Sunday, 17 January 2010

Working mothers resist misogyny amid attacks on 'Career Women'.

New article for The Samosa; look out for a BBC documentary about the site soon!

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Across the country last week, thousands of women caught the bus to work only to be informed by a prominent poster that 'Career Women Make Bad Mothers'. The slogan was selected to demonstrate the success of outdoor advertising - in this case, its success was in shaming and offending the millions of women across Britain who work for a living.

The founder of the Beta agency, which designed the advert, justified the choice of slogan on the grounds that “vocalising opinion has always been a great British pastime. We want to ... create a brand which truly democratises debate.”

Whatever its intention, the campaign certainly caught a mood. The opinion that women who choose to work outside the home are somehow betraying their 'natural' roles as housebound mothers hardly needs more vocalising; it is a theme that has recurred with alarming frequency in the popular press since the Conservative election effort began in earnest in 2009. However, the right-wing commentariat has failed to realise that the notion of a ‘traditional’ nuclear family – with the man going out to work and his wife staying at home to look after the children – has no real basis in historical fact.

Scholars of the Industrial Revolution describe how separate spheres for men and women emerged between 1780 and 1850 as the workplace became separated from the home and a private, domestic sphere was created for women. In 1737 over 98 per cent of married women in England worked outside the home, and it was only in the early 20th century that the majority began to work as housewives, partly as a result of specific legal sanctions on the part of central government, a process that some historians term ‘the enclosure of women’.

There is little historical precedent for the ‘traditional’ family. The implication that women are naturally inclined to avoid paid work and confine themselves to domestic drudgery and childcare is pure myth, but it suits the prevailing conservative agenda to play into a fantasy that women of previous centuries were exclusively tame, domestic creatures who did no work besides childcare, until the advent of that modern monster, the ‘career woman’.

The attack on ‘career women’ is doubly effective as an attack on female power itself. No cleaner, cook or dinner lady has ever been branded a 'career woman', even though she may work harder and spend fewer hours with her children than her sisters in the media, political and financial sectors. To be a 'career woman', a woman must have had the audacity to become personally powerful outside the domestic sphere – and eight decades after female suffrage, this is still a phenomenon that merits public outcry and private shame.

Amidst considerable online support, contributors to the popular parents' forum Mumsnet.com started an unofficial campaign to get the advertisements taken down. The charge of 'bad motherhood' is intimately and inevitably wounding, as one Mumsnet member, ‘notevenamousie’, described:

"[The ad] on the side of a building today felt like a kick in the stomach. I am being a decent role model and crying blood sweat and tears for my girl. I don't know what else I can do...."

"What about fathers?" asked another working mother on the site. "Are they not raising their child? Are they bad parents for working? No one would ever say 'working men make bad fathers’".

After several hundred women from across the country contacted Beta, their clients and the Advertising Standards Agency to complain, the bus campaign was pulled. Mumsnet received communications from Beta’s Garry Lace and his lawyers, demanding that the firm be "compensated for the hurt, corporate loss and reputational damage that we have suffered as a result of your inability to moderate your medium properly."

Clearly, capitalising on crude, inaccurate social stereotypes that shame women out of economic self-determination is acceptable if you're trying to sell advertising space by encouraging people to 'vocalise opinion' - but if anyone vocalises the opinion that you're a gutless sexist weasel, it's time to sue.

Lace's lawyers went so far as to demand the personal contact details of individual mothers who use the forum. So much for democratising debate. Mumsnet duly apologised for "the strength of feeling expressed by Mumsnetters", saying that site users "assumed that the statement in question was intended to provoke discussion. We now understand that it was ironic casual sexism intended to draw attention to advertising space."

Whoever wrote that advert understood that sexism sells. The resourcefulness of Mumsnet members was not a reaction to one poster alone, but to a prevailing prejudice against working mothers that stems from an advancing tide of sexist political thought. As the recession bites deeper, suspicion of women with the temerity to be employed is fast becoming the misogyny of the moment. Let’s hope that the women of Britain can continue to resist these ugly attacks on our self-worth.


12 comments:

  1. "In 1737 over 98 per cent of married women in England worked outside the home"

    This needs putting in context. In 1737 life in Britain was overwhelmingly rural. Female employment was overwhelmingly a) on farms b) in laundries c) in taverns d) as domestic servants to the rich.

