Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Rational creatures

Motherhood for the personal and common good: illustration by William Blake for the frontispiece to the 1791 edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's children's book, Original Stories from Real Life. Image source: Wikipedia

I must have been mazed by the weekend's progeny of evils, financial and torrential, because while watching Sharon Osbourne being interviewed on TV, I thought Cherie Blair in one of her desperate fashion attacks had dyed her hair crimson. I think these two powerful women share identities, the one grown rich on ruthlessly promoting dubious acts, boastfully hectoring audiences, and guarding a mad husband's reputation, and the other a talent show panelist....
The only difference is that one of them doesn't dictate to the rest of us how to be a good working mother at the same time they personally have always enjoyed self-fulfilment in their chosen, well-paid, aggrandizing profession. There are not many rewarding jobs like that around for women at the moment.  

Poor Cherie: even when she advocates a good cause, supported by centuries of precedents, she casts more doubt than she proves, like when she wore black leather. We all have the right to do what keeps us sane. Mary Wollstonecraft, prefiguring Cherie Blair, suggested that "[a woman's] first duty is to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, a mother.”

I don't even have children - for rational and dutiful reasons of my own, not because I have never wanted them - and I'm provoked by Cherie telling us what we have always known:  “....women cannot be confined to merely domestic pursuits…for they will not fulfill family duties unless their minds take a wider range…." (Mary Wollstonecraft, 1791). And, no, I don't think I'm qualified to talk about parenting, but that never stopped a blogger, and I know what it's like to worry and spoil a plant, instead.

In the days when women had no free will, other than opting for celibacy, to have children or not, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that a woman should be as much of an "active citizen" as a man, participating in public life and "equally intent to manage her family, educate her children, and assist her neighbours.” Mothers who went out to work and left their children's development entirely to the care of paid strangers was not part of her vision. Teaching children manners and morals and civic duty was the responsibility of parents, not schools.

Two obvious phenomena appear to a childless, and overawed, observer. One is that parenting has become ostentatious and big business, like Christmas, and people are bamboozled by the information peddled them, afraid to be instinctive parents. They seem scared of their own children, who appear to the retrograde Victorians among us to be over-indulged and revoltingly behaved. Nowadays it's called self-expression. There was never a young human being that didn't think it was the centre of its universe: it's the grown-ups that need encouragement. Kids have always largely brought themselves up, by example and experience, from which there is no denial or protection, however much we love them. Somehow, most of them are turning out at eighteen much more mature and wise than the generations that grew up in the last half of the 20th century

Some parents brag of self-sacrifice, but treat their children as life-style accessories; we look in disapproval at pictures of historical children stiffened in brocades, like little adults, and are expected to think it normal to see five year old girls tottering in high heels and their brothers duding as hipsters. The free-range, moral childhood envisaged by Rousseau, Blake and Wollstonecraft, children dressed in light, comfortable clothes, running around in racial and class harmony, unmolested in parks, has been shrunk again.

The second aspect is that motherhood is regarded by many not so much as an alternative to work, but as an emotional substitute for a career, similar to the sublimation of their ambitions by powerful women in the days before statutory equality and enfranchisement, or the worst kind of vicarious showbiz mother.  

People have changed surprisingly little; only economic mechanisms may be adjusted to assist freedom of choice, and there's no chance of that in this generation. Mary Wollstonecraft knew that employment for mothers was not possible without state aid: a government is "very defective" that "does not provide for honest, independent women, by encouraging them to fulfill respectable stations".
When she's history, she's OK: rich yummy-mummy, hard-working maîtresse en titre and 
part-time literary patron: Madame de Montespan with four of her royal bastards,
portrayed by Charles de la Fosse, early 1670s. Skills incl: wit and poison. 
Watch out, Cherie.