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Nice Girls Say No

United Kingdom

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THE NEW RIGHT [image, unknown] And women's position

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Nice girls say no
Feminism’s sharp edge has been dulled by the New Right
argue Miriam David and Troth Wells. Cuts in public spending
and Victorian values of morality, hearth and home are all part
of a policy to send women back to the kitchen sink.

[image, unknown] ‘THE state has cuckolded the man’ said George Gilder, a Reagan policy advisor, speaking of why the Administration wants to return economic and social responsibilities to families. In providing welfare and social services the State stands accused of stripping men of their rights and responsibilities.

Women have been caught in the New Right’s pincer-movement attack on the State. At the same time as making cuts in welfare and education services, the nuclear family model has been given a re-spray and sold as an offer you can’t refuse.

The State has become the New Right’s. scapegoat for society’s ills. People have been mollycoddled for too long, cushioned from facing up to the reality of life. Giving power back to the family means taking control of our own lives. . . and in the process relieving the government of the need to put hefty cash injections into public services like health, education and welfare.

The aims of the New Right’s pro-family ideas have been to restore heterosexual patriarchy: the control of men over their wives and children. Teenage sexuality, homosexuality, abortion and contraception (which promotes sexual freedom), eyen test tube babies - which remove procreation from the matrimonial bed - all these are seen as a direct threat to male authority and to family life.

The New Right is also reacting against the changed circumstances of the family. Currently in the UK only five per cent of households have the stereotype of male breadwinner, dependent wife and two children. And the number of mothers working who have children below or in school is just under half. Re-instating the family as the hub of social, economic and educational organisation will clearly take some doing.

But the New Right has enlisted powerful allies, God and nature, in its bid to send women back to the kitchen sink. ‘Quite franldy,’ said former Social Services Secretary Patrick Jenkin, ‘I don’t think mothers have the same right to work as fathers. If the Lord had intended us to have equal rights to go to work, he wouldn’t have created men and women. These are biological facts: young children depend on their mothers.’

The implications of the pro-family moves are especially important in the area of women s work. In Britain women make up a large part of the labour force in the State sector (like the National Health Service), in private enterprise and in the home.

Social service cuts in health and education also affect women because they are unpaid workers in the family. Reduction or absence of children’s nurseries, for example, or of facilities for old people, means that the burden is passed on to private voluntary or religious organisations, or to families - women that is. One of the biggest cutbacks has been in child care for pre-school children. The 1981 Education Act freed local education authorities from providing nursery education and some counties like Wiltshire have gone right ahead and closed down all nurseries and nursery schools. In the ‘Under-Fives Initiative’ the Thatcher government has been all words and very little cash for voluntary schemes to help families care for their children at home.

Mothers’ voluntary work is being called upon in schools as well to substitute for cuts in teaching and ancillary staff (most of it previously women’s paid work). There are now ‘listening mothers’ (listening to children learning to read), or ‘helping mothers’ who help with aspects of teaching, school meals and the playground. At the same time, mothers’ unpaid ‘homework’ has increased several times over as a result of cutbacks, preparing preschool children, making packed lunches or even, as one school official put it, ‘clubbing together to make school meals’. In the same 1981 Education Act authorities were freed of the obligation to provide school dinners. Hertfordshire has now closed down its school meal service, saving a few pennies on the local rates.

And so as the New Right’s pincer-movement tightens its grip women are eased out of paid labour force and back into their ‘natural’ place, preserving male incomes and the patriarchal relationship. Mrs Thatcher while spearheading the attack in the UK, is of course exempt from its implications. Her example of womanhood - emancipated, assertive, economically productive - is not to be universally available to women. Most housewives don’t have Mrs Thatcher’s Oxford education or marry oil company director husbands. They will have to stay at home, and other women are to be persuaded to join them by both financial and moral measures, at the kitchen sink.

Their children are being schooled in a new moral agenda in the classroom. With an increase in abortions for single females in the UK rising by over ten per cent in the eleven years between 1969 and 1980, the New Right has little time for feminist notions of a woman’s right to control her body. Brisk new campaigns launched by Education Secretary Mr Rhodes Boyson bring back cleanliness next to Godliness. Moral education, health education, education for parenthood - call it what you will in the schools, anything except sex education. The new moralism spells out the dangers of promiscuity, conveniently omits to raise the option of contraception and not surprisingly comes up with the message that ‘nice girls say no’. Girls are encouraged to take responsibility for their own morality. In America there have been successful campaigns by pressure groups to restrict the grounds for abortion and in the UK similar moves came close to victory.

Rhodes Boyson blames parents in general for the current social crisis manifesting itself in ‘riotous youths, football hooligans and murderous muggings’ but he blames mothers in particular for their sexual permissiveness of the past. And Britain is not going it alone when it comes to moral matters. In the USA the moralism has gone even further and overturned a sacred principle of the US Constitution - the separation of Church and State. Religious schools are now given tax breaks giving them a similar status to church schools in the UK.

A new sexual morality - through both the classroom and in the treatment of women as mothers - is being painstakingly constructed.

In various subtle ways women’s paid work is discouraged and transformed into something that is done for the sake of the children; for love rather than money. Instead of taking the equal opportunities legislation off the statute book, it is just made more and more irrelevant for more and more women - as they become unemployed or are made redundant, as they do not try to look for non-existent jobs but do voluntary work in the interstices of their family commitments.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States, introduced in 1972, has still not been ratified by enough states to make it law. The Rev. Jerry Fklwell, leader of Moral Majority, took a campaigning stand against it. He argued that if the ERA was passed women could be drafted into the army. This idea cleverly blew a smokescreen around the real issues of female equality and left confusion in its wake. For the army draft issue raised questions about the nature of femininity and women’s apparent lack of strength and aggression. After all, who wants Old Glory defended by a bunch of women? Out of the confusions, one thing seems clear: some jobs are better done by one sex than by the other. It’s only natural, according to the New Right.

The results of the New Right’s pro-family ideology are already being felt. There has been a feminisation of poverty, with three-fifths of those in the US with incomes below the poverty line being women. Female-headed households in America number over eight million - that’s more than ten per cent of the total families - yet they make up half of all the. poverty level families there.

So President Reagan’s salami tactics, slicing away the welfare structure, is punishing them for being out of line - for stepping outside the conventional family set-up.

Once women have been reprogrammed, like the Stepford Wives, into obedient, housebound helpmates the scene is set for the demolition of much of the remaining state welfare edifice. Women and the family will bind up society’s wounds, educating small children, caring for old or sick relatives, listening to their husband’s work problems while cooking up delicious meals. So nice to come home to.

Teaching at the University of Bristol, Miriam David has written a number of books including The State, the family and education (1980) Routledge, Kegan Paul. Shortly to be published is For the children’s sake - making child-care more than women’s business by Penguin. Troth Wells is a magazine staff writer.

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New Internationalist issue 133 magazine cover This article is from the March 1984 issue of New Internationalist.
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