In 1946, Liverpool suffragette and independent MP Eleanor Rathbone won universal family allowance (later called child benefit) after decades of campaigning. She was outraged at mothers’ dependence and poverty.
“Nothing can justify the subordination of one group of producers – the mothers – to the rest, and their deprivation of all share of their own in the wealth of a community which depends on them for its very existence,” she said in her 1924 book The Disinherited Family.
“The work that a woman does in her own home in bearing and rearing children is not only so much more important to society, but so much more skilled, varied and interesting than nine out of 10 of the jobs done by working women, or for that matter of that by working men, that only crass bad management on the part of society has made it seem more distasteful than tending a loom or punching a tram ticket.”
Looms and trams may be things of the past, but the lack of recognition for women’s caring work has not changed. And the view that any job is better than caring is more entrenched than ever. Since Tony Blair called single mothers “workless” we have been treated as worthless, and our benefits have been cut – first one parent benefit, then universal child benefit and income support, the only benefits that recognised mothers were entitled to money from the state while raising their children.
Some women have advanced as professionals and politicians, but many more are struggling to keep ourselves and our loved ones afloat.
“Society cannot survive without caring, yet carers are undermined not supported.”
Internationally also, women are still the poorer sex, doing two-thirds of the world’s work, including growing most of their families’ food. We remain the primary carers everywhere: for children and for sick, disabled and elderly people, within the family and outside, in war as in peace. In 90 per cent of UK families the primary carer is a woman. Seventy-nine per cent of austerity cuts have targeted women – that is, carers and those we care for. While the 1 per cent more than doubled their income in the last 10 years, and the arms trade has grown by 22 per cent, one billion children worldwide live in poverty, 3.7m in the UK and 176,565 surviving on food banks. Society cannot survive without caring, yet carers are undermined not supported.
When Nadiya Jamir Hussain won the Great British Bake Off she said she was “proud to represent stay-at-home mums” and spoke about the negativity she had to face at a time when mothers are expected to prove their worth by going out to work, “As a mum that was quite tough,” she said. The caring work mothers and other women do at home is not valued. And when we go out to a job, often more caring work, it is undervalued and low paid. Those of us who are immigrants and refugees are scapegoated by politicians but do some of the lowest paid caring jobs and keep the NHS going.
Rathbone understood that a people “accustomed to measure values in terms of money will persist, even against the evidence of their own eyes, in thinking meanly of any kind of service on which a low price is set and still more meanly of the kind of service which is given for nothing”.
Devaluing caring work devalues people. We see it in hospitals and care homes as scandal after scandal exposes neglect and worse.
Working with Women, the policy of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, recognises caring as skilled work; the SNP promises to raise carers’ allowances; and the Greens propose a basic income for all. The campaign for a living wage has taken off internationally, but mothers and other family carers are usually left out.
The international grassroots women’s conference Caring, Survival and Justice vs the Tyranny of the Market will discuss a living wage for mothers and all carers – to make people and the planet that sustains us all the priority, rather than banks and businesses, to help bridge the income gap between women and men, and to attract more men to caring.
Join the discussion on14-15 November in London. An exhibition will reclaim Eleanor Rathbone and others whose enormous contribution to the women’s movement has been neglected.
Nina Lopez is joint co-ordinator of the Global Women’s Strike (GWS) and founder of Legal Action for Women. For tickets to the conference: 020 7482 2496, firstname.lastname@example.org, gwsconf15.weebly.com