Category Archives: equality

What do feminist mothers fight with their partners about?

This post by blue milk came so at the right time – or wrong time -that it made me want to contribute my bit – or more honestly, rant.

First, I will say that we don’t fight much, and that we get along pretty nicely, mainly because my partner is very very patient and he is the kind that diffuses fights rather than escalates (like I do). But we do have our moments, obviously, especially when we are both tired and overwhelmed.

One of the most frequent fights is about sleep, which inevitably leads to discussions about how much we each do and contribute – both of us probably feeling and proclaiming we do more or that our work is not valued. And for me it ends up being about feminism too.

Here is why.

Let’s put it in context first. R. has always woken up several times a night until very recently – that is almost 2 1/2 years without proper sleep. The nights are my domain, mainly because I breastfed her, and because she would yell like she was being killed if my partner went, and even if I know that if we kept it up she would get used to it, I could never reach the point of letting the process happen. So it was and is mainly me. He wakes up, true, because he is a light sleeper, but stays in bed and can roll over and go to sleep again -unless it is the screaming type of wake up. My partner usually takes r. in the mornings, and I sleep in an hour or sometimes –pleasure of pleasures- two, which are very precious to me.

However, he expects loads of brownie points and brings it up at times when we discuss what we each do ‘you sleep in every morning’ type of thing. As I am a slacker for that. And I am grateful, and it is true in many ways. But so why is he then not grateful about my all night work? So my reply is as true (or truer– it’s my blog, ha!) ‘I let you sleep every night and that is much much harder’. put up the volume for the reply… and a rich description of what waking up every nigth implies. But it does not seem to get through, the message – for either of us- since we always come back to that. Of course then we go onto other niceties. Who needs to sleep more – he works, brings the money home. I work too, but not on well paid things –like my PhD, a few classes, consultancies, or even worse I spend time doing this blog, which does not bring any ‘profit’. So he needs more sleep, while my sleeping in is a luxury, a treat. He never actually says that, but for me, it is implied. so my reaction is not that afable, as you can expect. 

Another typical tipping point, which is related to the above, is the one described already in blue milk post and links, and in a much better  way too: the day the nanny gets ill. Not so much the day r. gets ill, because as in the nights, I seem to be the requested one, and it is ok, I also want to be there. But the day the nanny gets ill. And the discussions begin…because it seems obvious that I am the default person. But why is it me who is the default person to take care of r.? Why isn’t it what should we do, how should we split it –unless it is an emergency like the day before my viva? And the fight about what is valuable, what is not, what counts, what not, ensues.

Let me get this clear – I don’t want to get into too much trouble here – my partner does not stop doing tasks all day, just like me. But since r. is little, and since I work mostly from home, loads of things are on my domain, and most of them are those of the invisible kind. And it seems also that my work is more expendable, I am the one to tweak, to work evenings to catch up or weekends. I worry that despite everything, R., as others, see my work as ‘play work’ and her dad’s as ‘real’, and I am not sure how to make that clear, when the reality is that it certainly looks that way many times. Because this is wider than us, it is about how value is given to things that bring in money rather to those such as homemaking and mothering which are enablers of that, rather than bringing money in itself. And old but prevalent feminist fight. And the issue is my partner would not be able to work like he does, and have a daughter with the level of care that we both want for her, without having someone staying at home and doing all the things that I cover, or at least it would be quite expensive – or at least I hope so!

So the resurgence of fights are, I think, even though shit at the moment, quite good to keep tweaking, going over things, and reminding ourselves of not falling into patterns and defaults. And this is mainly brought up through these explosions – though they mostly comes out in one of my rages. But if I react so strongly, it is because these battles reach my core, it feels necessary for me. And I think they are very much part of my feminist work.  And I know it will go on and on, because we haven’t got round that one, nor I think has the world. But if you have, I accept tips!



Women in academia

I was reading this article, ‘Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors’, by Kate Zernike in the New York times,  sent to the radical geographer’s list, and straight after that I read Natalia’s review. It was inevitable that I talked about this, you see.

This article tells the story of gender progressive change in the School of Science of MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It shows the attempts at overcoming gender inequalities, but also, how this brought about a different set of thorny issues.

This is the story. The starting point for this change was women who were fed up with the situation, who reached out to other women. This wasn’t particularly difficult, as the article points out, because there were only 15 women with tenure, compared to 197 men.

I love the way they set up to prove this inequality:

Women undergraduates outnumbered men in some departments, but the percentage of women on the faculty had remained relatively flat for 20 years. The school had never had a woman in any position of leadership. [..] The women gathered more data — crawling on the floor with tape measures to compare lab space for men and for women. They took their concerns to the dean, Robert J. Birgeneau, who did his own study, which backed up the women’s conclusions that there were wide disparities in salary and resources and a general marginalization of women.

