Academic journal article New Formations

Feminism, the Family and the New 'Mediated' Maternalism

Academic journal article New Formations

Feminism, the Family and the New 'Mediated' Maternalism

Article excerpt

In this essay I trace a line of development from liberal to neo-liberal feminism which is, I claim, being at least partly realised and embodied through the ubiquitous figure of the middle-class, professional, wife and mother. Following on from a comment by Stuart Hall on the centrality of the 'middle class' to the neoliberal project, I overlay this with the additional categories of gender and maternity. (1) This image of motherhood not only displaces but also begins to dismantle a longstanding political relationship which has linked post-war social democracy with maternity, while simultaneously providing the political right with a new, more contemporary script which allows it to take the lead in the current debate on family life. My tone is somewhat tentative for the reason that what I am referring to seems, at present, more like a strong undercurrent than a fully-fledged sociological phenomenon. The analysis I offer is also restricted, more or less, to contemporary Britain, with several references to US popular culture and to US liberal feminism for the reason that these have provided so much of a steer for the way in which the neoliberal agenda in the UK has addressed motherhood and domestic life. This agenda is quite different from the now out-of-date conservative mantra of 'family values'. The right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail in its Femail Section has been particularly forceful in its championing of a style of affluent, feminine maternity. This idea of active (i.e. en route to the gym), sexually confident motherhood marks an extension of its pre-maternal equivalent, the ambitious and aspirational young working woman. It is also consistently pitched against an image of the abject, slovenly and benefit-dependent 'underclass' single mother, the UK equivalent of the US 'welfare queen'. Only in academic feminism do we find a more critical and empathetic response to the difficulties faced by out-of-work single mothers (2).

While feminism has for many decades been a political formation with historic connections closer to the left than the right, this alignment is now undergoing change, with substantial gains for the right should it manage to develop further what is at the moment merely a kind of feminist flourish. Within and alongside the UK Coalition government we can see a fledgling feminist strand led mostly by an urban, upper-middle-class, cosmopolitan elite including former Cabinet Minister Louise Mensch, Home Secretary Theresa May, Lib Dem MP Jo Stimson as well as a number of influential young spokeswomen from right-wing think tanks such as Policy Reform. (3) This endorsement is informed by 1970s US liberal feminism, with an emphasis on equal rights, condemnation of domestic and sexual violence, and action against genital mutilation. It is drawn into the field of popular neoliberal hegemony which the Tory Party is intent on building particularly through the idea of 'welfare reform' and in this realm it takes the form of an unapologetically middle-class feminism, shorn of all obligations to less privileged women or to those who are not 'strivers' (a favoured term within welfare reform discourse). The task I undertake here is to somehow clear the pathway so that a fuller understanding of these quite complex processes can be arrived at.

In what is I hope a continuation of feminist discussions on the rise of neoliberalism led by Wendy Brown on the 'end of liberal democracy, (4) and followed through by my own recent "writing on young women as subjects of the new meritocracy under New Labour (5), and by Nancy Fraser in her provocative argument that there has been 'feminist complicity', (6) I aim to show how a new momentum for the political right comprises a careful claiming of progressive heterosexual maternal womanhood. What has emerged recently is a perhaps unexpected rehabilitation of feminism as a broad constellation of progressive socio-political interests converging around the category of woman, which can be usefully deployed by those modernising forces of the right, centre and also centre left, where previously such an association would be shunned. …

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