November 17th 2023, Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London
RHS Transactions Workshop
British left-wing politics does not know what to think about mothers. On the one hand, motherhood has often been praised and celebrated. In left-wing women’s movements, for example, it has been recognised as essential and difficult, crucial for future revolutions, not least in their role in raising future revolutionaries. In less radical circles, it has been understood as a crucial contribution to the functioning of society, and thus often formed the basis of women’s claims to citizenship and maternalist forms of politics. On the other, motherhood has been seen as a ‘natural’ function of women and a private responsibility, rather than a public good or a collective act which needs comprehensive state support. The family, in this reading, is a rather conservative force, better left to social reactionaries. Motherhood is often subsumed within broader unspoken assumptions about women’s responsibilities for care and domestic labour, a form of labour which cannot easily be unionised. This is amplified by the fact that mothers themselves have had difficulty furthering their political commitment and professional careers. Mothering has added additional hurdles to the gendered obstacles women already face in pursuing politics as activists or elected representatives. Perhaps because of this, many mothers in politics have sought to downplay or distance themselves from their roles as mothers, to emphasise instead their past as workers and activists who can be fully committed to the left cause. Feminist historians, keen to not engage in essentialist or regressive analysis, have often followed their lead and have tended to write around political mothers’ maternal roles in their scholarship. This means that the complexities of the maternal in British politics have been largely overlooked, and the role of mothers on the left has been downplayed or ignored.
We would like to invite participants to take part in an informal workshop that we hope will spark conversations about motherhood, the Labour Party and the broader left in Britain. With this workshop, we aim to start a conversation to interrogate the relationship between leftist politics and mothering, considering how mothers have shaped politics, and vice versa. The workshop will specifically focus on mothers themselves, rather than their children, and will not assume that their needs and desires are inseparable from, and identical to, those of their offspring. The intention is to use the lens of motherhood to re-focus analysis of the British left, still frequently a masculine, top-down historiography, to create a richer, more holistic analysis of the movement. The workshop will result in a round table conversation to be published in Transactions, the journal of the Royal Historical Society, that will interrogate some of these ideas and consider how and why motherhood has been present in, or omitted from, histories of Labour and the left in Britain.
The ‘workshop’ nature of this event means that we positively encourage contributions which are more early stage ‘work-in-progress’ than fully formed papers. Participants may, for example, want to grapple with individual problems, case studies, sources, or methods, and the emphasis will be on feedback and discussion rather than presentation and questions. Presentations will, therefore, be short (no more than fifteen minutes) and might consider any of the following themes:
- The experiences of mothers in the Labour Party, and the place of motherhood in the political lifecycle
- Discrete forms of motherhood, such as single motherhood, adoptive motherhood, step-motherhood, trans motherhood, and so on
- The intersection of motherhood with race, class, disability, sexuality, gender identity, and other factors such as locality or faith
- Historical campaigns to strengthen rights, benefits and support for mothers, such as improved maternity rights, health care, financial support, and the relationship between mothers and the welfare state
- The implications of reproductive technologies, infertility, and childlessness, as well as the choice to be childfree
- Efforts to imagine and practice new ways of motherhood and mothering
- Changing meanings and usages of maternity and motherhood in political rhetoric and representation
- Comparative perspectives from the experiences of other parties and movements
- The changing economic, social, cultural and political context for mothering
If you would like to be considered for this workshop, please send a short bio and a paragraph explaining what you would like to present/discuss to both c.l.riley(at)soton.ac.uk and lyndsey.jenkins(at)qmul.ac.uk by 1 September 2023. Thanks to funding from the Royal Historical Society, we may be able to fund travel costs for those whose institutions will not support this. We will prioritise PhD students and ECRs: please let us know in your email if you would like to be considered.
We are also keen to support PhD students and ECRs who are interested in thinking through how these topics might apply to their work and joining conversations with other scholars, but who do not have anything that they would like to present at this time. If this is you, please get in touch with the organisers.
There will not be creche provision, but young children will be welcome at the event. The workshop will be preceded by an evening reception and public event on November 16th involving left-wing politicians past and present who can speak to their own experiences of motherhood in theory, policy and practice in the Labour Party.