One of the first rules of twenty-first century feminism is that no one gets to say who is or isn’t a feminist. Well, today I’m going to break that rule. David Cameron, you are not a feminist.
Yes, I know you have daughters and that you do not actively disapprove of a) women working, b) women voting and c) women earning the same as men providing the economic system you support deems them to be doing “work of equal value” (ha!). Furthermore, I understand that you and George Osborne wish to take credit for the fact that most of our lowest paid workers are women and hence will “benefit” most from your living wage that isn’t actually a living wage. I am sure you see the women around you as semi-equals (after all, they’re rich). The thing is, none of this is enough.
In a piece for The Times today you bravely exploit the “male politicians can use their families as examples without it undermining their professional status” double standard in order to tell us that “when [your] daughters, Nancy and Florence, start work, [you] want them to look back at the gender pay gap in the same way we look back at women not voting and not working — as something outdated and wrong that we overcame, together.” It may surprise you to learn that women have always worked. By that I don’t just mean working-class women or stay-at-home mothers. I mean all women. Throughout history, even upper-class women have taken on political and administrative roles, albeit often within the private sphere (female leadership did not start and end with Margaret Thatcher). That women’s work has been invisible, appropriated and/or unpaid does not mean that it hasn’t existed. We are dealing, not with some bizarre prejudice which has meant that women were not “allowed” to work, but with a structure known as patriarchy. Patriarchy has no issues whatsoever with women working – indeed, patriarchy depends on female labour – just as long as it continues to get the work for free (also, as an aside, “you” did bog-all to overcome the “outdated and wrong” political disenfranchisement of women. You might be posh, but you’re not Emmeline sodding Pankhurst).
Obviously it is kind of you to have taken it upon yourself to explain the gender pay gap without any recourse to women’s opinions on the subject. According to your thesis, there are four solutions to women not getting paid as much as men.
- If we “rebalance our economy to transform Britain from a high-welfare, high-tax, low-pay economy into a lower-welfare, lower-tax, higher-pay society” there will be more high pay for everyone! Because that’s totally how the economy works! And a weaker welfare state will have no impact whatsoever on the earning capacity those who already take on the majority of unpaid caring work!
- We need to make women do the right jobs so that they can earn more! “That’s why our new careers service puts businesses at the helm and why we are campaigning to drive up the number of girls doing science, tech, engineering and manufacturing.” Because obviously the problem isn’t that the jobs that women tend to do are undervalued; it’s that women just keep going for these stupid, useless jobs that don’t really deserve a decent wage. I mean, seriously, nurses and elder care assistants, who needs ‘em?
- We “must help more women to reach the top.” Because wealth totally trickles down. That’s, like, exactly what’s been happening for the past two decades. Except the other way round (minor detail).
- We “need to address childcare.” Because life was so much easier before children were invented, somewhere around 2014. “The pay gap flows from the fact that, when women have children, many cannot afford to go back to work full time — or even at all. That then prevents them from moving up through the ranks.” I’m not sure what this says about the low pay of the women who look after the children of those “moving up the ranks” – do they count as women experiencing the pay gap? Perhaps they just need to get proper jobs in science and tech, at which point we can leave all childcare in the paws of cute, maternal-looking dogs like in Disney’s Peter Pan.
One thing that is not mentioned in any of this is plain old sexism as a cause for men being rewarded more than women. Of course, business leaders will make the argument that they can’t possibly be sexist since it wouldn’t be logical to be sexist. You want the best person for the job and it would make no sense to favour an incompetent man over a more competent woman, right? Such an argument not only ignores the ways in which employers can create a logic whereby men will always appear to be more competent than women (for instance, Cordelia Fine describes studies in which employers subconsciously adjust their ‘must haves’ for particular roles depending on whether particular skill sets appear on a man or a woman’s CV). It also neglects to consider the extent to which businesses implicitly rely on a sexist public/private distribution of labour and rewards in order to provide them with employees and consumers in the first place. Deep down, we all know that our current economic system is propped up by a subordinate carer class, and that that class is mostly female. Quite how this class will be helped by your “lower-welfare” society is anybody’s guess. Making even more care work the responsibility of “the individual” simply creates more unpaid work for women.
One can argue that what I am defining as “women’s work” is not essentially women’s work. Anyone can do it. That is true. The fact remains that the people doing it right now are women and the more the role of the carer is simultaneously exploited and devalued within a broader structure of gender inequality, the less incentive there is for this to ever change. If dependency and care are reduced to private matters, not essential elements of how we interact with one another throughout our lives, you will have a society in which certain people are seen as having no value and paid care work is always undervalued (because it is seen as potentially free). It is all very well to imagine a future in which one’s daughters earn as much as their male counterparts in their high-power jobs. But who cares for their children and their parents? And how much is that person paid for doing so? And, crucially, why is it considered acceptable for them to be paid so little?
One can talk of feminisms rather than feminism, and allow that different feminists have different principles and priorities, but sometimes there is a need to draw the line. As far as Conservative policy is concerned, gender inequality is based on some random, inexplicable mistake as opposed to some people actually benefiting from the oppression of others. Men just so happened to think women were inferior beings and they just so happened to think it across cultures, for millennia, for no particular reason. Now, suddenly, they’ve seen the error of their ways. Bullshit. Patriarchy exists because it enables the exploitation of one group by another, justifying said exploitation by propagating myths about how worthless the first group is and how valuable the latter is. And that is the essence of Conservative political doctrine. Whether you’re talking about women vs men, carers vs bankers or scroungers vs wealth creators, it’s the same old crap. Equality can never be founded on this.