VICTORIA WHITE: Radical homemakers should lead new women’s liberation movement

ONE thousand women attended the meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin on Apr 14, 1971, when the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement was established.

Their manifesto, Chains or Change, listed six demands: equal pay, equality before the law, equal access to education, contraception and justice for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and widows.

Now it’s time for a new women’s movement. Our foremothers were concerned with the wrongs which affected them at that time but could not see into the future. They could not work out what new wrongs would emerge.

And they have emerged.

Just as corporate capitalism brilliantly exploited the American housewife in the 1950s by teaching her to achieve “happiness through things”, as Betty Friedan clearly showed, so corporate capitalism has exploited feminism.

It still wants us to achieve happiness through things, but it wants us to work for those things. It sure as hell doesn’t want any of us to stay home with kids or the disabled or the elderly unless we are stinking rich, in which case we’ll keep spending anyway.

But most of all it does not want us to make do with less so we can have more time. What good is time? How can you make money out of it? Time with your kids? Time with your partner? And don’t, for God’s sake, mention gardening.

So there you go, sisters. Yes, you have make some vitally important gains. You have the right and the means to choose how many children to have or not to have. You have the right to equal pay. You are trouncing boys in the field of education. There are benefits for single parents and the stigma of illegitimacy has been removed.

But now you have to go to work full-time the minute your maternity leave is up or you’re a non-person. You might be dragging a family of dyslexics through school while keeping an elderly father in the land of the living, but remember sister, you are not working.

What’s more, you’re letting down the side. You’re making a mockery of all the sacrifices your foremothers made for you. And as if that wasn’t enough, you are not spending enough money.

The formal economy doesn’t recognise you exist at all. You are likely to be impoverished for the rest of your life because you took time out of the workforce to do some of the most important work in society.

Well, it’s a hell of a lot more important than applying false nails or writing columns for newspapers, which make you exist in black and white in economic statistics, while caring in your home doesn’t.

So that’s why you have no access to work-related benefits. And that’s why Minister Joan Burton last year changed the rules for access to contributory pensions, reducing the rate for people with an average of less than 40 contributions a year, in other words, women in the home. As she said in the Dáil, “Those who pay more benefit more.”

That’s why, since Charlie McCreevy’s tax individualisation in 2000, a couple could be more than €7,000 out of pocket every year just because both of them are not working outside the home.

And the reason we can get nowhere on all of this is because most of the official left wing actually agrees with Charlie Mc Creevy. They scorn corporate capitalism and then let it tell us what women we should value and how much.

I’d better calm down before the keyboard takes a case for assault and battery. And no better way than by making a plan of action. This coming Wednesday at 6pm, in the self-same Mansion House, an American woman called Shannon Hayes is addressing a meeting on being a radical homemaker.

Don’t be ridiculous, you’re saying. If you’re a homemaker you wear a twinset and simper about your son’s exam results and swap cupcake recipes.

Who created that stereotype? Corporate capitalism, on the evidence of Betty Friedan. It wasn’t that the work of the home was inherently unimportant. It was that corporate capitalism wanted the home to be about consuming, not producing.

The radical homemaker produces at home. She — or he — deliberately makes do with less money in order to have more time at home. Radical homemakers are couples with children or single people, or couples without children, and they live on farms or in city-centre apartments. What unites them is that they invest time in making their homes the productive centre of their lives.

They grow food, they preserve, they cook. You have to if you want to save money and gain time. They try to learn as many skills as they can to work around the house and land, but they are not self-sufficient. They need others. They need their communities. And they all earn some money and buy some things. But not everything.

They’re challenging the way of life Hayes describes by quoting the columnist Ellen Goodman: “Getting dressed in clothes you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”

This is a way of life which is destroying human beings and also the planet in which they live. It is based on an economic model which applauds “growth” even if that’s an increase in the sales of prosthetic breasts because more women have breast cancer. It ignores the building of human capital in a home through the upbringing of children and the care of the elderly and disabled.

This work, usually women’s work, is completely ignored all over the world. The brilliant and very radical economist Marilyn Waring has written about the African countries in which only 10% of the women are listed as “working” although they are producing all of the food their families eat. The World Bank says it just hasn’t found a way of counting small farms.

Let’s find a way of counting the work of homemakers, radical and otherwise. Let’s think back a couple of centuries before the industrial revolution took hold and work it out again, this time refusing to allow all economic worth to be taken from the home and invested in the workplace.

Let’s reject GNP and GDP as insane ways of counting what we’re worth because they completely ignore environmental and social cost. Let’s replace them with GPI, a Genuine Progress Indicator, to which homemakers, women and men, are making a massive contribution.

It’s too hard? I know it’s hard. But it was hard for the women in 1971 to emerge from their chains and make change happen too. They were swimming against the tide.

But the tide was beginning to turn, and I sense the tide is turning too, for radical homemakers.

* Shannon Hayes will speaking about radical homemaking (www.radicalhomemakers.com) at the Mansion House, Dublin, on Wednesday, Jun 19, at 6pm as part of the second Climate Gathering (www.climategathering.org)

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