Women working together finding common ground at ‘Feminism in London’ conference

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by Mel Tibbs

It’s been a very busy few weeks for Mothers at Home Matter.  Our annual Open Meeting was quickly followed by theFeminism in London weekend.  The MAHM presence at the FiL conference ttook a three pronged approach.

Firstly, we had our MAHM stall manned by a team of volunteers, as we have successfully done for the past two years.  We loaded the table with information, badges, t-shirts, flyers about ourselves and also about partner organisations.  These organisations, like MAHM,  campaign for more family time and proper recognition of the work of bringing up a family- Global Women’s Strike, The Politics of Mothering and All Mothers Work.

Secondly, during the breaks between different presentations and panel discussions, attendees have time to walk round the different stalls in the hall.  We all welcomed the chance to speak to people from around the world about the work MAHM do and why mothering is a feminist issue, or ( if you prefer) why it’s a core issue that feminism really needs to pay more attention to.

There’s nothing like a good chat to find common ground with people.  At Feminism in London there is such welcome for MAHM and the issues we care about.  Three women in particular stick in my mind as emblematic of the diversity of people we met, and what mothering means to them.

There was one young woman who told us that, ‘I wouldn’t be who I am without my mum being a stay at home parent.’   This is something we hear time and time again.  There was also an older lady who told us that she remembered in her own grandmother’s generation that women were frequently obliged to give up paid work as soon as they married, never mind when they had children.    But she said that all women knew that all other women carried on ‘working’.  The only question was whether or not it was work done inside the home, or outside of it.  That tacit acknowledgement of the value of raising a family had diminished, she said.  And finally there was a representative from the London Network of Eritrean Women, who said the people she worked with would be delighted to hear of the work done to raise the status of motherhood, and she invited us to do a presentation for her group.

Men and women – young and old – parents and people without children of their own.  Everyone came and listened.  People were eager to know about MAHM and to learn about the ways our campaign connected with theirs, or the particular passions they had within the feminist movement.

The second kind of involvement we had was our team of ten-plus members and supporters who managed to attend a number of different sessions discussing a host a different subject.  There were workshops and panels on topics as diverse as trafficking for domestic labour, women in parliament, children’s gendered marketing and online misogyny.  Wherever we could see that the voice of mothers, and children, needed to be heard, we made sure we got to that session and raised our hands to ask questions or add to the debate.

My own experience of this was attending a very popular event run by the 50:50 campaign, which aims to end the imbalance of the sexes represented in parliament.   Towards the end of the session we were split into groups and asked to brainstorm ways the campaign could achieve its objective and I suggested that the now-common route to becoming an MP of ‘career politician’ should be avoided; that the wisdom and experience of older MPs should be welcomed, and that the work done by women who hadn’t been engaged in paid employment should be considered just as valuable in terms of experience as so-called ‘high flyers’; that perhaps grassroots support could be found this way.  Similarly, at another session tasked with drafting a new Bill of Women’s Rights, MAHM’s Heather Ticheli and Esther Parry from AMW made sure that the bill included not just equal work for equal pay, but also for unpaid care work to be valued alongside paid work.

Panel event hosted by MAHM

And so, finally, on the second day of the conference, our third way of contributing: the panel event held by MAHM.  The topic was the value of unpaid work done by women.  I introduced our panel, with a few words to give an overview of the penalties paid by single-earner families.  I feel almost grateful to the government for supplying us with such clear examples of the way they are reluctant to even mention, much less reward, motherhood; I was able to open the event giving the example of the government’s ‘Family Test’ issued to all departments which mentioned fathers, grandparents, foster carers…but not the word mother once.

We heard speeches from Vanessa Olorenshaw who spoke movingly about how her sense that mothers are being erased from having any significance led her to write her pamphlet The Politics of Mothering.  There was a special mention for Eleanor Rathbone, the independent MP who campaigned on behalf of women and lived, just, to see the Family Allowance passed into law.  This was a  payment made to the mother in recognition of the work of raising a family.  Rathbone’s work is now being dismantled as we see the destruction of Child Benefit as a universal payment.

Next Esther Parry spoke about her campaign as a maternal feminist.  Founder of All Mothers Work, Esther speaks powerfully about the injustice of all work done by women being considered somehow ‘lesser’, simply because it is done by women.  She gave us a whistle-stop tour of the ways feminism veered away from the original aim of the liberation of women from patriarchy into a diluted, distracting fixation with striving for equality, and how this has had a negative effect on mothering. Esther ended with a rallying call to action, saying, “They are not looking at the mothers for signs of revolution. But we will bring it.” To which the audience reacted with a cheer!

Finally, Karem Roitman, MAHM committee member and superb lecturer, treated us to some words about how the struggle to gain proper recognition for the work of mothering is not just a white, middle class, western issue.  Karem has academic and personal experience of mothering in other countries and opened up the debate to give it a global context, weaving her personal stories in with facts about how, on a global scale, we are trying to convert what women do into a cash value to the detriment of the actual work of mothering, which simply cannot be quantified in that way.

We had time before the end of the session to hear from members of our audience.  This included the wonderful Nina Lopez who has worked for so many years at Global Women’s Strike and was able to speak on behalf of the movement who first brought the idea of recognition of the work done by women to the world’s attention.

In all, it was a wonderful session to be a part of, and most important that the work of caring was platformed by Feminism in London alongside all the other campaigning for women’s rights which takes place by different groups.  The overriding feeling of the weekend was, of course, one of sorority.  I have said before, and will say again, that things like ‘the mommy wars’ suggesting that women pit themselves against one another are a myth.

When you bring groups of women together they are far more likely to find their common ground than dwell on what separates them.  Our experience of Feminism in London was just that.

Mel Tibbs Introduction to Panel discussion:  

http://www.mothersathomematter.co.uk/latest-news/announcements/869-feminism-in-london-mahm-panel-introduction-from-chair-mel-tibbs

Dr Karem Roitman’s speech here: 

http://www.mothersathomematter.co.uk/mahm-blog/867-dr-karem-roitman-speaking-for-mahm-at-feminism-in-london-conference-oct-2015

Politicis of Mothering: Vanessa Olorenshaw’s speech:

http://www.mothersathomematter.co.uk/mahm-blog/868-vanessa-olorrenshaw-speaking-on-mahm-panel-at-feminism-in-london-october-2015

 Esther Parry from All Mothers Work here:

http://www.allmotherswork.co.uk/?p=273

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