QotD: “Inequality isn’t something that exists in the outside world. It lives indoors, part of the everyday”
Before lockdown, we were already being sold various Mrs Hinch-type versions of housework as somehow competitive and fun. If women want to polish the bars of their own cage, let them. But to save you watching any of these cleaning “influencers”, let me simply tell you that the answer to any cleaning problem in their world is one word: vinegar.
In mine, it’s also one word: men. Some may wipe down the worktops and do a bit more, for which we must applaud them. Get the pom-poms out. The fact is, though, Covid-19 has taken women’s roles back to the 50s. Women are home schooling, working and doing huge amounts of domestic work. The answer to 50s-style problems may be some 70s-style consciousness raising about gender roles. “Women’s domesticity is a circle of learnt deprivation and induced subjugation: a circle decisively centred on family life,” said Ann Oakley in 1974. If that’s a little too hardcore for you, have some Betty Friedan: “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.” Damn right, Betty.
But, instead of discussing how gender roles are regressing; how the virus has derailed women’s careers; how childcare is falling apart; how female workers will be hit hardest by the recession; how female academics have turned in far fewer papers than their male counterparts; how, at the end of furlough, redundancy will affect more women; how the gender pay gap is rising – in other words, all the pre-existing inequalities that have been exacerbated by Covid-19 – what do we talk about?
Two things. We continue to have a conversation around gender, which emphasises it as a set of feelings rather than being about often mundane lived experience; and we have, on social media, a ridiculous row over cleaners. Various bright young things declare their sainthood. Either they don’t have cleaners or they pay them the GDP of Venezuela. Only bad women, Karens, boomers, like me, have cleaners, whom we probably abuse. Some of us have been cleaners, but no matter. Working women pay others to look after our children and to do some of the domestic work or we could not do it. Just as men do. And always have done. But men are not attacked for this. Ever.
Ineptitude in the domestic sphere is something that men actually boast about, as if it proves their competence in every other sphere. Isn’t it hilarious? Those men who don’t even know if there is a washing machine in the house. I have interviewed rock gods like this. I much prefer the Joan Collins approach. Apparently, when asked at airport check-in if she had packed her own bags, she answered: “The very idea!”
But the serious part of domestic labour being invisible and somehow personal has huge implications. The absolute tragedy of this crisis is that underpaid care workers in homes have died because care in our own homes is not valued. We are run by people who don’t respect those who do such care in our society, because this is the lowest-status job. Women do it. Immigrants do it. Childcare and the opening of schools has not been a priority because, well, like the laundry, other people do that.
Inequality isn’t something that exists in the outside world. It lives indoors, part of the everyday. A glowing showerhead is not the route to happiness. Yes, lockdown has meant pleasure in the domestic sphere for some, and well done to those who have gussied up their homes and gardens. Yet, with months until all children are back to school, many women are exhausted and will be unemployed by the winter. It is terribly old-fashioned to talk about the domestic labour debate I know, the part about how unpaid work keeps capitalism functioning. Well, it keeps us all functioning. This is why a former prime minister can joke about never having to do it. It’s a sign of power.
How we laugh as we lie back and think of descaling the kettle. How many prime ministers does it take to change a lightbulb? Don’t ask me. How many prime ministers does it take to change the reality of women’s lives? We were on the double shift: work and housework. Now many are on the triple shift: work, housework and schooling. The lightbulbs went out some time ago, and, if we are not to go back to the dark ages, then someone better get some bright ideas and replace the duds quickly.
Judges will be empowered to intervene in cases of domestic abuse to prevent the complainant from being re-victimised by aggressive lines of questioning, as part of a new raft of legal changes announced today.
Victims will also be provided with separate entrances to court buildings and given their own waiting rooms as well as protective screens to shield them from former partners.
The reforms have been announced as the domestic abuse bill goes through its report stage in the Commons on Thursday. Some changes will be incorporated into the legislation.
The additional powers for ‘investigative’ or ‘inquisitorial’ judges to direct the course of hearings rather than following the adversarial approach of British justice will initially be developed in pilot programmes. Judges are being urged to adopt a more continental-style in the way they conduct their courtrooms – intervening and directing lines of questioning rather than merely letting lawyers for each side present their case.
