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Holly’s Letter from America: Hillary Clinton’s equality agenda has no room for stay-at-home mothers


Hillary Clinton has been campaigning for president again, even though she has ‘yet to decide’ whether she will run.  Increasingly, Hillary is focusing her not-so-clandestine campaign on championing women’s equality.

That would be marvellous, and much of her message on women’s equality is marvellous.  She has spoken out, rightly, against the way women are denied fundamental human rights, education and employment, and subjected to sexual violence in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Lybia, Tunisia, India, China, Africa and more.

The problem is that when it comes to championing women’s equality in places like the US, Hillary starts emphasising a different kind of equality.  She turns to ‘gender gap’ rhetoric, defining equality for women not only as equality of rights and opportunities, but also as equality of outcomes.  This means that women are considered equal to men only if they achieve the same career outcomes as men.

Now, I’m all for a woman achieving the same career outcome as a man. But it’s wrong, and very dangerous, to say that women are equal to men only when this happens.

Yet, more and more across politics, business and the media, the language of ‘equality’ is being used to signal only an identity of outcomes.  The result of this is twofold.

First, those who ‘embrace advocacy’ for women are portrayed, increasingly, as only those who campaign for an identity of outcomes.  Now, apparently the gender gap warriors believe that identity of outcomes between men and women requires that men and women take identical paths to achieve those outcomes. Thus, advocacy for women is now associated specifically with the demand that women participate fully in the workforce – what Hillary calls ‘full economic participation’ – no matter what the needs of their families, or their individual inclinations as to how to care for their families.

In other words, the stay-at-home mother does not feature, at all, when ‘advocacy for women’ is conflated with the gender gap agenda, despite the fact that she is very much a woman.  She has been written out of the political rhetoric on women and families, to the point that ‘supporting mothers’ is now only about supporting ‘working mothers’ (because stay-at-home mums don’t do any work, you see). Indeed, recently Hillary argued that ‘the absence of paid leave’ and ‘quality, affordable childcare’ is a ‘strong signal to women, and particularly mothers, that our economy and our society do not value being a mother’.

With all due respect, Hillary, better paid leave and childcare will not address the more fundamental way in which we undervalue mothers.  We send a stronger signal to mothers that we do not value them when we tell them  – as the gender gap warriors do – that their lives, time and education are wasted when they take time out of their careers to raise their families, that they are not living up to their ‘God-given potential’, that they are not ‘giving something back’, that society does not benefit from their talents when they are not ‘full economic participants’.

Let us be clear, then:  these ‘advocates’ for women do not support choice for women, they only support women having a certain kind of life.  They do not advocate women’s freedom, only their conformity.  And they have no regard for the public value – indeed, the public contribution – of the private work of raising a family.

The second result of using ‘equality’ to mean only an identity of outcomes is that those of us who have stepped off the career ladder for a time to raise our families are NOTequal to men – to our husbands, our brothers, our friends, our formercolleagues.  This is a particularly offensive consequence of the gender gap project, which inspires, in me at least, a blind fury.

How could stay at home mothers not be equal to those in the workforce, both male and female? We had the opportunity – and took the opportunity – to go the same universities, sit in the same lectures, take the same exams, get the same qualifications, andwork at the same jobs as our colleagues .  Then, we used our educated minds to judge how best to negotiate the demands of family and work.  How could a carefully weighed decision made in good faith suddenly render us unequal?  Yet, it is the exercise of our freedom that, paradoxically, has made us unequal according to the gender gap agenda.

The language of women’s equality has not always been at odds with women’s freedom, even according to Hillary.  Twenty-two years ago, I listened in the audience as Hillary delivered the commencement address at the graduation of the class of 1992 of Wellesley College.  She spoke then of the different paths a woman’s life could take, and there was no hint, no indication, that one would leave us less equal than another.  She said, ‘You may choose to be a corporate executive or a rocket scientist, you may choose to run for public office, you may choose to stay home and raise your children – you can now make any or all of these choices for the work of your life.’

Sadly, Hillary’s rhetoric has changed.  Urged on, perhaps, by seeing her own political ambitions as closing the ultimate gender gap, equality for Hillary can no longer be found in allowing choice.  It can only be found in demanding sameness.

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Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly is a mother of six, now living in the United States. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History & Political Thought from Newnham College, Cambridge. She blogs at Philosophy for Parents. Tim is her husband and a former RAF officer.

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