The Age

Feminism's scorn for 'retro' mothers

July 25 2002
The Age (Melbourne)
Letter to the Editor by Jennifer Sinclair

Virginia Haussegger is rightly angry with the feminist mothers who persuaded her that fulfilment could be found inside a briefcase ("The sins of our feminist mothers", on this page on Tuesday). But, by way of consolation, those who refused the feminist gospel have not had an easy time of it either.

To put relationships with husband and children ahead of a career has been regarded as heresy. Women who made this choice with the cooperation and support of their partners have been subjected to a virtually endless torrent of scorn and derision. They have been told that they are "letting down the side", that they hold "retro" or "conservative" values, that they are a burden on society, that they do "nothing", or that their work as mothers is worse than useless.

All through the '90s, the ever-mounting pile of research always concluded that children "do better" at childcare than at home with their mothers. There have been powerful arguments from all sides to undermine women who made a decision that departed from feminist orthodoxy, just as there was endless applause for glass-ceiling breakers and women who had children without missing a beat on the career drum.

There was no cultural space available for questioning whether the pleasures of a career could be adequately compared with those of raising children. Nor was there space to question whether career and material success were actually sufficient to sustain a meaningful life. Women who stood against the feminist "one suit fits all" model have beenbeleaguered and belittled.

In fact, it has become clear that the concept of continuous work suits one kind of body - the male one - better than another, the female one. Men can just as easily father children at 53 as 33, and even if men do father children at 53, their bodies do not bear the toll of gestating and bearing children.

All the same, it is difficult not to be wary of Malcolm Turnbull's pontifications ("The crisis is fertility, not ageing", on this page on July 16). Let's not deceive ourselves that Malcolm has the best interests of women at heart. He certainly doesn't have the best interests of mothers at heart, and made a point of saying that encouraging Australians to marry younger and have more children is not about mothers' rights.

What Malcolm is interested in is a society modelled on Liberal Party values, and right now Liberal Party values are those of economic rationalism and incarceration of asylum seekers. Neither of these policy planks is conducive to the cultivation of a trusting and open society that may encourage people to make commitments to each other and to bear and raise children. Indeed, politics of fear and intense competition may be as good a contraceptive as single-minded pursuit of a career.

It is only because the Liberal Party has begun to see a connection between the low numbers of children being born and economic growth that their attention has turned to women's reproductive patterns. Women should resist pressure to perceive having babies as a contribution to the wealth and strength of the nation and should resist having their reproductive capacities colonised by the rhetoric of a nasty and inhumane political party.

In an ideal world, the bearing and raising of children would be undertaken as an act of repudiation of economic rationalist values and as a repudiation of a government that prides itself on its lack of compassion. Having children should be undertaken as an assertion instead of the "irrational" values that have to do with love, care and concern for other human beings. (Where are you now, Labor Party, now that we need you most?)

In this ideal world, bearing children would be an affirmation of, in philosopher Raimond Gaita's words, human beings as "unique and irreplaceable". I would prefer to live in a society where childbearing is encouraged because children are precious in their own right rather than in a society where children are perceived as the economic units and taxpayers of the future.

Feminism's heart was in the right place when it campaigned for women to be recognised as possessing reproductive bodies and brains, brains that enabled them to think, participate in and contribute to society. Feminism saved women from the "biology as destiny" argument, one which may yet again raise its head if social policy is left to the bean counters.

But we still have more thinking to do when intelligent, talented women such as Haussegger find themselves unwillingly shut out of the possibility of mothering. Her loss and regret is not hers alone, but one we as a society share.

Jennifer Sinclair is a Melbourne writer.

Copyright 2002 The Age Company Ltd.