Do you ever feel like all the problems of the world would be solved if only we had affordable childcare? OK, well maybe not all the problems. Do you ever feel like gender equality would definitely be achieved if we all had access to affordable childcare ? This is the message that is presented to us by liberal feminists, mainstream media and neoliberal politicians alike.
For a long time, I thought that affordable childcare was the answer to our feminist dreams, but then I began to question some of the assumptions behind this belief.
I have an almost ten year old and a six year old. We have spent what must be in the region of €80,000 on childcare to date. I say in the region of because I cannot bear to work out the detail. I say to date, because, contrary to mainstream narrative childcare does not cease to be an issue when your children reach school age.
Our childcare fees have reached this vertiginous amount even with both my children having been recipients of the ‘free’ pre-school year. This amounts to 3 hours childcare a day for 38 weeks of the year. Neither my husband nor myself work a 3 hour day, or indeed a 38 week year. But, we are grateful for the contribution, and without them no doubt our childcare bill would be looking more like €100k than a mere €80k. Affordable childcare is important many, it is essential for some. State-subsidised childcare also sends the message that childcare is the collective responsible of a progressive society. So it is important, very important, but it will not solve all our problems.
Even with affordable childcare we would still be chasing our tails – hastily preparing lacklustre meals, cramming in homework late in the evening, rushing out the door a trail of un-ironed uniforms and lost library books behind us. Even with affordable childcare, I would still want to be able to collect my children from school at least some of the time, and I would still be questioning why sitting at a desk in an office is deemed to be more fulfilling and essential to my self-actualisation than raising my children ?
Liberal feminism is the form of feminism that most of us would recognise as Feminism™, and is most prominent in the mainstream media. Liberal feminism is the feminism of Women in Leadership the Gender Pay Gap, and Gender Equality. Leaning In. It has come to equate gender equality with workplace parity. Women and men should be equal. Men work outside the home and women are left at home with the children. If women work outside the home, men will do more work in the way home and our gender equal utopia will be realised. I summarise.
This, as we know now, is not what has happened. Men didn’t want to stay at home and raise the children because not only does it have no pay, it also has no societal status. So now men and women are both working outside the home and low paid and undervalued staff are minding the children during working hours. When the children aren’t in creche, or with the childminder, or at school, research shows that women still carry out the majority of domestic tasks, hence ‘the second shift.’ The point is that even with affordable childcare somebody still needs to do all the stuff , somebody still needs to think about all the stuff, that needs to get done to keep a family and a home ticking over. You can guess who research has shown, time and again, that person to be.
Choice is the gold standard of both liberal feminists and neoliberal politics. The right for a women to choose, who can argue with that ? But some choices are more valued than others. Some people make choices; others decide on the least worst option. Liberal feminism assumes that all women want to return to work after maternity leave. We should be challenging this assumption because it comes from the belief that any paid work is inherently more fulfilling than raising children. This is not true, and stems from a capitalist viewpoint. Liberal feminism is striving towards gender equality, but other feminisms have a different approach. For example, the original Women’s Lib movement , as the name suggests, wasn’t fighting for equality but rather liberation. Liberation from the constraints of a patriarchal, capitalist society. Liberal feminism has partly taken hold because it has been co-opted by the very structures other feminisms seek to destroy. There’s never a bad time to quote Audre Lorde, ‘ you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.’
We shouldn’t assume that all women want to return to work after maternity leave. We shouldn’t assume that all feminists want to return to work after maternity leave. We shouldn’t assume that fathers don’t want to be at home with their children. We should be working towards a society where everyone can make the best choice for them and their family ; including to stay at home.
How might this be achieved? What should we add to our feminist manifesto? The payment of ECCE funds to parents minding their children at home. A universal basic income. In the 1960’s feminists in the US ran a Wages for Housework campaign , which was mainly symbolic, to highlight the value of the unpaid work provided by women in the home. I would love to see a feminist organisation today campaigning for this, even if it were symbolic. It would send a message that care has value. That women working in the home have value.
What else? Instead of expecting schools and childcare to change to fit the working day how about campaigning for a more family friendly workplace? In fact, it doesn’t need to be family friendly , just life friendly . Flexible working policies; a rejection of presenteeism. A recognition of the fact that we are more than our participation in the work force.
If we want gender equality to mean more than workplace parity, if we want choice to be something available to everyone, then we need to challenge our assumptions, and maybe start asking some different questions.