Saturday, 24 April 2010
Thursday, 22 April 2010
Over the past week David Cameron has laid out his plans to give a tax break to married couples should the Conservative Party win the upcoming General Election.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the Tories had gone all inclusive on us – indeed, they have promised that the tax break will benefit those in civil partnerships as well as heterosexual married couples.
But the reality is that it seeks to reward people who fit a very narrow definition of what it is to be a family, all in the name of promoting ‘values’ and ‘mending Broken Britain’.
Under Cameron’s plans, one member of a low or middle-income couple would be able to transfer £750 of their personal tax allowance to a partner who does not use theirs (either because they do not work or earn less than £6,600), resulting in a maximum tax break of £150. That’s £2.88 per week, in case you haven’t seen much news over the past few days.
Overall it is estimated that this would benefit four million of the country’s 12.3 million married couples.
For one thing it’s insulting and short-sighted that the Tories see marriage as the answer to society’s problems. The mythical golden age before divorce was more common is often held up as a happier and more stable time by right-wing politicians. What they seem to forget is the fact that many unhappy couples stayed together only because it was expected of them, putting up with horrendous lives and abuse as a result.
We all know that families with married couples aren’t always the happiest and most stable – and that plenty of single people and co-habiting couples do a wonderful job of parenting. It’s not rocket science – and yet the Conservatives have sent out a clear message that only certain families, in their opinion, are ‘doing it right’ and will be rewarded accordingly.
The families which don’t fit the mold are consequently stigmatised – whether that’s widowed or single parents – however hard-working and struggling they may be, co-habiting couples who are bringing up their kids in a loving household or families where both parents work. In fact, many of the couples benefiting from the tax break would actually be childless or older couples – strange considering the Conservatives’ supposed commitment to improving the lives of children and setting a good example for future generations.
For many low-income couples, having one person remain at home isn’t an option and it’s essential for both to work so that bills are paid and food gets put on the table. But as far as the Conservatives are concerned, choosing this option will get you nowhere. It’s being made clear that someone – and in heterosexual couples this usually means the woman – should not work in order to be the sort of family Cameron et al believe will make society a better place.
What’s just as bad is that this £2.88 per week is supposed to act as some sort of incentive – whether it’s for people to get married or for one of the couple to stay at home. I very much doubt that it’s going to have the desired effect. Even though plenty of people these days do wish to get married, they often feel they can’t due to the cost of weddings and buying a house. If they do want to get married, I’m sure it’s got nothing to do with wanting less than £3 a week in tax breaks.
The announcement has been met with derision from journalists, the public and other politicians including Gordon Brown. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has described the tax break as “patronising drivel that belongs in the Edwardian age” and I wholeheartedly agree.
As a married woman the whole thing leaves a very unpleasant taste in the mouth. I work full-time and so does my husband, so we wouldn’t be eligible for the tax break in the first place. But it disgusts me to think that should I have the option not to work, I would be finally considered ‘worthy’ enough to ‘benefit’ from less than £3 a week extra while other families miss out purely because I've got a ring on my finger.
Sunday, 4 April 2010
'By this time, all of us had a word. It was THEM, and we all meant the same thing by it: men. Each of us felt done in by one of them, but that wasn't it. Because each of us had friends, and our friends were also being done in by them...'
'...We understood that the laws were all for THEM, that the setup of society was all for THEM, that everything existed for THEM. But we didn't know what to do about it. We half believed that there was something terribly wrong with US.'
I can see why some critics have said it could seem so relentlessly depressing and OTT to women in the 21st century, with its catalogue of failed marriages, domestic abuse, stifled women, desperate housewives, suicide attempts, rape, misogyny, lost dreams and dissatisfaction.
But as many others have said, particularly women who lived through the 50s and 60s as married housewives and mothers, it's the real story of thousands of women who had no rights, no status and no choices of their own. Considered nothing more than an extension of their husbands they were forced out of the workplace when they became pregnant, expected to create the perfect home and bring up children alone without complaint. This was a world where rape couldn't happen within marriage or to a woman who was friends with her attacker. A world where mothers who wanted a job were considered either a joke or selfish and greedy. And a world where the wives who cracked under the pressure were committed to mental hospitals and left there.
I think one of the things which impacted me most was the complete lack of appreciation by some of the husbands for all that their wives did all day, every day in terms of cooking, cleaning and childcare. Refusing to put up a blind or play with the children because 'he works all week'. Insinuating that the women 'never do anything' while at home then raging over cleaning not being done to a high enough standard. What's sad is that as we all know, these attitudes aren't a thing of the past.
I know the book paints a vision of a very particular, white, middle-class suburban way of life. Indeed, the main character finds new friends, (a certain degree) of fulfillment and involvement in radical politics while undertaking postgraduate studies at Harvard. It's there that, for the very first time, she meets and becomes friends with black people (we have learned that most of her old acquaintances and family members are in fact outwardly racist). It can't be ignored that it's a fairly limited account of women coming to find feminism. And of course it would be ridiculous to assume that all marriages were so miserable and abusive.
But when you think about how second wave feminists are often vilified as man-haters, vicious and unstable, it's easy to see how they came to be filled with this anger and hatred. Today a lot of us have so many choices which we often take for granted. As Marilyn French says in her preface to the book, she couldn't buy a car, get a mortgage or a telephone line in her own name when she divorced in 1968. When feminists back then called for the 'destruction of the family', it was the set-up described in books like The Women's Room that they sought to bring down.
Reading The Women's Room really cemented for me how much I hate the ongoing trend that idolises the imagined lifestyle and family set-up of the 1950s middle-class. Whether it's the right-wing press ranting about working mothers, divorce and the evils of feminism or women's magazines and blogs getting excited about the joys of aprons, domesticity and 'the new vogue for being a stay at home mum', it's a trend which co-opts the good, ignores the bad and shuts out anything which hints at something other an a sweetness-and-light vision of domestic perfection.
I don't care if people want to enjoy baking or crafting or caring for children; that's great. But holding up the life of the 1950s middle-class suburban housewife as something to aspire to? No thanks. All about choice, you say? Yep, it certainly is about choice. But it's a choice that millions of women still don't have. Cooking and cleaning isn't a cutesy lifestyle option. Raising children isn't a 'new trend'.
This is a discussion I've seen a fair bit across the blogosphere, but I felt like it was important to say something about it in light of the post I made last month about equality and privileged women. It's vital to remember the women who have gone before us and the lives they were expected to lead before we judge them as 'extreme' or somehow amusing for the way their frustrations eventually exploded. I say this because this is a judgement I see all the time.
"I believe in equal rights, but I'm not one of those feminist extremists, you know."
"That's why I don't call myself a feminist, because of what it seems to stand for - hating men and motherhood and family life."
"I think everyone would be happier if things were like they used to be before the 1960s; at least they had morals and valued the family."