I WORE a purple dress the night I launched my book on the hatred of mothers in Irish society, Mother Ireland, six years ago. In her remarks my publisher said we needed more purple in feminism.
I was prepared for a backlash. After all I was attacking the central tenet of official Irish feminism: That the only freedom for mothers was freedom from their children. But I was not prepared for the clamp-down I met in some quarters. A friend and journalistic colleague looked at me and said, “Let’s just pretend you never wrote that book.”
I received an email from another writer which called me “an anti-feminist endorsing Article 41.2 of the 1937 Constitution” and put this down to the fact that I was “full of hatred for your own mother”. I was accused, on national radio, of outlandish beliefs, such as that men are incapable of caring for children.
I wasn’t even particularly talking about myself as a stay-at-home mother in Mother Ireland, because I am a writer and even when I’m not writing I’m thinking about writing.
I wrote out of outrage that the massive and fundamental task of rearing children was given neither support nor value, especially by official Irish feminism. This sticks in my craw because the reason it isn’t valued is that women do it.
Then I moved on. I rehabilitated myself by doing more journalism about lots of issues. Though the wide-open editorial policy of this newspaper has allowed me to return to the topic several times, my book didn’t impinge on the national debate about mothers.
Official feminism and official government economic policy sing from the same hymn sheet: get them into childcare so she can do some real work.
But in the UK my publisher’s wish that there be more purple in feminism is beginning to come true. A young mother called Vanessa Olorenshaw subtitles her new book, Liberating Motherhood, “birthing the purplestockings movement”.
The purplestockings get their colour from the bluestockings of literary suffragettes with the redstockings of 1960s radical feminists.
With a number of “maternal feminist” organisations like Mothers at Home Matter and All Mothers Work and the new Women’s Equality Party, Olorenshaw, a former lawyer and trade union activist, is tackling head-on the grotesque devaluation of motherhood.
She puts it like this: “The reality is stark: mothers are, in gradual steps, losing the rights, freedom and economic ability to raise their own children, within the patriarchal and capitalist project.” She describes this as “market-driven environmental and social destruction”.
She cites most of the same writers I read, writers who don’t feature in the canon of official feminism: Selma James, Daphne de Marneffe, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Melissa Benn, Ann Crittenden, Marilyn Waring, Steve Biddulph and she adds others such as Andrea O’Reilly , Naomi Stadlen and Antonella Gambotto-Burke.
But she is much braver than I was in tackling head-on the issue of maternal “essentialism”.
This is the belief that there are attributes which are “essential” to mothers and not shared by, say, fathers. It’s bloody obvious there are attributes which are essential to mothers but this is absolute heresy in official feminist circles.
The fatwa against maternal essentialism was explained for me years ago by childcare guru Penelope Leach: Motherhood loses women status so its importance is too dangerous to admit.
But where does this society-wide fear of motherhood come from? Fear of the power and love of mothers. Gambotto-Burke nails it: “fear of sensitivity, fear of what men identify as weakness, fear of mutability, fear of chaos, fear of intimacy”.
Olorenshaw brilliantly shows how motherhood, the very giving and sustaining of life, is being erased from public discourse. The Midwives Alliance of North America recently made a play to erase the word “woman” from its literature and replace it with “birthing person” and “pregnant person”.
What next? Chest-feeding instead of breast-feeding, she suggests.
Olorenshaw brings this right back to Plato’s Republic which saw babies removed from their mothers and mothers made to breastfeed any baby other than their own. A shiver of fear ran through me as I typed that last line.
This is what we are still up against in Western culture: The demand that our babies and children be taken away from us and reared by persons unknown.
Whenever it is suggested that children suffer when their parents do not have enough time for them — such as in the report prepared by Cork University with the citizens’ participation unit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs which was leaked a couple of weeks ago — there is hysteria in case it will make “working mothers” feel guilty.
How about all the other things such evidence might tell us, such as that parents’ work in the home is vital to children’s mental and physical health and deserves support, not stigma and the risk of poverty? But you won’t get this response from Official Feminism. Instead you’ll get demands for more and better childcare places.
Instead of supporting mothers, Official Feminism wants to substitute them, writes Olorenshaw. She calls for creative thinking on support for mothers — restoration of tax allowances, universal basic income, a parents’ income — and adds: “If one more person says ‘childcare’ I’ll scream.”
She adds: “Feminist activism is not and should not be about ‘pay gaps’ and ‘the glass ceiling’. It is about life; it is about women as a class; it is about humanity and the environment.”
Take a look at our National Women’s Council’s pre-budget submission, Vanessa. The pension gap and the pay gap are on the front page as is female representation on boards but mothers are not.
Paradoxically the pay gap is nearly all down to time spent out of the so-called workforce doing mother-work and progressive countries with more opportunities for time out tend to have wider pay gaps.
The solution for women is to formally recognise, once and for all, that mothers working in their homes are among the most vital workers in any economy.
The vast majority of mothers would choose to take time out or go part-time in their children’s early years if they could. At some point official feminism must ask itself why it finds this desire so dangerous and discountable.
Ireland was behind the UK in providing the structures to allow mothers into the workforce and those who fought this fight are still in power.
It is high time that the mic was wrested from their hands so that the mothers’ voices are heard and the fear of mothers can begin its slow death. With the purplestocking of Vanessa Olorenshaw — an Englishwoman published in Shanagarry — twisted around its neck.