribution of wealth. Securing victory in respect of these will reduce family breakdown, maybe your own. The single parent has a much harder time.