By Sarah Marie Hall, University of Manchester
As we celebrate the centenary of (some) women being able to vote in the UK (also see McLaughlin 2018) - a democratic right that many of us now take as a given - I think this is an important moment to celebrate the ordinarily incredible women whose care and reproductive labour make our society and economy tick. These are the women that you live next door to; they might be your friend, your partner, your sister, your work colleague; they are women I met while researching everyday life in austerity in the UK. And their stories serve two purposes: firstly, to remind us of the routine and mundane acts of care, resistance and solidarity that are part and parcel of women's everyday existence, and secondly, that gender equality is something we are still striving for in many parts of our daily lives.
A whole wealth of research and media stories indicate that the political conditions of austerity causes the greatest damage to those in already-precarious situations; those people already living in poverty, experiencing health issues, struggling with finding employment. We also know, from research decades ago into previous recessions, that women are more likely to bear the ‘brunt’ of austerity. This is because, by and large, women are key beneficiaries of welfare and state social support, and are most often responsible for managing everyday household budgets, which comes with an added responsibility when resources are short to make the little they have go even further. Women also provide most of the care work in our families and communities, paid and unpaid, which comes under further strain when social care and welfare budgets are chipped away (see Hall 2016, Pearson and Elson 2015).
During two years of ethnographic research with six families in Greater Manchester, I saw these everyday incredible acts close up, as well as very real struggles for representation and recognition. I want to share some stories here, particularly of the women getting by in particularly testing circumstances.
First up is Selma. Selma is a single mum living with her young daughter, Mya. They live in council housing, which has plain and very sparse decor. Mya mentioned to her mum that she didn't like her room, that nobody at school wanted to come and play at their house. Selma was deeply upset hearing this and knowing she couldn't afford anything better. Mya refused to sleep in her room, and insisted on sharing a bed with her mum every night. Scraping together what money she had, and with a little help from her cousin, Selma bought a tin of paint, butterfly stencils and a bookshelf. While Mya was at school one day, she set to work and decorated the whole room by herself, surprising Mya when she returned later that day.
Next is Laura. Laura lives with her partner and two young sons. They live in rented accommodation, and Laura has recently returned to work after maternity leave. Laura is what you might call a 'money saving champion'. She is always finding innovative ways of making and saving money. She shops in Aldi each week, searching out the bargains and remembering the prices of most of their storeroom staples. She spends hours making big vats of meals like chilli-con-carne or soup, lovingly potting them up and freezing them for future use. Along with her daytime job, she works extra shifts in a pub on weekends. She is also a pro at finding things in skips to keep or sell. Once, Laura tried to sell me her copy of Mary O'Hara's book 'Austerity Bites', which still tickles me to this day.
The final story is about Kerry. Kerry is a mum of four children - all under six years old - and lives with her now-husband Dan. In getting to know Kerry, I saw how getting four of everything is really hard work. Four cheese sandwiches at lunchtime. Four seats in the car. Four superhero outfits. Four pirate costumes for a birthday party. Four pairs of trainers for holiday. Four piles of Christmas presents. Four cinema tickets. Four usher boy outfits. And four kids to keep an eye on playing in the park.
As you might imagine, I cannot possibly do justice to these women and their lives, and these stories offer only a brief window. But I always got the distinct impression that these women have no inkling just how incredible they are. That these were things they 'just do', things they get on with and don't even think about. When we lay these stories bare, we expose the inner workings of emotional and physical labour, carefulness in thoughts, words and visceral practice, which these women perform every day.
So, at this point of reflection on the significance of Vote 100 and celebrating those wonderful achievements by our foresisters, we need also remember that inspiring acts can be found in the most mundane of places. These stories and experiences need to be acknowledged, told and shared, because in being so ordinary they are by no means any less incredible. We need to continue to fight for the preservation of these (gendered) social infrastructures, and for greater value and recognition of women's such extra-ordinary contributions.
Hall, S.M. (2016) 'Everyday Family Experiences of the Financial Crisis: Getting By in the Recent Economic Recession', Journal of Economic Geography, 16(2): 305-330.
McLaughlin, J. (2018) 'What does Vote 100 mean to me?', British Sociological Association, www.britsoc.co.uk/about/latest-news/2018/july/what-does-vote-100-mean-to-me/, accessed 22nd September 2018.
Pearson, R. and Elson, D. (2015) 'Transcending the impact of the financial crisis in the United Kingdom: towards Plan F – a feminist economic strategy', Feminist Review, 109: 8–30.