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Latham got it wrong: feminists are critical of social structure not kids

By Petra Bueskens - posted Wednesday, 3 December 2014


Two weeks ago former Labor leader and inveterate rabble rouser Mark Latham took curious aim at women in his own ideological ranks: "left wing feminists" whom he characterised as anti-mothering. Such women were defined as harboring destructive attitudes toward their own children (and children in general) and accused, in essence, of downplaying the moral gravitas of parenting.

There were elements of the article that were downright prejudiced: insulting a mother with depression (Lisa Pryor), pernicious stereotyping and the conflation of feminist critique with mental illness.

There have been several important critiques including an acerbic piece by Amy Gray in which she adopted the moniker "left wing feminist" and ran into satirical territory with aplomb; a witty dissection of the journalistic conventions behind column writing by Annabel Crabb, in which she defined Latham's piece as a kick-the-boots-in style of article with a desperate confessional contained within; and a more layered but no less caustic analysis by Liz Conor in which she highlights the hypocrisy of Latham's charge when it is, in fact, women who undertake the vast majority of child care.

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Janice Read also drew attention to Latham's gratuitous stereotyping and the mis-use of his public persona to lambast an innocent woman (Lisa Pryor), whose article on her own strategies for coping with intensive study and two small children included the admission that she relies on a mix of anti-depressants and caffeine.

Notwithstanding Latham's ebullience for stay at home dads (otherwise known as SAHD's), as he acknowledges, only 2 percent of men adopt this role, which means that 98 per cent of men are not the primary carers of their children. And while Latham asserts that his male friends "envy" his life of cooking, caring, composting and column writing (who wouldn't?), research showsa far larger proportion of men who do participate in "parenting" leave the routine work of child care, domestic labour and its management to their wives.

Current estimates suggest a 70/30 split between women and men respectively with the great majority of childcare and domestic work assigned to women. Moreover, Australia still has a strong male breadwinner norm that obstructs gendered equity in both paid and upaid work.

Although greater parity emerges when women work full-time (which two thirds of women with dependent children do not), on closer inspection this is because women have reduced their own time in housework (though not childcare) rather than because men have increased theirs. In other words, as women work and earn more, there is a tendency to outsource some of the domestic drudgery or simply not to do it. However, contra Latham's assertions, current research shows that women who work spend more time with their children than their own mothers did a generation earlier.

For Latham, "left wing feminists" – a nebulous category of women that seems to encompass any woman who has a critique of both Tony Abbot and what Adrienne Rich called the "institution of motherhood" – are missing the crucial realisation that a career is not all it's cracked up to be. As Germaine Greer once admonished "I said to get a life not a career". It's just that for many women, as with men, meaningful paid work is part of this picture and the current structure of the workplace in Australia (as with the US and the UK) makes this combination very difficult for any person who is a primary carer to achieve; it just so happens that overwhelmingly such people are women.

Women are routinely told they "cannot have it all" – a loving partnership, a career or work and children – and, for many, this remains true. Research shows that the reason for this remains the critical asymmetry in parenting responsibilities and practices, a lack of flexibility in the workplace, that mothering, especially in the early years, is not easily "combined" with occupations that require primary commitment and/or long hours, and the fact that there are many "off ramps" for women but far fewer "on ramps" when it comes to their careers.

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The issue for "left wing feminists, and some on the right too, is that this is a problem! The extant critique of motherhood is geared precisely to extending such opportunities to women, which requires a transformation of both the gendered division of domestic labour and the transformation of workplace culture.

As Crabb points out, Latham enjoys a lifetime pension for serving as party leader and enjoys a paid job writing columns. In other words, he has both the income and the flexibility (not to mention established profile and prestige) that most mothers do not have access to. This means that Latham has both a career and a satisfying family life and it is therefore disingenuous to assert that women's wish to achieve such for themselves is somehow greedy, selfish or deranged.

The crucial slippage is in assuming that wanting to work means not wanting to mother (or vice versa). Latham has both yet masquerades as a SAHD. He aligns himself with the majority of women who place care work at the centre of their lives while pitting "left wing feminists" against the community and, indeed, outside the moral order.

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About the Author

Petra Bueskens is a Lecturer in Social Sciences at the Australian College of Applied Psychology. Prior to this she lectured in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University (2002-2009). Since 2009 she has been working as a Psychotherapist in private practice. She is the editor of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Journal of Australia and the founder of PPMD Therapy. Her research interests include motherhood, feminism, sexuality, social theory, psychotherapy and psychoanalytic theory and practice. She has published articles on all these subjects in both scholarly and popular fora. Her edited book Motherhood and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives was published by Demeter Press in 2014.

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