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Feminism and Childcare: Have Women Been Misled?

Written by Peter S. Cook, M.R.C.Psych., D.C.H.   
Wednesday, 01 September 2010 00:00
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Feminism and Childcare: Have Women Been Misled?
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Childcare seems to be always on the political agenda. But are the real needs of babies, very young children and their mothers being ignored in the short-term interests of the economy and the burgeoning childcare “industry”? An informed look at the impact of early childcare raises many questions.

Have feminists, in their quest for equality rather than liberation, led women out of the frying pan and into the fire, with adverse repercussions for themselves, their families and social well-being? As plans develop that affect how we as a culture deal with families, it’s important to correctly diagnose the causes of stress, dissatisfaction and overwork experienced by many mothers today. Some who claim to represent the interests of women and children call for ever more childcare—usually without stating the age range of children involved. For infants under one or two years old, this can be a complicated prescription, with side-effects and risks, especially if the care is at a childcare centre for more than a few hours a week. This alleged “need” for more childcare is a symptom, and the risks to the social and emotional development of very young girls and boys are seldom acknowledged. Nor are the possible consequences when they grow up to become the next generation of women and their partners.

Pointers to a better diagnosis are offered in James Tooley’s 2002 book, The Miseducation of Women. Tooley, a professor of education at Newcastle-on-Tyne, adopts Germaine Greer’s distinction between equality feminism and liberation feminism. In 1999’s The Whole Woman, Greer suggests that “equality is a poor substitute for liberation.” Equality feminism relies on the (largely misconceived) dogma that gender differences are social constructs, and it prescribes equal treatment for girls and boys in education, careers and domestic situations. But Tooley summarizes evidence that some gender differences, such as certain abilities, interests and mate-selection choices, appear to be biologically based, conferring special benefits on the human species. Any “corrections” to this may be misguided and difficult to implement.

Liberation feminism—a related concept is “maternal feminism” —takes it for granted that there should be equality of opportunity and remuneration, but regards biological differences as important, especially in cognitive abilities, mating interests and mothering (a term which equality feminism repudiated and replaced with “parenting”).


Feminist Icons Recant

Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), set women on paths to careers and equality, avoiding motherhood—only to be reproached later by disillusioned followers who pointed out that, unlike them, she already had a husband and children when she urged this life pattern. But her recantations in 1981’s The Second Stage were ignored. She wrote: “The equality we fought for isn’t livable, isn’t workable, isn’t comfortable in the terms that structured our battle.” Yet equality feminists continued to implement her earlier prescriptions.

Germaine Greer, too, had a belated and poignant rethink. Having inspired a generation of women not to want motherhood, she now “mourns for her unborn babies,” and confessed, “I still have pregnancy dreams, waiting with vast joy and confidence for something that will never happen.” In The Whole Woman, she writes, “In The Female Eunuch I argued that motherhood should not be treated as a substitute career: Now I would argue that motherhood should be regarded as a genuine career option.…” She says the “immense rewardingness of children is the best kept secret in the Western world.”


Unintended Consequences of Equality Feminism

Unfortunately, the working mothers/childcare juggernaut, once set in motion, develops a momentum of its own. The consequences are apparent even in the real estate market. In buying homes, two incomes outbid one and prices rise accordingly. Something is very wrong when many women in some of the world’s most affluent societies cannot afford to breastfeed and mother their own babies. The economy is said to require their labour, and the childcare industry has many powerful players.

But who has a greater claim on a mother’s presence than her own baby? We were all babies once. It is largely disregarded that breastfeeding is of far-reaching health significance and involves a foundational love relationship; it is not just a tank-filling exercise. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends breastfeeding for a year or more, and the World Health Organization and UNICEF urge at least two years. Danish adults who had been breastfed for nine months averaged six points higher IQ than those breastfed for less than a month, as reported in a rigorous study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002. Research consistently shows the greatest positive effects of breastfeeding are on the competence of the child’s immune system and on his or her health. These benefits have major longterm cost implications for any modern society.