Women’s issues

Harriet was very good on Woman’s Hour this morning – worth digging out and listening to if you get a chance, or I think it’s repeated on Saturday afternoon. She put some of the sensationalist headlines of the past week into context, e.g. that we want to include domestic violence in the PSHE (Personal. Social and Health Education) curriculum for junior and secondary school pupils, which seems eminently sensible. Somehow from this, buried in the small print of a Government document, the Daily Mail managed to produce a front page splash – ‘another feminist initiative’ – which would give most readers the impression Harriet has spent the past week chained to the Downing Street railings, demanding we educate – sorry, ‘indoctrinate’ – our daughters on The Evil that Men do, and the Beast that is your Average Man. (Ditto the Daily Express with its ‘putting CCTV into homes’ story, which doesn’t even have a grain of truth in it – see Tom Harris for more on that).

I don’t have much argument with anything Harriet says. Yes, rape conviction rates are appalling low, and despite a lot of good work, educating the police on how to deal with rape victims, making the police interrogation and the court processes less of an ordeal, only a fraction of rapes are reported and even fewer prosecuted. Avon and Somerset is one of the worst areas in the UK for convictions.

I also agree that we need a mixed team at the top of the Government/ Labour Party. Not in terms of the Leader and Deputy Leader, as that’s too narrow a confine, too prescriptive – but within the overall ‘team at the top’. But it’s not just about gender balance. It’s about having a team of good men and women of different ages, different backgrounds, different life experience. Yes it’s important to have women in there, but it’s important to have the Alan Johnsons of this world are in there too.

Where I am slightly… not at odds, let’s say ‘slightly quizzical’ – about what Harriet is saying, is on the argument that ‘women are still responsible in the main for bringing up children and caring for elderly relatives, and therefore you need more women in Parliament to ensure that those issues are raised’. Yes. When you hear Harriet, who was elected to Parliament in 1982, talk about the struggle she and the small band of other Labour women had to make their voices heard until their ranks swelled to nearly 100 Labour women in 1997, you can’t deny that having women MPs has helped put so-called ‘women’s issues’ on the political agenda. Some of these issues are now mainstream – child care, early years provision, maternity leave, flexible working – and some men have been excellent on ‘women’s issues’ (David Kidney on breastfeeding, for example).

But Harriet has also used this as a reason why there should be a woman as leader/ deputy leader, and this raises the question of ‘What if the woman isn’t a mother?’ Increasingly many women aren’t. (Is it one in three? Something like that). Quite a few women politicians don’t have children, whilst most if not all the younger men in the Cabinet are juggling the demands of office with the even greater demands of having small kids at home who want to see their Daddy at night and will insist on waking up at godforsaken hours of the morning.

So if your argument for having a woman at the top or near the top of the party is based on the fact that a woman is more in tune with issues around childcare, family life, maternal health, etc, where does that leave women who aren’t? The other woman in the race to be Deputy Leader, Hazel Blears, doesn’t have children. The last woman to hold the position in the Labour Party, Margaret Beckett, doesn’t either. Alan Johnson, on the other hand, had three children before the age of 20.

I don’t have kids, never wanted them – and with five sisters it’s unlikely, to be frank, that I’ll ever be in a position of having to take on the caring for an elderly relative role either. (My mother may have other plans!) I think I have a pretty good understanding of what it’s like to be a mother, from an observer’s point of view, but am I better placed to raise such issues than, say, someone like Tom Watson, who seems to be a very ‘hands-on’ father of young kids? (I am an excellent auntie, by the way, but that generally involves being as unlike their mothers as you can get away with).

Of course there are other issues on which a woman’s perspective is valuable, and it’s not all just about child-bearing and child-rearing. But if we place too much emphasis on ‘women as mothers’ then we risk alienating those who aren’t yet and those who never will be, whether that’s through choice or circumstances. And we miss the opportunity to emphasise, as we need to, over and over again, that bringing up a family is a father’s job too.*

*Let’s not get into the thorny topic of single-parent families, or gay adoption here! I’m not saying families need fathers, in the sense of absolutely must have them, just that we shouldn’t treat child-rearing as solely a woman’s job.

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