The concept of  ‘ Women On Boards’ is about as alien a prospect to most ordinary working mothers as is the thought that our social and economic system will recognise having children as a public good (future generation of taxpayers and all that). Feminism may have fought and won the battle for equality in the workplace and though all women benefit from this right enshrined in law something is still missing from the equation.

It is this. Getting to the top of the corporate ladder involves having to manoeuvre around some missing rungs between middle management and top management. To be precise, three missing rungs which represent the three evils of: 1. visibility 2. the idea of personal choice and 3.childcare.

Unless one is a mother with a nanny, an extended family or who has children who are already grown up then visibility is a problem. In our working culture visibility=physical presence in the office all the time unless one is at a very important meeting=dedication to the job=high probability of promotion. Most mothers just cannot
manage high physical visibility all the time. A culture that learns how to recognise keenness and ability in other ways would be far more constructive.

Personal choice is a sling used to throw stones at working mothers who dare to ask for flexible working, time off to care for a sick child or who have to take annual leave at a moment’s notice. ‘If you cannot give 100% to the job then don’t do it’ is the popular verbal translation of the academic notion of personal choice. This second evil also has sub-concepts like ‘not the employer’s problem’ and ‘why should mothers have more rights?’ If spending a day/days looking after a sick child is a right then we should distribute this privilege more widely shouldn’t we? Opponents of this second evil are basically using the language of equality with the logic of a dead end road.

Finally, childcare. I speak as the mother of a 13 year old. Yes, you read me right. Why does the culture of Britain only recognise childcare as a formal requirement up until the age of about 11? I still cannot understand this arbitrary intervention that occurs at the start of secondary school whereby children are suddenly grown up enough to make their way on their own without parental presence. I have run the gauntlet of many mothers who think I am mad to be still picking my daughter up from school. There are many reasons for this which aren’t relevant here but an appreciation of childcare needs regardless of a child’s age would be helpful. For heaven’s sake, if Anne-Marie Slaughter felt she had to be there for her teenage son then minion me has a right too.

My favourite Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen describes development as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Expanding the horizons of women on boards to include the diversity of roles that women play would be a start. 

Given the furore that has arisen over Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican Convention this week one could be forgiven for thinking that what she had to say was novel. It was not. Twenty four years ago Margaret Thatcher gave a speech which Ann Romney could have very well used as a template. The similarity does not lie in both women being Conservative (that would be stating the obvious). It lies in the sentiment expressed and the examples used to back these up.

It is a recipe for the implementation of anti-women policies that serve the gender interest of neoliberalism in keeping a woman in the home because, ultimately, this will cut the state’s spending costs in areas like healthcare, education and juvenile problems. If women did more than enough in the home then neoliberalism rewards them by likening motherhood to sainthood.

 On May 25 1988 Mrs Thatcher spoke at the Conservative Women’s Conference in Central London in which she used the traditional role of the woman in the home to support her neoliberal policies of welfare cuts and a small state.  In the speech she starts off by pandering to Conservative women by playing on their nationalistic sense of pride and by seemingly aligning her experience with theirs to bring about a sense of female kinship.  She said, “Conservative women bring common sense to Government. I can’t help reflecting that it’s taken a Government headed by a housewife with experience of running a family to balance the books for the first time in twenty years with a little left over for a rainy day”.

Ann Romney used the same technique to escalate the love that a woman has for a man into nationalistic sentiment. She spoke of her love for Mitt then turned this into a romantic shared notion of  “...profound love I have…for this country“.

Both women then transpose this love into an intense feeling for children which thereby panders to the Conservative female ego and provides justification for the framing of a woman’s role as being one that is firmly confined to the home.

Mrs Thatcher spoke of women wishing to be ‘lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, politicians’ but, went on to say that “many women wish to devote themselves mainly to raising a family and running a home. And we have that choice too“.

Cleverly, she did not linger on the option of choice too long because she then went on to say that “very few jobs can compare in long-term importance and satisfaction with that of housewife and mother“. Choice is an illusion.

Ann Romney does much the same. She spoke about “working mums who love their jobs but would like to work just a little less to spend more time with the kids, but that’s out of the question with this economy”. Again, choice is an illusion because Conservative women generally tend to be stay at home mums whereas non-Conservative mothers are seen as being selfish working mums. To bridge the link between a Conservative working mother and the picture of a traditional Conservative stay at home mother Ann Romney introduced the concept of choice as being one that is made under duress i.e If Obama had not wrecked the economy good middle-class mothers would be able to stay at home.

Both women used heavy emotional rhetoric in making their case as to why women are needed in the home.  In addition, Ann Romney applied a technique which preys on the ‘women go to the bathroom together in order to share secrets’ gender specific behaviour.

By telling women that “i’ve heard your voices…we just can’t get ahead” Ann Romney presented a picture of sisterhood that can only get ahead if mums “…have to work a little harder…you’re the ones who always have to do a little more…” It is a shared burden that is comprised of sacrificial motherhood. The subtext being that if you aren’t sacrificing something then you aren’t doing your job of being a mother well and, perversely to Republicans, this means that the Obama presidency is working.

The family is the building block of society…However much welfare the state provides, the family provides more-much more”, Mrs Thatcher said. There you have it. The woman at home picks up the pieces left behind by the cuts made to the welfare state but is proud to do so because the Prime Minister has said so. Also, there is the hidden threat of how a welfare state will never satisfy a family’s needs, only a mother can. What greater call is there to national pride being the implication.

Both women being Conservative neoliberals are, not surprisingly, prescriptive in their descriptions of the roles that mothers should play. Though this goes against the grain of the incursive state Conservative women will justify the descriptions as being ones that stem from the intrinsic nature of all women.

Ann Romney: “the price at the pump you just can’t believe, the grocery bills that just get bigger, all those things that used to be free, like school sports…” A good mother worries all the time and finds life hard but, according to Anne Romney, “and that’s fine. We don’t want easy”. Have you noticed that all these acts are couched in monetary terms? What about other things like praying that it won’t rain because you forgot to give your child a waterproof jacket? A true picture of mothering covers concerns and joys that don’t carry a price as well as ones that do.

Mrs Thatcher used ‘family’ interchangeably with ‘women’. She said, “For the family is the building block of society. It is a nursery, a school, a hospital, a leisure place, a place of refuge and a place of rest. It is the preparation for the rest of our life. And women run it”.  A mother is a childcare expert, teacher, nurse, doctor, hotelier, entertainment manager and a self-help guru. Is it any wonder then that neoliberalism favours Conservative mums? Think of all the money it saves which can then be distributed to the worthy rich rather than to the unworthy poor.

My indignation lies with the use of mothers by politicians as tools of propaganda for an economic system that marginalises us by bestowing us with the so-called virtues of selflessness as a means to a selfish end. It is also a divisive game to play that favours the middle-class mothers who have rich husbands to rely on in the way Ann Romney does and Mrs Thatcher did.