We need an aspirational movement that respects freedom and choice

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by Mel Tibbs

After the tedium of the election campaign where, even on so-called ‘Woman’s’ Hour, no politician dared stray from the triumvirate of the Economy, Housing and the NHS, there followed the surprise election result, alarming for some.   I had no desire to see any one of the parties with a majority; forcing them to work together in a coalition was my ‘lesser of many evils’.  But now, as Cameron settles in, politics has moved on to scrapping over one word: Aspiration.

I wrote an article about my aspirations for the now-defunct Feminist Times ( http://www.feministtimes.com/these-women-are-not-me/) a couple of years ago. There was an ambitious project: the founders of the Feminist Times wanted to revive a journal with the spirit of 1970s icon Spare Rib. A magazine for and about the women’s liberation movement.  Charlotte Raven, editor in chief, was ambitious about her online magazine not having to ‘sell out’ to advertisers in order to pay its way.  She aspired to having a co-operative of members who would fund the ideas and articles online while taking part in real-world meet ups, debates and rallies.  Women coming together without commercial interests getting in the way.  Unfortunately in the end Feminist Times folded.  It wasn’t the right kind of ‘aspiration’ for this commercial age.

The point of my FT article was that the aspirations I held didn’t match up with what women, and men, in political circles considered to be ambitious.  Having once thought myself ‘unambitious’ a good friend corrected me, telling me that I was, in fact, very ambitious about my life.  But my aspirations revolved around spending time with my children, being there for them throughout their childhoods, and making do financially in order to do so. 

This afternoon I was thinking about a school friend of mine who is a barrister and judge, and a wonderful mother.  She has a nanny and burns the candle at both ends, doing the best for her children.  She definitely has aspirations.  But if you asked her, she’d say they are no higher than mine.  The term is a relative one; it means many things to many people.  It means making authentic choices about your life, whether you’re a parent or not, in paid employment or not.  So my friend and I are both genuinely aspirational because we’ve carved out the space to make the choices we want to – and which we know work best for our families in our individual circumstances with our children’s particular needs.  We share work and care between us, to fit in with family responsibilities and the kind of employment that pays our household bills.  We’re aspirational for ourselves and our children; we’ve also learned to adapt and be flexible to changing circumstances.  

Unfortunately, however, having decided Labour’s failure to win more seats was due to a lack of appeal to ‘aspirational’ people, the party have seized on this word as if it is the key to their future success.  But how can a political party attach itself to such a slippery concept?  When an abstract word like ‘aspiration’ becomes tied to just one fixed idea ( in other words a focus on paid employment, with no time for the other things that matter in life) we are truly in the realms of Orwell’s 1984 and its Doublespeak.  Like the phrase ‘Hardworking families’, we know what the subtext of ‘aspiration’ is when spoken by a politician.  We are to be allowed to be aspirational only in a prescribed way, and that way certainly doesn’t include unpaid work.

As supporters and members of Mothers at Home Matter you told us about your aspirations on our social media pages; you aspire to being a good parent, to living in a society which recognises the importance of family time, to having financial flexibility which allows you to prioritise things the way that works for you.   We need a political movement which shows a willingness to see that there are many ways to live a ‘good’ life and many ways of contributing and being ‘productive’.  A movement which respects freedom and choice for everyone, not just a privileged few, so that everyone is empowered to make healthy choices for their families.    Until then we will be constrained by all parties’ insistence on a one-dimensional view of the world.  Now that really is unaspirational.

21st May 2015

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