And this is the university’s president wise conclusion, an admittance which created waves in other universities. 

 “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception,” the university’s president, Charles M. Vest, wrote in the 1999 report. “True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

Satisfying to hear it admitted like this, isn’t it? It kind of makes me want to get my tape measure out…

So what happened? After 10  years of gender progressive policies, there was impressive change. The numbers of female faculty nearly doubled, there are now many women in positions of power (president, deans and department heads). It has become very family friendly, as the university provides a pause for a year in the tenure clock, and everyone gets a term-long leave after the arrival of a child. There is day care on campus and subsidies for child care while travelling on business, and  ‘inequities in salaries, resources, lab space and teaching loads have largely been eliminated.’

But. There is always a but…

  • One of the main concerns is that because of this aggressive push to hire more women, and to include more women, there is an impression that women are given an unfair advantage, when actually this is not the case, as nobody is hired without at least 15 (!) recommendations outside MIT, as the article states. But women undergraduates keep asking for advice on how to handle the ‘you are just here because you are a women’ kind of remark.
  • Because the rule is that women have to be present at every committee, and there are still less women in the faculty, a lot of their time is taken in this bureaucratic work, in detriment of their research time.
  • Even with generous family policies, which meant that families are now the norm, parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one, and women, not men, are often invited to speak about their work-life balance. Moreover, men use family time to do outside work, which increases professional inequalities. 
  • Stereotypes about women remain: there is an acceptable range of behaviour for women, which women describe as not too aggressive, but not too soft either. And biases are found in letters of recommendation for tenure, which for men tend to focus on intellect while women’s tend to dwell on temperament.

Because of this progress, the faculty now struggles to accommodate two career couples, while ten years ago, women with tenure ‘tended to be married only to their careers’.

I find this story fascinating. To see what can be achieved when you really go for change. It is impressive. And how, as always, new things come up, or as it turns out, some things that were good in principle, such as women participating in committees, turned into burdens and a new source of inequalities. But it also shows how change has to be wider than what can be done at one faculty or university. As one of the professors there states:  

‘The more fundamental issues are societal, and M.I.T. can’t solve them on its own’.

True, oh so true. But there is no changing things unless small/big changes take place. So hurray for this.

International Women’s Day

I know, this is my second post today, but I just want to say something about  the International Women’s Day, so maybe some facts and figures could be of some interest. For example

  • Over 110 million of the world’s children, two thirds of them girls, are not in school.

  • Girls between 13 and 18 years of age constitute the largest group in the sex industry. It is estimated that around 500,000 girls below 18 are victims of trafficking each year.

  • Direct obstetric deaths account for about 75 per cent of all maternal deaths in developing countries.

  • More than 80 per cent of the world’s 35 million refugees and displaced people are women and children.

Everytime I read these figures it makes me feel really sad. But I know that  there are many women out there trying to reverse this situation and that gives me hope. It is my belief that small things can turned into powerful processes. I’ ve been told many stories about amazing women and I’ve witnessed other women working in impossible environments. Because of this, today is a day of celebration.

What is feminist mothering for me? What needs to be done?

One of the things that inspired this post was Blue Milk’s questions on feminist mothering. The answers to these questions by different people are incredibly inspiriring, and thought-provoking, so go have a peak. These questions resonated with ones I have had in my head since well before r. was born, but which acquired a different intensity and importance since she’s been with us.

Beware: it is long!

I am a feminist, and I am a mother. Inevitably, my feminism is formed by my motherhood, and my motherhood by my feminism. But, if pressed, I find it quite hard to define what my feminism is about, just as I find impossible to define my motherhood. My feminism gets done and thought through differently, in different practices, events and experiences. The same goes for my motherhood. I can easily say that I have always supported the basic tenets of feminist struggles for equal rights and opportunities for women in different areas. This slowly evolved from a position of not much aware of this as feminism, to identifying comfortably with the term feminism. In terms of mothering, being aware, for instance, of gender constructions/constrictions and its practice in the gendering of clothes, toys and activities; the sexualisation of children, especially little girls; body image and food issues; corporate practices in terms of marketing of formula milk, or advertising, all make me think carefully about the ways in which I/we parent. Being a feminist mother means for me thinking and picking at these issues, trying to find ways of working through them, more than having a clear solution, or blueprint for raising feminist children, and for being a feminist mother. It also informs the different forms of political practices that I get involved in.

