Last Monday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work from sick leave; two days later it was announced that he would miss Prime Minister’s Questions because he’d just had a baby. Obviously, Johnson hadn’t given birth himself: he’d delegated that task to his partner Carrie Symonds. But in the media coverage the baby was very much ‘Boris’s’, and its birth was presented as a major life-event. The political commentator Robert Peston tweeted:
Having babies change [sic] us. Near-death experiences change us. @BorisJohnson has the full set. So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?
This take was greeted with some incredulity, because we all know Boris Johnson has a number of children already–though we’re not sure exactly how many, because he’s refused to answer the question. Many responses to Peston’s tweet were joking references to this:
The first 7-9 kids didn’t do it but I’ve got a good feeling about this one
Ah you know what they say, nothing like getting a sixth/seventh [subs pls check] child to change a man
There were also some more serious responses. One man suggested that
For a certain class of man, having children really does not change him at all… They’re what you do, and after they have arrived in the house, they’re simply there while your life carries on. They have their rooms, you yours. You know their names; birthdays not so sure.
Boris Johnson, who by his own account has never changed a nappy, belongs to the class that delegates routine childcare to others. Its young children have nannies, and are later sent away—as Johnson himself was—to boarding school. Women of this class may not do much nappy-changing either. But their class privilege does not completely cancel out the effect of their sex. Women generally are expected to be able to keep track of their children’s birthdays; and it’s hard to imagine a woman becoming prime minister who’d had (at least) five children with (at least) two different men, had abandoned and tried to conceal the existence of (at least) one child, been denounced by another as a bastard, and launched her bid for the highest office while pregnant by a third man. A woman with this record wouldn’t just be joked about: she’d be vilified as a terrible mother, irresponsible, negligent and selfish.
This difference is also evident in some uses of the English words ‘father’ and ‘mother’. These may look like a straightforward pair of terms denoting, respectively, a male and a female parent; but if we look more closely it becomes apparent that their meanings aren’t entirely parallel. As many feminists have noted, the difference is most obvious when they’re used as verbs. To father a child is not at all the same thing as to mother one.
By way of illustration, here’s a list of synonyms for the verb ‘to father’ taken from an online thesaurus:
Sire, beget, originate, generate, create, procreate, found, get, engender, institute, conceive, initiate, spawn, author, reproduce, breed, produce, trigger, bring to life, give life to, sow the seeds of
and here’s the same thesaurus’s list of synonyms for the verb ‘to mother’:
Pamper, nurture, coddle, raise, tend, cherish, cosset, protect, care for, deliver, look after, overprotect, spoil, mollycoddle, indulge, take care of, mind, minister to, fuss over, give birth to, bring into the world
Whereas the ‘father’ synonyms focus on men’s contribution to the biological process of reproduction (‘sowing the seed’, supplying the sperm that fertilises the egg), most items in the ‘mother’ entry relate to women’s social role as carers. They also illustrate the tendency for women’s performance of mothering to be scrutinised and judged (good mothers ‘nurture’ and ‘cherish’, bad mothers ‘spoil’ and ‘mollycoddle’) in ways men’s performance of fathering is not.
Though motherhood also has a biological element and fatherhood a social one, the way the verbs are used and interpreted underlines that one is conceptualised primarily as a social role and the other primarily as a biological function. If you say ‘he fathered six children’ you cannot mean, or be taken to mean, ‘he brought up/took care of six children’; you can only mean ‘he begat/sired six children’. With ‘to mother’ the reverse is true: ‘she mothered six children’ will be interpreted as meaning that she brought them up, not that she gave birth to six children who were then raised by other people.
These non-parallel meanings reflect a combination of social facts and ideological beliefs which have a long history in patriarchal cultures. But in recent decades we have seen the rise of a more ‘modern’ ideology which rejects the traditional division of roles in favour of something more equal and symmetrical. One sign of this shift is linguistic: the increasingly widespread use of the gender-neutral or inclusive verb ‘to parent’.
The meaning of ‘parent’ as a verb is close if not identical to the meaning of ‘mother’: if you insert it in the same hypothetical sentence I used before—‘he/she/they parented six children’—the meaning (at least according to my intuitions) has to be ‘brought up, took care of’, not ‘begat’. In this case, then, the purpose of switching to inclusive terminology is to include fathers in the caretaking role traditionally assigned to mothers. But it might be asked: does this new language correspond to any new reality? If in reality it’s still women who are doing most of the work involved in raising children, but we now call what they’re doing ‘parenting’ rather than ‘mothering’, has anything, from a feminist perspective, been gained?
