Time and the working mother

Kristeva’s ‘Women’s Time’ revisited

RP 091 () / Article

If there is one issue that occupies current debates in the media, and that is shaping British society in the last years of the century, it is the nature of time. This is arguably less to do with millennial fever than with the transformations in working practices which have, for the first time since the Second World War, brought women into the workforce in greater numbers than men.1 If the dream was once of a future where increasing leisure would be the norm, that future now appears oddly anachronistic: like the Lost Planet of the B movie, with the monster of flexible accumulation breaking through the perimeter fence. Anxieties about work have intensified for those without employment and those attempting to hold it down alike. Work, as Blairite puritanism has it, is what gives us self-worth; and it is womenʼs work, in particular, which is serving as a litmus test for changes in the way that we live, a measure of our modernity. ʻWorking mothersʼ, writes the journalist Melissa Benn, ʻare forever talking about time. Their need for more of it is a craving akin to hunger or the wish for sleep.ʼ2 Time has been rendered visible today in ways that were almost unimaginable even a decade ago. It is continually monitored, tracked and traded. Its disciplinary rhythms are internalized as a form of regulative virtue.

It is feminism that is often credited with the widespread ʻsuccessʼ of women: outperforming in schools, dominating the workforce. This much-vaunted triumph is widely seen to explain the demise of feminism – its purpose having been achieved – and serves as a potent ideological fiction. It is easily inflected into backlash rhetoric, effectively masking the complexities of womenʼs lives. Feminism has had a lot to say about why it should be women, and indeed certain women, who come to the fore in a part-time, low-wage economy, and why their acceptance of ʻflexibleʼ working conditions makes them a model for the future. The possibility thus arises for a renewal of a feminist politics which last emerged in the activism of the 1970s, a politics able to explain why it is that the growing ʻsuccessʼ of women is accompanied by old and unresolved problems stemming from the real conditions of labour, subsumed by the ideological notion of success, including that work carried out in the domestic sphere, which remains largely invisible and devalued. Given the density of these contradictions and their denial in contemporary society, it is unsurprising that the ʻcravingʼ for time is felt so intensely.

Yet the feminism invoked in these millennial times appears to take what we might call a post-political form. What is noticeable about its manifestations as a cultural discourse in the British media – beyond the wearying assurances about the wearing of lipstick – is that it often serves to explain the emergence of those ʻfeminizedʼ practices of the late capitalist economy (flexible labour markets, radical transformations in the relation between public and private, post-Fordist production, consumption as citizenship), even as it smoothes away class and ethnic differences and systemic contradictions. Girl power is selling much more than slickly packaged CDs. Feminization and feminism have become indistinguishable to some in the culture at large, to the point where women are the ideological focus of the hegemonic battles of the moment: as scapegoats, the limits of regulation (unremittingly in the guise of the single mother); as instruments of change, promulgators of those caring values which will underpin the ʻhard choicesʼ of the future. The dominance of feminine values is thus said to lie behind the ʻcompassion with a hard edgeʼ which brings so many women MPs – ʻBlairʼs babesʼ – to vote to deprive single women of welfare and anoint them with the work ethic; behind a number of perceived crises in masculinity, not least the shocking levels of suicide amongst young men; and behind the swell of (inter)national feeling at the death of Diana, when men wept unashamedly in the streets – a woman hailed by some in the media (and by certain professors of English) as a ʻfeminist iconʼ who was both modern mother and Marilyn Monroe in one.