Sara Miller (she/her) is a second year student in Business Management
The rise of the #mumboss over the 2010s and into today has been closely linked with feminist ideals of female emancipation and equality. The hashtag has gained popularity through associations with successful working mothers like Kris Jenner, and has inspired social media micro-influencers who document and celebrate their own successes as working mothers. Superficially this hashtag appears to contribute towards the feminist movement by highlighting how women deserve the right not to be restricted to the identity of motherhood. However, on closer examination this movement has clearly been manipulated to better serve the capitalist patriarchy, and I will argue that the structure of the capitalist economic system breeds such exploitation and prevents true equality for working mothers from ever being achieved.
It is firstly important to understand how the principles of capitalist activity inherently conflict with the characteristics of working mothers. Efficiency is a key tenet of capitalism: maximised efficiency leads to greater competitive advantage and so capital gain (Zucchi, 2022). A further defining feature is individualism: economic actors are self-serving and seek personal gain. But as soon as we apply these features to working mothers there is a disconnect. Working mothers will never act as individuals maximising their own wealth; by definition they are serving a child or children in addition to themselves. This leads to organisational inefficiency in that mothers cannot dedicate their entire selves to work, suggesting that companies would avoid hiring working mothers to avoid this inefficiency. But the reality is contradictory– there are more working mothers today than ever before (www.ons.gov.uk, n.d.), and the popularity of trends such as #mumboss is ever-growing. So what is the underlying cause of this disconnect?
I suspect that the true reason corporations have jumped on the #mumboss trend is because of a hidden opportunity for unpaid labour exploitation. One of the key fights of second wave feminism was against female restriction to unpaid household work that left women financially dependent on their working husbands (Rosenfelt et al.,1987). As feminism has become more mainstream, patriarchal capitalism has had to innovate a way to maintain its dominance over women and so the dominance of the capitalists whilst presenting a façade of equality. I argue that the ‘too good to be true’ trend of working mothers is the result of this innovation. Because capitalists now exploit a large new workforce whilst maintaining the previous unpaid domestic workforce – essentially making mothers work two jobs for the price of a single poorly paid one. Poorly paid is key here – the gender wage gap is especially pronounced in working mothers (Ciminelli et al., 2021), an attractive feature to the profit-maximising capitalist. Features that would make being a working mother truly equitable such as free childcare or a full time wage for reduced hours simply do not allow for profit maximisation, and so instead we once again see a one way system that benefits the patriarchy and exploits women.
The natural follow up question is therefore; why has the patriarchal exploitation of the working mother been promoted as feminism? I would argue that neo-feminism, with a strong connection to capitalism, is largely to blame for this. I would further argue that neo-feminism is a creation of the capitalist patriarchal system (Fraser, 2017). The logic is clear: 1) the capitalist patriarchy is threatened by the rise of feminism; 2) the system sees an avenue for exploitation through the façade of female equality; 3) the system rebrands as neofeminism and continues to prosper without feminist resistance. And so we arrive at the modern situation – working mothers are burned out, overworked and stressed (Leonhardt, 2020), but expected to just get on with it because this warped ‘equality’ is now the aspirational norm.
So what can be done to fix the damage of neo-feminism and the #mumboss? I argue that we need to adopt a socialist feminist viewpoint (Eisenstein, 1977) to achieve true emancipation for mothers. Through replacing capitalist patriarchy with a socialist feminist system that recognises both the economic and social value of women as people who give birth and provide household labour amongst many other contributions, we can lay the foundations for true equality for mothers. But it is undeniable that under the current capitalist system, any pretence that such equality is possible must be actively fought as an exploitative and dangerous myth.