Andrea Leadsom’s Maternal Unthinking

In 1989 the philosopher Sara Ruddick published Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace, in which she sought to identify “distinctive ways of conceptualizing, ordering, and valuing” that arise out of maternal practices. “I am not,” she wrote, “saying that mothers, individually or collectively, are (or are not) especially wonderful people […] For me, ‘maternal’ is a social category. Although maternal thinking arises out of actual child-caring practices, biological parenting is neither necessary nor sufficient.”

I do not expect Andrea Leadsom to have read Maternal Thinking, let alone agreed with its precepts. For instance, Ruddick takes particular care to tease out the interplay of selflessness and self-interest that goes into mothering a child who one wishes to become a successful member of a community (regardless of whether one supports the values of one’s own community in absolute terms or not):

Maternal practice assumes a legitimate special concern for the children one has engendered and passionately loves as well as for the families (of various forms) in which they live. Any attempt to deny this special form of self-interest will only lead to hypocritical false consciousness or rigid, totalistic loyalties. Mothers can, I believe, come to realize that the good of their own children is entwined with the good of all children, that in a world divided between exploiter and exploited no children can be both good and strong, that in a world at war all children are endangered.

Compare this with Leadsom’s approach to maternal politics in her hours-old yet already infamous interview with The Times’ Rachel Sylvester:

But genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake, you know, I mean [Teresa May] possibly has nieces, nephew, you know lots of people, but I have children who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focused on what you are really saying, because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but never mind let’s look to the ten years hence it’ll all be fine, but my children will be starting their lives so I have a stake in the next year, the next two…

Whereas Ruddick envisions maternal self-interest as a one possible stop gap on the road to recognising that a world divided into exploiter and exploited is unsustainable, Leadsom identifies self-interest as a good in itself. There’s no need to move on to a more collective politics of care, just as long as you’ve done enough to ensure your own child isn’t totally screwed in the short term.

I suppose you could say Leadsom proves Ruddick wrong. Not all mothers come to embrace communal values. Not all non-mothers, either. There’s something almost clumsy in the way that Ruddick tries to ensure no one mistakes maternal theory for essentialism (for instance, she identifies Gandhi and Wilfred Owen as examples of “maternal men”). Still, I don’t think it’s difficult to grasp the overall argument that the politics and practices of unpaid care – and indeed love – need to pay a greater role in public life than those of business and ownership. If anything, this seems to me quite the opposite of Leadsom’s “stake in the next year” selfishness.

I think, in dismissing Leadsom’s comments on motherhood, we do need to take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not a matter of who makes a better politician (just about anyone, one might say) but whether we allow that the experience of unpaid care work is valid experience which might inform a broader politics of redistribution. There has to be a space in which, not mothering in particular, but more generally the care work typically undertaken by women can be understood as offering an alternative model to dead-eyed capitalism.

Whether or not a politician is a mother means nothing on a personal level (after all, Thatcher was a mother) but raising children – and care work in general – should not be irrelevant to how we construct a politics that includes everyone. Apart from anything else, it reiterates something neither Teresa May nor Andrea Leadsom – nor indeed any Tory – would want to talk about: the inevitability of dependency. The fact that no one is just an individual and that interdependences exist within families, across communities and across geographical borders. If we’d all recognised that on 23rd June, we might not even be in this mess.