This is a condensed version of a talk Belinda gave at a panel discussion on the relationship between feminism and the libertarian/free market movement. The theme was: Feminism and the free market: Does liberty entail liberation?
When I was invited to come and speak I was apprehensive as I’m not well versed in political theory. I did one module on the History of Political Thought– but missed many lectures and my revision consisted of reading a book called “From Plato to Nato” – I didn’t do very well.
However, when I started reading about liberalism and Hayek and Adam Smith I had that feeling of “where have you been all my life?”. One of the reasons that I was so pleasantly surprised was because I had come to understand liberalism through the lens of liberal feminism. Liberal feminists measure freedom in terms of equality of outcome and far from believing in minimal state intervention they rely on it to ensure equality is secured.
Perhaps this is partly because freely made individual choices would be so unlikely to fulfil feminist aims.
For example where paternity leave is transferable, it is women who choose to take most of it. When it becomes non-transferable uptake goes up but not because the fathers want to play an equal role in baby care. Rather fathers took the leave to support the mother, look after the other children, or because the mother expected him too.
When we turn to women the message is even more clear. Survey after survey [netmums, British Social Attitudes, Opportunity Now] shows that mothers are keen to maintain the lead role in the family. The outstanding stability of maternal responsibility has not seen a real shift in the pattern of gendered roles even where women have equal or greater participation in paid employment.
Feminists try to attribute this to deeply ingrained processes of socialisation. But as mothers are starting to protest at the way their role is not being taken seriously, I think feminist explanations are wearing thin. Processes of pregnancy, birth and lactation result in an incredibly strong bond being created between the mother and child and research shows that even the most dedicated full-time fathers recognise that their parental role is secondary. This needs to be taken seriously,not theorised away.
Women prioritise motherhood not because they are stuck in dull, less rewarding jobs. They are choosing dull, less rewarding jobs precisely because they prioritise motherhood.
This results in very high levels of occupational segregation in precisely those countries that have managed to get a lot of women out to work. Where women are under pressure to work, employment far from being the preserve of the most committed, inspirational, or ambitious women becomes the burden of the less careerist, who would rather be looking after their family and therefore choose less demanding forms of work.
So does feminist liberation lead to liberty?
No. As a result of feminist policies women are now feeling under enormous pressure to go out to work. This is reflected in the rise of a genuine grassroots movement like Mothers at Home Matter, made up of women who feel that they have to campaign in order to have the right to stay at home and look after their children.
Feminist policies are the cause of this. At the most benign level there are now many two-income, higher earner families and this reflects the interests of elite women who have chosen to prioritise work. This is entirely fair and it is absolutely right that women who want to should be able to do so, but that does increase the pressure on everyone else.
This is worsened by policies that tax everyone as individuals regardless of their family position. This results in an unfair system where two-earner families pay a lot less in tax for the same household income than a single-earner family where one person stays at home. These highly interventionist policies also have a serious impact on our private lives by increasing the tax burden on families and making it much more tempting for couples to go it alone.
Liberation has a negative impact on men. Data suggest low waged female employment has an impact on low waged male employment. Factor into this an on-going drive to increase female employment in all areas and an education system that is heavily stacked against boys. This feeds into male unemployment, particularly in the younger age groups and a dearth of educated, decently earning and motivated men.
Feminists should be concerned by this. For while privileged women have the full benefits of stable marriages and families, less well off women are much more likely to be single parents, and a large part of this is about the shortage of dependable, decently earning men.
Finally, of course, high levels of female employment and single parenthood have a very detrimental impact on children – our future – who are deprived of all the benefits of a proper family life.
To sum up: the whole feminist project appears to have been about trampling the most basic liberal principles of non-government intervention into the ground. The damage that this has produced also provides the clearest evidence of why this should not be done.
Liberalism is an amazing tool for achieving freedom and fairness and I would argue that some of the most useful achievements of feminism (equal access to employment for married women, getting rid of the stigma of illegitimacy, and making divorce viable) could have been achieved within a liberal framework without arguments about patriarchy and the enmity created towards men.
So how would I move the liberal project forward? I like Adam Smith’s invisible hand construct but a lot that we do is motivated not just by self-interest but by interest in the wellbeing of our families. I would like to see liberal theory developed in a way that took family motivations on board.
Likewise our understanding of freedom. All too often we understand freedom in terms of our ability to participate in employment or politics. We need to understand that family relations, which are often seen as being a drag on freedom, can actually promote it.
We need to re-think representative democracy. It is important that the interests of our families and local communities have proper representation in Parliament. This has little to do with numbers of women MPs who often have no real family experience. Rather it depends on having a strong private realm with people committing time and energy to it and channels of communication between this private realm and government.
Finally we need to re-think inequality. Inequality tends to be viewed as a negative thing and where it leads to human suffering it is. However, the problem is human suffering not inequality. We need to examine the possibility that a great deal of what we view as inequality and therefore as problematic is actually simply difference and therefore not.