There will also be trials of a “one family, one judge” system where family and criminal proceedings are combined to avoid victims having to relive traumatic experiences on multiple occasions. Judges will also be authorised to ban abusive ex-partners from repeatedly dragging their victims back to court.
An expert panel from charities, the judiciary, family law practitioners and academia have been advising on the reforms. They spoke to more than 1,200 individuals and organisations for a report, “Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law cases”, which is also published on Thursday.
Introducing the changes, the justice minister, Alex Chalk, said: “Every day the family courts see some of the most vulnerable in society and we have a duty to ensure they are protected and not put in danger.
“This report lays bare many hard truths about long-standing failings, but we are determined to drive the fundamental change necessary to keep victims and their children safe.”
Adversarial procedures in the family often worsen conflict between parents, re-traumatising victims and their children. Family court hearings sometimes enable abusers to continue hounding their victims through the courts.
The report says: “In reality, [family court] proceedings are brought by one parent and, especially where allegations of domestic abuse or child abuse are denied, are conducted on an adversarial basis where the court has to adjudicate between the two opposing parents, each trying to win the case.”
The Ministry of Justice is also to review the pivotal presumption of ‘parental involvement’ in care cases which encourages a child to maintain relationships with both parents, unless involvement of a parent is deemed to put the child at risk. The review will examine whether the correct balance is being struck between the risk of harm to children and their right to have a relationship with both parents.
The report said many experts involved in the family courts reported that the “pro-contact culture of the courts” coincided with what some see as a “systematic minimisation or disbelief of abuse, and … acceptance of counter-allegations without robust scrutiny”.
Nicki Norman, acting CEO at Women’s Aid, said: “This report marks a major step forward in exposing what women and children experiencing domestic abuse have been telling us for decades.
“The culture of disbelief identified by the panel is a barrier to courts making safe child contact arrangements in cases of domestic abuse. The result is that, all too often, survivors and their children experience the family courts as failing to effectively protect them.”
Nicole Jacobs, the UK’s first domestic abuse commissioner, said: “Problems in the family court are the single most common concern raised with me … and I am glad to see this report published in time to implement its recommendations through the domestic abuse bill.”
Dame Vera Baird QC, victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, said: “This panel of experts has dug deep to understand, and address, the serious harm to domestic abuse victims and their children caused over many years by the presumption of contact, and the intensely adversarial process present in the family courts.
“With children’s voices rarely heard in these proceeding and even more rarely heeded, victims and children are in need of better protections from abusive perpetrators.”
Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the high court in England and Wales, said: “We are keen for judges to be fully involved in trialling reformed processes for family cases which involve allegations of harm. We hope that parliament will be able to allocate the recommended resources which are identified by the MoJ expert panel as necessary to implement the proposals.”
Twenty-five years have passed since Kennedy published Eve Was Framed, the groundbreaking precursor to her latest work. And while there has been some change – much of it initiated by Kennedy herself – progress has been halting and deep-seated reform is still urgently needed. “The smell of the gentlemen’s club permeates every crevice of the Inns of Court,” writes Kennedy. And it stinks.
Rape complainants are let down by a largely pale, male, stale judiciary that has struggled to keep up with changing sexual mores – don’t expect a conviction if you’re raped on a Tinder date, warns the QC. Kennedy points out that the opinion of a court (that saying “fuck me harder” while having sex on all fours constituted “unusual sexual behaviour”) “said a lot about [the judges’] own sexual experience and their lack of familiarity with contemporary pornography in which this behaviour is standard”. She also makes the fascinating and chilling observation that porn has radically changed “the repertoire in rape cases” since she first started in practice. “It is increasingly rare for women not to be penetrated anally as well as vaginally and orally.”