    I think few people would now accept "outside the home" as meaning "round the back of the house, engaged in the farming family business" yet plainly you must have meant something very like this.

    You should explain.

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  2. Last weekend I almost crashed my driving instructor's car when I saw one of these ads on a billboard by the side of the road. It was bad enough when I thought it was just an advert for a discussion website, but an ad to sell ad space? That's exploitative, demeaning, and a whole lot of other things that I can't find the words for right now. For most women who work, it's an economic necessity, not the selfish luxury certain right-wing elements assume it to be.

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  3. Boy does that make me mad as the son of a single parent working mother who now has two comprehensively-schooled sons at Cambridge. I don't generally think violence is an answer to anything but if I met whoever designed that...

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  4. I think the main reason for this campaign is that Beta agency are relatively new and used this to gain a higher profile for themselves. Garry Lace also forced mumsnet to delete a lot of comments on the thread as well. I read up about the agency at the time, and their blog etc. and in the end couldn't be bothered to write any more than had already been written in the media.

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  5. "I think the main reason for this campaign is that Beta agency are relatively new and used this to gain a higher profile for themselves."

    And it worked. You didn't have to name the agency responsible, Penny Red & the rest. This is kind of what they want.

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  6. Some of the comments on this have been peculiarly instructive -- particularly those which adopt a vaguely detached, amused tone while informing everyone that 'controversy sells!' That argument probably needs to be put to one side -- its an arguable point, since controversy garners attention but it's far from conclusive that it *sells* things -- and instead we should look at the assumptions that underlie it. To me it seems that one can only arrive at that conclusion by first believing that efficacy in selling and quantity of exposure are always unassailably good things; to believe that, one has to believe that the arbiter of what is ethical is what is profitable.

    In other words, what is unquestionably misogynist here is also rolled up in the theoretical structure of late capitalism -- harmful discourse is inconsequential because it *sells things*; selling things is awesome, because that makes money happen, and profit makes us all happy. What's depressing here is that it conceives of the public sphere as simply a marketplace in which people exist only as vectors of economic transfer, to be directed as desired. Or, more simply, the notion of a public good is subsumed into private profit.

    This is, of course, another argument for the shooting of marketing executives on sight.

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  7. Now look here!

    Women are biologically predetermined to give birth to and rear offspring - that's what Mother Nature gave them wombs and tits for! You don't see men looking after their offspring in any primitive aboriginal culture, but you do see a division of labour between the sexes very much like the idea of the nuclear family in the UK, viz., the men hunt, police and protect their society by force of arms and the women cook, clean, labour, do skilled jobs (like weaving) and mother their young.

    All this nonsense about "career women" and "house husbands" etc., is a modern nonsense that has grown up in idle western societies where large numbers of individuals pool their wealth and talents for the common good. Surely nobody could seriously deny that our own society would be improved significantly if we went back to basics and redefined the roles naturally assumed by men and women according to evolutionary and natural ordinance.

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  8. The slogan should read "carreer people make bad parents".

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  9. "it was only in the early 20th century that the majority began to work as housewives"

    Researching my family tree last year, this reflects exactly what I found in all the old census records and such: almost all my 19th Century female ancestors seem to have worked in paid employment, either in domestic service or in the cloth trade.

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  10. Historians don't know the exact number of women who worked outside the home, let alone the percentage of married women who did so. There has been some research done, but it's hampered by lack of adequate records.

    BTW, I don't know how you can be offended by the message on the bus but then complain about women "confining" themselves to "domestic drudgery and childcare". Aren't you insulting housewives in saying this? Aren't you insulting those working women whose main focus in life is the care of their families?

    Why should working in an office to help some corporation make a profit be more worthy of a woman than working to raise her own children? Does the market have to triumph over every aspect of our lives?

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  11. "Aren't you insulting housewives in saying this? Aren't you insulting those working women whose main focus in life is the care of their families?"

    Perhaps. I wasn't insulted as I find the domestic aspect of my job as full-time parent to really be drudgery and get no joy from it. Note: Housewife is an antiquated word which repulses me.

    "Why should working in an office to help some corporation make a profit be more worthy of a woman than working to raise her own children? Does the market have to triumph over every aspect of our lives?"

    It already has. To buy or rent a house and all the trappings that constitute a 'decent' life in the UK requires two incomes.

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