Before I had my daughter, I knew that her arrival will change everything, that we will be affected in different ways; that our lives would change. In this sense, I was somehow prepared. I just did not know how, where, what, and especially I did not know how strongly it would feel. Little things, right? One of the things that most struck me as I became a mother is the force, the sheer strength of the feelings, of the ways that motherhood affected me, affected my priorities, my views, my fights, as well as the sense of satisfaction and joy I got out of it (which obviously does not mean that things are always lovely and rosy – the levels of tiredness my body resists amaze me, as well as the levels of patience required, which are not always forthcoming). I embraced motherhood, and allowed myself the time and space to enjoy it, and was lucky enough to be able to do it, and to be supported in the process. But it is here that I feel more work needs to be done, and a different vocabulary created.

Becoming a mother is done through a particularly powerful relation, which deeply affects our relations to others, but also to ourselves. This particular relationship is demanding in many ways, from a person that is totally dependent on others, especially the mother. OK, so my needs at times, many times, took the backstage, my time was interrupted and my presence and nurturing needed. I did not have time for anything. But I think that this, though very hard at times, is not a model for a lifetime. Motherhood is a trajectory. The first years necessarily mean for me, a more intense, time-consuming, relation with my child, where I was indispensable. Breastfeeding a baby, for instance, means that it is inevitably the mother who is needed, who needs to be present (though pumping has complicated and extended the ways of being present), who needs to put the body, who find her time interrupted by other’s needs and timings. I personally felt this was a challenge, but also felt I wanted to do this. Not to listen to this desire, not to let go and follow the flow, not to allow the different temporality, and forms of (not very well recognised) ‘productivity’ of this time, especially the first months, and even year, demanded for me, would have been a struggle. I allowed myself (and was lucky enough to be able to) to do this. I think that this did not mean I was submissive, or a traitor to feminist values. But many times it is framed in this terms, or felt this way. This, for me, is a crucial aspect of mothering which has been in conflict with much feminist thought.I think this has to do with independency being such a fight for women, for the conditions that women had to live in/with for so long (and still are). However, I think that this focus can be damaging too, especially in terms of mothering. Why are we so afraid of dependency? Or more to the point, why can’t we find ways of nurturing and supporting our interdependence in ways that do not push us towards a binary? 

The problem for me was the lack of support from wider society for this task. For me, in this sense, this difference is one to be valued, and of course, this means to create support networks to make this possible. This obviously is not what is out there now. Because of this, motherhood can be isolating and also it turns into a great burden and demand for individual women. The wider societal responsibility for children, has swiftly been turned into an individual problem. Here it is where I think that the personal is political can be important, realising that this is not only an individual problem, your failing that ‘balance’ never seems to be achieved. Many times, this is felt this way, framed this way – hello mother bashing, I’m talking to you. Also the whole constructions of parenting tribes – the media frenzy, but also the practices – is part of this wider individualisation of the problem, and the understanding of parenting in terms of choice. As individuals we are not the problem and cannot change the problem. So I think there is a feminist fight here, to work to do for mothers to feel valuable, respected and for looking after the children to be though as important, and worthy, for its difference to be part of a richer society and richer notion and experience of public space. The fight for this is for me part of my feminist mothering.

One of the issues that complicate this is that feminist struggles for equality sometimes leave out the need for fighting for spaces for difference. Feminism struggles have concentrated a lot on achieving equality, but sometimes this has meant accepting traditionally ‘male’ terms of success and of value. In a way, the female experience of motherhood disrupts this and is many times in friction with these imperatives. To think of feminist mothering has meant a lot of the times the fight for women to be able to work, to return to work, maternity leave, which are all amazing results of feminist struggles. However, I feel more work needs to be done in terms of valuing the work of mothering – and thus putting money, policies, and translating these into actual practices, which means changing very stubborn values and the relations that support them. Though much feminist thinking has been done in terms of trying to tackle this sticky issue, a lot of it uses approaches that I think are limiting. Many of the things I read resonate in one way or the other, but I feel much of it still uses binary thinking, for instance in terms of mother needs vs baby’s needs, power vs submission, production and reproduction, dialectical thinking. I think this way of thinking about mothering produces and frames issues in ways that can be useful for certain strategic political struggles, but that leave too much out for it to be valuable to create other, alternative types of politics. I would like to see different approaches that reflect more on the ambiguities, the non-coherence, on spaces for difference, than what these framings allow. Furthermore, I would love feminism to tackle full-on the issue of motherhood, as a female experience. This is tricky because of the long history of different forms of oppressive types of motherhood, and also of falling into essentialism. But can we find ways of thinking this particular and powerful relation that is motherhood? Can we find ways of valuing this particular female experience without falling into essentialism or oppressive and moralising notion of motherhood? Can we find spaces for difference? I think this is something that is taking place in different ways, and one which as a feminist mother, I would like to contribute.