Women – whether criminals or victims – are still subject to the most antiquated of double standards. “It is hard to get across the idea that a woman is entitled to have sex with the whole of the football team, but draw the line at the goalie,” writes Kennedy, with characteristic bite. Rape victims have their compensation reduced if they were drunk. Meanwhile, girls are being institutionalised (unlike adult courts, youth courts can sanction behaviour that is not technically criminal but may harm a child’s development) for behaviours that in their male contemporaries would be dismissed as “boys will be boys” but in girls are seen as evidence of dangerous moral turpitude.
It’s a similar story in the adult courts, where there has been a “shocking escalation in the numbers of women being sent to prison” despite the already low proportion of women committing serious offences falling over the same period. The trouble is, says Kennedy, there are “no separate sentencing guidelines for women offenders, and the existing guidelines make next to no mention of gender-specific issues”. This leaves even the more enlightened judges with “a limited range of possibilities” – a problem that has been drastically exacerbated by sustained budget cuts”. Women’s centres have been closed. Curfews for women given community sentences save costs on probation officers “but can leave women vulnerable to domestic violence for the 12 hours per day that they are confined to the house”.
But it’s not just about cuts. It’s also about failing to design the justice system around women’s unpaid work. Little attention is given, writes Kennedy, to things like scheduling probation appointments during school hours, and research has revealed that “women’s childcare responsibilities are impacting on their ability to comply with their community sentences”. And women who fail to comply often end up in prison – “even where the original offence would never have merited a custodial sentence”.
There are far more intended parents waiting to be matched with a surrogate than there are women available to carry these pregnancies, yet surrogates are taught to view themselves as disposable laborers. A doctor at a clinic in India adds that “for the surrogates it’s mostly the character of the womb that we are interested in. We make sure the surrogates know that they are not genetically related to the baby, they are just the wombs.” … The doctor superimposes a single body part (the womb) over the personhood of the surrogate as a whole being, effectively eliding her subjectivity.
The surrogates that Pande interviewed referenced their own contributions to the pregnancy, contrasting the level of effort that they were putting into the pregnancies to that of the intended mother, who contributed “only an egg.” The surrogates were thus justified in making kinship claims to the future child … When one surrogate was told that she would have to “reduce” her pregnancy from triplets to twins, she insisted that she would keep the third baby if the intended parents did not want it because it was her blood, if not her genes … While blood does not circulate between the pregnant woman and fetus, the placenta is built from both maternal and fetal blood cells that can migrate between the two, lingering in various organs of the body and potentially impacting a variety of future conditions for the child, such as cancer risk and immune disorders.
This biological connection, however, is often downplayed because it is not genetic. In the Assisted Reproductive Technology industry, genetics are privileged over gestation, and thus the role of the surrogate is cast as that of an incubator who will not affect the appearance, intelligence, or personality of the child. This strict compartmentalization assures intended parents that their choice of surrogate will not impact the quality of their carefully selected genetic material, thus legitimizing cross-racial, cross-class, transnational surrogacy arrangements in ways that benefit the consumers of reproductive technologies. […]
Daisy Deomampo found that the intended parents she interviewed became very attached to the Indian “origin story” of their children, regardless of whether the child was conceived using Indian gametes. Parents returned from Indian with emblems of the country, “flattening out” the specificity of India and its historical and political contexts. [She] argues that parents “conflated the geographic space of India – and the attendant orientalist discourses that construct “Indian-ness” as exotically opposite to Western sensibilities – with the embodiment of the child’s identity through its gestation by an Indian surrogate mother in India” … Simultaneously Other[ing] Indian women’s bodies while incorporating romanticized and potentially colonializing notions of Indian identity or origins for surrogate-born children.
The idea that reproductive tourists can tap in to the natural resource of Indian’s fertility is also raised … [Despite] India’s birth rate or “fertility surplus” [being] deemed a demographic problem, [it is implied] that the purported “excessive” population, bodies, and fertility of India are always an available commodity for the foreign tourist … An estimated 8-10% of Indian women suffer from infertility and most surrogate mothers have been permanently sterilized … [But] rather than addressing the health care needs of Indian citizens, foreign economic pressure and state intervention have aimed at limiting the fertility of the poor at the same time that the image of fertile Indian surrogates is used to draw in reproductive tourists.
