The blood on the floor is especially vivid in UK politics right now, spattered over the bodies of the dispatched “male, pale, and stale” ministers suddenly ejected from David Cameron’s Cabinet.
In their place comes what Britain’s Conservative Party hopes will benefit its electoral chances: a slight increase in the number of female ministers, their promotions reported in glaringly sexist terms in today’s Daily Mail in terms of a fashion parade on the “Downing Street catwalk.” In those women’s shadows comes one of the emptiest, yet telling phrases attached to women in public life today: “working mother.” The prefix was immediately attached to Nicky Morgan, the newly appointed UK Education Secretary.
The absurdity of the prefix is immediately clear in that no-one ever speaks of “working fathers.” It is a phrase rooted in two perceived opposites: that one cannot be both “working” (as in, paid employment) and a “mother,” that there is something so surprising and special it must be encapsulated in a handy qualifying phrase about being a mother who works.
But it also emotive: many women want to return to work after having children, and governments have proved themselves notoriously lacking in making that realizable. It’s a stormy, charged phrase too. “Working mothers” have been variously vilified, and now lauded, for attempting to balance career and home lives. The see-sawing ambivalence neatly reflects how badly and misguidedly politicians and political parties approach women.
The phrase also has a grating redundancy: How does it truly, meaningfully describe the woman attached to it, and—if she is in public life—what she stands for politically, and what should be expected of her? But darn such subtleties: Right-wing politicians in both the U.S. and UK are going hunting for votes, and “working mothers” are their new desired target.
The media, forever starved for lazy shorthand, have gone along with the labeling too. And so we are all supposed to denote something from “working mother” as a descriptive adjective. As with most things, the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous skewered the absurdity years before its current ubiquity. When the high-spending, vacuous Edina goes shopping for the first time in a supermarket (like an alien, she has no idea what to do there, Harvey Nichols is her supermarket), she explains martyrishly to the cashier of her piled-high trolleys, ludicrously laden with impractical purchases such as champagne, “Working mum.”
It’s a problematic mission for politicians seeking to tempt this constituency today, comprised as it is of women who traditionally find the Republican and Conservative parties’ misogyny and reactionary tendencies—such as seeking to restrict abortion or regulate reproductive rights—a turn-off. But ideologically both parties have come to see “working mothers” as the embodiment of economically active family values: they work, but they have also reproduced. Congratulations, ladies.
Their emergence on the conservative wish list coincides with the thrumming pop-cultural cult of motherhood and parenthood more generally, visible not just in political life, but in Hollywood too. Chat show interviews with celebrities include extended riffs on “being a mom,” “how to balance career and motherhood,” and the like, with the ridiculousness behind such exchanges unstated—that these people are extremely rich and have paid help and assistance to ensure the smooth running of their home and professional lives. But “being a mom” is an effective shorthand to connect to the public, however vastly, materially different the celebrity’s life is to the “working mother” in the real world.
In the U.S., Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who delivered the Republican response to Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, made a play in her speech of being a working mother on a platform, commentators noted, which set mothers who worked against single or childless women who also did.
What we were to take from it being applied to Mrs. Morgan, who has one child? Liz Truss, the UK’s new Environment Secretary, has two children, but does not, as yet, have the same two words shoved in front of her name.
Presumably the “working mother” sobriquet has been attached to Mrs. Morgan because she also remains minister for women and equalities—and “working mother” is supposed to communicate something vital about her to female employed-mother voters: “She knows what it’s like to juggle, home, and the workplace.”
But does she? Why should the fact of being a working mother be an automatic qualification for anything? Has anyone asked Mrs. Morgan, or indeed Ms. McMorris Rodgers, what being a working mother entailed for them, and the level of support, financial and practical, both had to balance both roles? If that seems too intrusive, it is also important: Both women’s parties want the votes of working mothers, and both are keen to foreground the two women as exemplary of this demographic, so let us judge for ourselves how their experience as “working mothers” corresponds with other working mothers.
Mrs. Morgan, we know, is more financially privileged than most: She was privately educated, and has, for many years, been a successful, well-paid lawyer.
In an article in The New Republic, Ms. McMorris Rodgers’ solution appears to be to have her husband, Brian, play the family’s full-time “Mr Mom.” Other women are not so fortunate. Last year, she also faced protests for seeking to dismantle programs for seniors, mothers, kids, and low-income families.
Being a working mother does not always mean a friend to other working mothers—just look to the most famous working mother of all politicians, Margaret Thatcher, who was no friend to working women, with child or not. She would never have described herself as a working mother, or a feminist. She did not spearhead initiatives to help mothers rejoin the world of work. Thatcher appealed to what she believed to be universal values—of hard work and reward—rather than gender. She prized the individual over the collective, and private enterprise over state intervention. She had no time for special-interest pleading. Her conviction politics were—depending on your own politics—unifying or deeply divisive.
Sarah Palin was also a working mother who, despite her boasting to be a “mama grizzly” and a “pitbull,” has invoked feminism to little practical end for women, but instead to strategically play for votes. While the right wing is invoking “working mothers” as mistily as possible to court popularity, and putting female politicians with children on television to appeal to the same constituency, in practical terms its parties are not doing enough for "working mothers." It’s an empty, but both British and American parties hope, emotionally connecting phrase.
As ABC News succinctly noted recently, in reporting the best and worst states to be a working mother: “There are 181 countries that guarantee paid leave from work for new mothers and 81 that guarantee it for new fathers—the United States is not among them.”
In Britain, asked by Nursery World, “How are you supporting working mothers?” in June when she was minister for women, Mrs. Morgan said: “We recognize that high-quality, affordable childcare can make a huge difference. One of my priorities is to provide a new scheme for working families—Tax-Free Childcare—from autumn 2015, which will be worth up to £2,000 per child per year. We are also introducing a system of flexible parental leave by 2015, so that parents can choose between themselves how best to share caring responsibilities.”
While it’s unknown how challenging she found being a working mother, or if it informs her political ideology and work, we know that Mrs. Morgan makes the personal political. As Education Secretary, she still retains the equalities brief, this after having voted against marriage equality in the UK last year. At the time, she said: “This is a very big social change. There have been plenty of little changes down the years but what’s never been changed is that the fact that marriage is between a man and a woman. I think that was one of the issues people, especially those who asked me to vote against, found hardest to accept and it also tied in with my own Christian faith too. I totally support civil partnerships and that same-sex relationships are recognized in law. But marriage, to me, is between a man and a woman.”
“Committed Christian,” rather than “working mother,” would appear to more accurately reflect the core of Mrs. Morgan’s personality, but the Conservatives know too much God can scare voters. “Working mother” is much friendlier, softer, more “I’m just like you.”
After so long being known for their misogyny, the Conservative and Republican parties have alighted on a prefix to target, vaguely but emotively, female voters. Now they, and the Representatives and MPs it is being applied to, should be asked what it means. Did they really struggle as “working mothers?” How do they intend to practically advocate for “working mothers”? Do women stuck with the prefix appreciate it as the qualification preceding their name, the primacy of it above their other achievements?
If the policies aimed at “working mothers” are as empty as the prefix, the two parties may well end up regret invoking it. After all, as the Tories and Republicans would surely rush to acknowledge, “working mothers” are not stupid.