This is one instance of a more general dilemma which radical political movements have often grappled with: should we choose our terms to reflect the world as it currently is, or the world as we would like it to become? The answer, in practice, is ‘it depends what you’re trying to do’. Sometimes what you want to do with words is name the reality of injustice and oppression; sometimes what you want to do is model alternatives to that reality, on the basis that (put crudely) words shape thoughts and thoughts shape actions.
This second argument was used in the 1970s by feminists who supported the introduction of gender-neutral job titles, even in cases where the job was still restricted to one sex: they hoped that inclusive terms, by making it easier for women to imagine themselves in new roles, would hasten progress towards their actual inclusion. In other cases, however, feminists have taken the opposite position. Neutral terms like ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘intimate partner killing’, for instance, have been criticised for glossing over the fact that these are acts committed predominantly by men against women, not vice-versa. Here the argument is that male violence needs to be named: the problem can’t be addressed effectively using language that renders it invisible.
As these examples illustrate, different problems call for different solutions. It’s entirely possible to maintain that sex-specific terms are preferable in some cases and inclusive terms work better in others. But that’s not to say feminists always agree among themselves about either the nature of the problem or the optimal solution. The language of parenthood is a case in point.
Recently a case which dramatises the dilemma has been making its way through the English courts. It concerns Freddy McConnell, a trans man who gave birth to a baby after he had already been legally recognised as a man. Because he had given birth to the child, the law required him to be recorded as its mother on the birth certificate. He contends that this was a breach of his rights, and that he should have been allowed to register either as the baby’s father or as its parent.
So far the courts have rejected this argument. Last week an Appeal Court judge, upholding an earlier decision against McConnell in the High Court, reiterated that the law requires whoever gives birth to a child to be registered as its mother. From the moment of a child’s birth there must be someone who is authorised to make decisions about its care, and the 1989 Children Act assigns that responsibility specifically and automatically to the child’s mother. ‘No-one else’, the judge explained, ‘has that automatic parental responsibility, including the father’.
Though this case is about the rights of trans parents, the principle set out by the judge applies to all parents, and many who are not trans may also find it questionable, since it is at odds with the modern, inclusive concept of ‘parenting’. If a birth certificate can be issued which doesn’t name the father—though every child must axiomatically have a male as well as a female progenitor—why is it impossible to issue a certificate which doesn’t name the mother? And why can’t a registered father be given ‘automatic parental responsibility’? The law seems to follow the same logic as the verbs ‘to mother’ and ‘to father’: it applies a similar understanding of how reproductive functions are connected to social roles, assuming that the caretaking element is central to motherhood (it is seen as following naturally from mothers’ reproductive role) whereas the social element of fatherhood is dispensable or peripheral.
In McConnell’s case these two elements have been separated, so deciding whether he should be identified as a mother or a father means deciding whether to give priority to the biological or the social component of parenthood. Since I think of parenthood as primarily a social role and a social relationship, my own view is that it makes more sense to identify McConnell as the child’s father, that being the only role in which the child has ever known or related to him. It is true, however, that while ‘father’ is closer to the child’s experience, it elides material facts about its history. Neither term is a perfect fit with all the relevant facts.
Is this a situation where gender-neutral or inclusive language would be preferable? There are jurisdictions which have adopted neutral terms as standard on some official documents: in the state of New York, for example, the parties to a marriage are recorded simply as ‘Spouse A’ and ‘Spouse B’. In addition to being inclusive (putting both men and women and same-sex/mixed sex couples on a par), this terminology has the advantage of not carrying the same ideological baggage as the traditional terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ (I’ve written before about my problems with the word ‘wife’). ‘Spouse’ defines you as a party to a contract that entails certain rights and obligations, but beyond that it says nothing about your role in the relationship. In theory there seems to be no reason why this minimalist approach could not be extended to birth certificates, replacing ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ with ‘Parent A’ and ‘Parent B’.
But in practice there might be good reasons to resist that move. As I said before, inclusive terms are open to the objection that they do women a disservice by glossing over or concealing politically consequential facts—such as, in this case, the fact that motherhood and fatherhood are not generally treated as equal and interchangeable roles. Most fathers still do significantly less childcare than most mothers (even, it turns out, when both are working from home), and plenty of men still father—that is, ‘beget’—children while treating the social role/relationship as optional. Society as a whole is still organised on the assumption that women, not men, will be primary carers, and it’s women, not men, who experience discrimination because of their actual or potential status as mothers, Does the language of ‘parenting’ help feminists’ efforts to change this reality, or does it hinder them by obscuring what the real problem is?
Clearly, different feminists have different views. But what’s also clear is that you can’t resolve issues of terminology simply by asserting that language should represent reality (whose reality?) Disputes about terms arise because there’s conflict about the reality they relate to: they are political through and through.