Laura Harrison, Brown Bodies, White Babies: The Politics of Cross-Racial Surrogacy
To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.
Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.
Consider this – if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).
Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.
IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.
It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men’s rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.
Edna Adan Ismail is a midwife and campaigner. As a 12 year old growing up in British Somaliland, her dream was to build her own hospital. It took her some 50 years and all her savings to realise her ambition, and the state of the art hospital she built is a testament to her passion and dogged determination.
Nursing and midwifery have been her life since she won a scholarship to study in the UK in the mid-1950s, when she cycled to appointments in her black raincoat to deliver babies all around London. Married at one time to the prime minister of Somalia, she juggled the high profile role of First Lady with shifts at her local hospital. “I was born with this desire to fix things,” she says.
As her country’s first female foreign minister, she broke deep-rooted taboos by publicly condemning the widespread practice of female genital mutilation – FGM. Her opposition stems from personal experience – she was only eight years old when she endured the invasive procedure herself.
Now 80, she lives on site at her beloved hospital, where more than 22,000 babies have been born since it opened in 2002.
Woman on the Edge of Time was first published 40 years ago and begun three-and-a-half years before that.The early 1970s were a time of great political ferment and optimism among those of us who longed for change, for a more just and egalitarian society with more opportunities for all the people, not just some of them. Since then, inequality has greatly increased.
At the time I wrote this novel, women were making huge gains in control of their bodies and their lives. Not only has that momentum been lost, but many of the rights we worked so hard to secure are being taken from us by Congress and state legislatures every year.
But we must also understand that the attempt to take away a woman’s control over her body is part of a larger attempt to take away any real control from most of the population. Now, corporations and the very wealthy 1% control elections. Now, the media are propaganda machines and the only investigative reporting is on Comedy Central, HBO, or the web.
The powers that be have allowed for certain social rather than economic gains. We’ll soon finally have legalised marijuana and gay marriage in every state – but unions are being crushed and the safety net of the New Deal and the Johnson era is being abolished one law at a time, while women are forced into the back-alley abortions that once killed so many. We have made some social gains and many economic losses. The real earning power of working people diminishes every year.
During the heyday of the second wave of the women’s movement, a number of utopias were created (Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, James Tiptree’s Houston, Houston Do You Read?, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s My Own Utopia from The Ascent of Woman, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground among them) and now they aren’t. Why? Feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.
Writing about a strong community that socialises children and integrates old people is a response to women living in a society where a mother is often alone with her children and old women are treated just a step better than the excess pets executed daily in pounds and shelters.
We are ever more isolated from truly intimate contact with one another. Many men prefer pornography to actual sex, where they have to please a woman or must at least pretend to try.
I also wanted Woman on the Edge of Time to show an ecologically sound society. The lives and institutions and rituals of Mattapoisett all stress being a part of nature and responsible for the natural world. In imagining the good society, I borrowed from all the progressive movements of that time. Like most women’s utopias, the novel is profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships. The nuclear family is rare in feminist utopias and banished from this novel.
I projected a society in which sex was available, accepted and non-hierarchical – and totally divorced from income, social status, power. No trophy wives, no closeting, no punishment or ostracism for preferring one kind of lover to another. No need to sell sex or buy it. No being stuck like my own mother in a loveless marriage to support yourself. In the dystopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, women are commodified, genetically modified and powerless.
I am also very interested in the socialising and interpersonal mechanisms of a society. How is conflict dealt with? Again, who gets to decide, and upon whose head and back are those decisions visited? How does that society deal with loneliness and alienation? How does it deal with getting born, growing up and learning, having sex, making babies, becoming sick and healing, dying and being disposed of? How do we deal with collective memories – our history – that we are constantly reshaping?
Utopia is born of the hunger for something better, but it relies on hope as the engine for imagining such a future. I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete – that was the real genesis of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Marge Piercy, from her introduction to the new edition of Women on the Edge of Time (longer version here)
QotD: “The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies”
[All] feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.
According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:
“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”
It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.
I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.
I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.
There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.
In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.
This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.
Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.
“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?
Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.
The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.
QotD: “For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free?”
For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.