The National Union of Teachers is this week warning that sexism is being rebranded and young people damaged by an over-sexualised culture. This is far from news. Highly sexualised images blast every day out of shop windows, from billboards, on buses. You can be the most diligent censor of your child's media, but unless you never leave your home, it's impossible to shelter them from such objectification. These are insidious attacks on a child's developing identity, and a very public failure of modern feminism.
There is however a quieter, yet just as dangerous trend undermining other feminist values, and this trend is being perpetrated most, by women. The arena: online forums, Facebook groups, press articles, NCT circles, even groups of friends. The reason: Mother Judgement - the war between those who do and those who don't. Those who do breastfeed. Those who do go out to work. Those who do co-sleep. Those who do controlled crying. Those who do buy food in a jar. The arguments are both large and small, but equally volatile and the result: the continued branding of women. At a time in life when women are often most looking for community, reassurance and support, many are instead resorting to judgement and labelling.
Contradictory media 'advice' never helps. But mothering forums in particular reveal how quick we can be to condemn another woman's choices, 'choice' being the foundation of feminism. This is not to negate the sage advice and absolute lifeline that some sites offer. But an innocently posted question can quickly spiral into all-out combat: "How long should I leave my 6month-old to Cry It Out?" - the response, a dozen or so CIO cheerleaders before a tentative suggestion to er, not let the baby CIO, followed by unmitigated fury. "Has anyone split the MMR?" - a near violent crusade against those irresponsible enough not to do exactly what the NHS says exactly when and how they say it. And even, believe it or not, "Does anyone want a nearly-new Disney Princess colouring book?" - an assault on parents who project dangerous gender stereotypes.
Within what is intended to be a supportive environment, at the speed of a click we berate and criticise and condemn. Why? Do we really care that passionately how another mother chooses to parent her child? Are we so insecure that we have to - vocally and publicly - justify are own choices? Or perhaps it's a rudimentary allegiance to the 'team' we've picked, like boys and football.
Whatever the reason, the great tragedy is that with every wagging finger we are unravelling the victories of feminism in the most intimate arena of womanhood. We are denying choice. And whether the idealised images we are each trying to fulfil are stay-at-home Earth Mama, or do-it-all Super Mum, we are once again projecting onto each other unrealistic and unhelpful ideas about what constitutes a 'good mother', a 'good woman', a woman. Rather than accepting differing choices as merely that, it is as though by validating another woman's decisions, we are branding our own as failures.
What is telling is that while the individual issues are infinite, increasingly they seem to divide two distinct camps: Attachment Parents versus Babywise Parents. For those unfamiliar, in (very simplistic) terms, Attachment parents value emotional responsiveness and are led by the child, while Babywise parents value routine and direct the child. It is admittedly too crude an analysis, but many of the hot issues (breastfeeding, controlled crying, co-sleeping) favour either a decision to be led by the child's needs, or by the woman's own, and often what this boils down to (or is prompted by) is the choice either to stay at home or return to work. Thus, the content of condemnation may have moved on - the judgement today most certainly flows both ways - but we have nevertheless returned to a climate in which a woman's 'place' is too often viewed as right or wrong, good or bad.
Yet one of the biggest challenges for every mother is exactly this balance. A delicate juggling act between one's role as a mother, and one's identity as an individual entity. Different women weight the scales in very different proportions. But this balance, and the right to create it, is fundamental to modern feminism. How to achieve it, perhaps the biggest issue today's women face. The question is no longer whether we can excel in the workplace - we have long ago proven we can and we do. Now the question is how we choose to balance this against the other fundamental aspects of womanhood. Aspects that have been negated for too long. Because there is no getting away from the fact that for most women, the private and public spheres are not distinct, and will at some point collide.
Today, being able to choose whether or not to work is not enough of a choice. Real choice would be being able to work and mother without having to make unacceptable compromises in either sphere. Compromises that lead to guilt and anger - and judgement. But for this to ever be realised, there must be a revolution in the workplace: greater childcare provided affordably and onsite (enabling women, if they choose, to breastfeed and work); more flexibility with part-time employment; hours that reflect children's needs.
Women are no longer a disenfranchised gender. We are politicians, editors, designers, educators. We have the power to affect change, be it by adding clothes to a billboard or pushing for childcare reform. These are the battles that are the next stage in the evolution of feminism. To win them, this is where we must focus our fury; resisting distracting disputes amongst ourselves.
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