(Note: I know that Sunday evening is a dead time to post, but I won't have a chance again before Tuesday. And my rage will not wait that long.)
carried a piece with the arresting title, £26,000: the salary you need just to cover childcare
. The article continued, The British pay more for childcare than anywhere else in the world – and planned cuts in tax credits will discourage women from returning to work
. It had me in rage all afternoon. Rage, firstly, because childcare in Britain is so damned expensive, and the Tories have let slip that they have no interest whatever in making it easier for mothers to return to work, for after all would they not be better off at home minding the kids in classic 1950s fashion. Rage that the government are once again cutting tax credits in a way that hurts the poorest most. It is not an appealing choice that the Guardian outlines for a single mother on the minimum wage, that of either being trapped at home on benefits or working to sink further into debt; if this government is working on the nudge principle rather than the choice principle, it's clear which way the poor are being nudged, no matter what rhetoric they may have about making work pay.
And then there's the question of how hard it is for a woman to earn £26k and above, even in London, which is where that cost is calculated. I earn well over that, but I have a background of rock-solid middle class privilege, three degrees and - crucially - I am in my mid-thirties. Most heterosexual women have children far before they reach my age. Their chances of earning over £26k are eroded by education, expectations (do what you love, not what's mercenary! do caring feminine work, not mathsy managerial manly work!), and missing out on the crucial career- and income- building years between 25 and 35 if they have children in that window. Median earnings for women aged 30-39, according to the UK National Statistics Agency
, are £25896 - almost exactly the cost of childcare for two children in London. Median earnings for women outside of this golden age group are £22152, far below this cost.
But it's not even this that enrages me. I come from Ireland, where child care is just as prohibitively expensive. We know that neither Ireland nor the UK has been prepared to fund childcare via the State in any meaningful way. And we know that the Tories hate women and want them to stay barefoot and pregnant, or possibly pregnant and fragrant. That's not news. What's horrifying, in an insidious, creeping way, is the tone the Guardian
takes on the story: if women don't earn above the magic £26k, they might as well give up their jobs. Depressingly, their reasoning for doing so is clear: 'While childcare should be seen as the responsibility of both parents in a double-income household, in reality, the mother's wage is often weighed against the costs.' The article continues, and here is where the real poison lies:
Of course, there are long-term career, monetary and psychological benefits. These include payments into pension plans; the security of a job that will be worth more once the preschool stage is over, and which can hopefully be retained in a recession; and a sense of identity beyond motherhood [...] But when totting up childcare costs [...] these may not come into play.
Avoiding the depressingly frequent trap of female poverty in old age? Building financial security and a meaningful career? Having a strong sense of self beyond the biological function of motherhood? I always thought these were among the core goals of feminism, but no, they don't really count. Women's paid work isn't really meaningful, in the way that men's paid work is; women's work is only ever set against that of a nursery nurse, and no matter what the skills a woman might learn in the workplace while her children are in childcare, what good she might achieve at work, what pension contributions she might make for an independent old age, what promotions she might attain, what a social network she might build up, these are all irrelevant if her salary is less than the cost of childcare. The government says so, the heterosexual couples interviewed appear to say so, and most depressingly, the bastion of left-wing journalism, the Guardian
says so. Women don't have careers, they just have jobs for pin-money, and mothering is always the most suitable career for them really.
I think this is massively dangerous. Dropping out of the workforce puts women at risk of poverty in old age, of unemployability if they return to work after a long career gap, makes them dependent on a male partner who may very well become ill, lose his job or leave her, and tells her that a sense of identity outside the home is a frivolous luxury. Why are feminists not screaming about these very real risks, and the dangerous media culture that is promoting them - as well as the government who is exacerbating them? It's this silence that causes me to lose patience with young feminists on the The F Word
, who frequently put issues of body image and sex work above those of female poverty, and above all with Laurie Penny
, with her talk about how her generation of young women
has been uniquely abandoned and isolated by older feminists, whose work is irrelevant to their realities. Younger sisters, wake up! These risks - of poverty, unemployment and erasure of identity - are yours as much as they are ours. Rape culture and poverty in old age, misogynist advertising and the glass ceiling, sexual liberation and economic agencies - these aren't issues that exist in isolation from each other, they are part of a whole patriarchal matrix. A little intergenerational solidarity is required, if we are ever to fight back.
And finally, the obvious disclaimer: I know that women choose to work as mothers for lots of very good reasons. This rant is not intended to attack those choices; it is to point out that it is
a choice, and a choice made in a patriarchal context, a choice that has consequences like any other, rather than the natural destiny of women in the Big Society.