Professor Alison Wolf drew the wrath of her fellow feminists last week when she used her lecture at the Demos think-tank to lament that Sisterhood is dead. “There is complete preoccupation in feminism with the economic self-interest of the top people, whether it’s boards or Parliament,” she is quoted in The Times as saying, whereas feminists should be “far more concerned about the lives of people who did not go to university, who are working long hours in low-paid jobs, doing shift work or struggling to hold down a job, in forced marriages or living in domestic environments which are hostile.” Good for you, Baroness Wolf, I thought, until I realised that she had missed out the most common, and also the most important, job of all, and that is motherhood. Without its calls, there would be no unifying interests to unite the Sisterhood in the first place.
Pope Francis a week earlier was much more on the ball. He told 4,000 people at a general audience in Rome that mothers are indispensable to society. It is not only that they bring children into the world. They also show what it means to give generously of oneself, to respect life, and to display tenderness and moral strength. They are “exalted” with praise and poetry (and, one might add, with photos of pregnant princesses) but they are given very little concrete help or appreciation. In fact, their willingness to sacrifice themselves is often exploited by governments who give them scant support in return.
Baroness Wolf quoted a real-life experiment to prove her point on inequality. In Norway, there is a requirement that 40 per cent of the boards of all publicly listed companies must be women and yet, she lamented, this has changed nothing for women’s employment generally. She is right. Despite Norway being voted the country with most gender equality in 2008, the demarcation between the sexes in the professions is actually growing. Some 80 per cent of engineers are men, and 90 per cent of nurses are women.
In 2010 Harald Eia, comedian and sociologist, decided to investigate. His hilarious but serious documentary The Gender Equality Paradox produced by Norwegian State Television comes to the conclusion that when societies are very advanced, and women very free, they do what they really want, and what they really want is to undertake caring, “people” roles regardless of the money or prestige. So central to the woman is her potential for mothering that it has shaped not only her outward form, but also her brain, her feelings, in fact her whole psyche. This was hotly denied by the gender professionals Eia interviewed but shown in front of the camera by boys and girls from even a day old. The programme caused such a sensation that the Norwegian government drastically cut back its funding on gender research.
Now it is a short step from saying that women like mothering jobs to saying that they like mothering itself. In fact, if you ask any girl what she dreams of in the future, most will answer that they would like to do this or that but what they would really like to do is marry and have children. And when those same girls are older and have perhaps become grandmothers themselves, they will chatter to anyone who wishes to listen not about their professions but about their children and grandchildren and what each is up to. Given that she is supported by her husband and family, each child brings to its mother a deep sense of fulfilment and joy.
I should have added that she also looks for the support of society. Mothering is the most demanding role that a woman ever undertakes, physically as well as mentally and spiritually. It costs money and a lot of time. It makes sense that, in preparing girls for their futures, careers advice should include it. It also behoves governments to recognise the value of women’s unpaid work and what they give to society.
Instead we have recently had Iain Duncan Smith suggesting that a returned Conservative government should put further pressure upon mothers by limiting child benefit to two children. It would save money and “help behavioural change”. Why this change is needed is hard to imagine. By 2022 we are told that over half the families in England will only have one child. Children are not an indulgence but an investment in society’s future and the work of mothers impacts everything they do, in the home and outside it. As Pope Francis says, mothers are the strongest antidote to selfish individualism and it is only by understanding their struggle to be efficient in their work and attentive and loving in their families that their authentic liberation is to be found.