Free School Meals: Childcare, Feminism and the Need for Socialism

[Please note that this article was published in 2020. The new Children of the Patriarchy column for 2021 can be found under the category ‘Children of the Patriarchy’ in the Menu drop down bar.]

Welcome to the Clandestine’s new column, Children of the Patriarchy! Every other Wednesday we will post a column on anything and everything patriarchy related. Whilst most of us are already painfully aware of the patriarchal structure surrounding us, we often do not realise how deeply rooted its effects are. That’s why we are here! Every week we will be calling out the patriarchy left and right, whether that is at KCL, in the UK or in the wider world. Because whether we want to or not, we are all Children of the Patriarchy and the responsibility of cleaning this mess up, falls upon us.

[Featured Image: A traditional school lunch, on a blue tray. Source.]

Last week, the government voted on an extension of free school meals during holidays until Easter 2021. 322 Conservative Members of Parliament, and therefore a majority, voted not to extend the scheme, deciding to neglect and not feed the UK’s poorest children over the holidays. A large part of the public has since been wondering how heartless these MPs really are, voting to keep these children hungry.

As a column on the patriarchy, today’s topic might seem surprising. The vote on free school meals, first and foremost, affects the children who will now go hungry over the school breaks. However, the issue of free school meals, and the vote itself have consequences that are deeply gendered and connected to the patriarchy.

While the country’s most vulnerable children are going hungry because of this despicable move, their families are suffering with them. It is hard to ignore the gendered implications this vote will have. While traditional gender roles might, arguably, be very slowly starting to weaken, child-care responsibilities are still disproportionally put onto mothers. It is often the mothers, then, that go hungry in order to be able to feed their child. Mothers being tasked with feeding the family means they are also heavily burdened when there is no money to feed the children.

It is simply incomprehensible to me how the Conservatives can justify voting against this motion. Even after continuous backlash and public scrutiny, many Tory MPs still argue that if the motion had been accepted, this would have led to dependency on the Government, rather than relying on individual responsibility.

I wonder, though, what individual responsibility these MPs are relating to? Is it not the Government’s responsibility to ensure their citizens do not go hungry? The circumstances of these families should not be seen as personal, but as public failure. Our society as a whole, and especially our government, has drastically and inexcusably failed these children and their families. To speak of individual responsibility and dependency is to be completely ignorant of the real issue here. What we should be looking at, is our system as a whole.

Traditional gender roles dictate then that much of the burden of feeding these children now falls upon the mothers. Yet the relationship between womxn and capital is particularly complicated. When talking about sexism in the workplace, for example, we tend to focus on the cultural and societal aspect, rather than the obvious economic measures we should be taking to ensure these womxn’s financial independence.

When we talk about breaking the glass ceiling and the weakening of gender inequality, we often tend to focus on specific ways in which we believe we are making progress. More womxn in boardrooms, however, does not necessarily mean that we are making progress in our quest against gender inequality. Can we really call it progress if a company’s CEO is female, when that same company still exploits its female workers? I am not arguing that sexism in boardrooms does not need to be addressed, but these issues are merely a small part of a larger, more problematic whole. We need to address the primary issue here: capitalism needs gender inequality.

While I am not arguing that sexism and gender inequality in the workforce is not completely abhorrent from a moral perspective, I simply cannot believe these issues can be solved through some sort of magical cultural shift. We need to make it easier for these womxn to be financially independent, ensuring they do not have to choose between poverty and exploitation. What we need then, is better pay, affordable housing and strong trade unions. In short, what we need is socialism. We cannot achieve gender equality otherwise.

Gender inequality is a necessary condition of capitalism. Whilst culture might uphold gender inequality, capitalism needs it. A capitalist society is characterised by systemic inequality, a feature which is so deeply ingrained, there cannot be a capitalist society without it. I am not arguing that a move away from the capitalist system will lead to full gender equality. Culture and society still uphold these views, but in a way that is different from the relationship between gender and capitalism. Capitalism cannot survive without gender inequality, whereas culture and society can.

It is painfully clear then, that the vote on free school meals is part of a larger, more systemic issue. Its consequences do not only affect the country’s most vulnerable children, but their families as well. As long as we live under capitalism, it will be impossible to solve these issues. Gender inequality, while upheld by culture and society, is a part of everyday life because our system requires it to survive. The heartlessness and cruelty of the outcome of the vote will have great consequences, not just for the country’s most vulnerable children, but for their family and for society as a whole. As a society, we should be ashamed. Our system has failed us once again.

Column Author: Milou Klein, Column Editor

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