With single mothers once again facing economic attack, Julia Neuberger reviews a work that demands a wider social responsibility for the citizens of the future
Melissa Benn ends her peroration on the plight of mothers, and particularly poor mothers, with some words about an elegant young black woman she saw talking on a mobile phone, who remains largely "trapped" in the home by her lack of money and her single-parent status.
Benn writes: "She needs a society that remains curious about, and compassionate towards her. She needs a society that leaves her neither to fight, nor indeed to flourish alone. She needs a society that believes that the moral and material requirements of this young mother, of low income but high expectations, are as crucial to its own well-being as they inevitably are to hers." She ends with a plea for social as well as gender justice - "the imperative necessity of a greater economic as well as moral parity between all our citizens".
I read those words the week the New Labour government decided to maintain the old Conservative government's resolve on cutting benefits to single parents (read mothers), and faced a large rebellion. It was a week in which I was thinking about one of the issues Melissa Benn writes about so passionately - that we have a government that believes in the moral worth of paid work, where the very act of caring for children, the elderly or the sick - which can inhibit the ability to perform paid work - is downgraded. Women are judged these days by what they do for money, not by what they are.
All too frequently, women apologise for being "just a housewife." If that means sitting around polishing their nails and going to coffee mornings, the slight embarrassment, in a culture where most women go out to work, would be understandable. But if it involves the back-breaking slog of caring for small children, elderly parents or disabled relatives - if it involves coping with paranoid episodes of a schizophrenic young person or simply volunteering at some local community project, it is hard to imagine what there is to apologise for.
But this is only one of Benn's calls for justice. Talking to women in Birmingham, Basildon, and Bristol, she is struck by their poverty. The one thing that would help is "M.O.N.E.Y.", says one of them. This is not about fecklessness, irresponsibility or avoiding work. It is about poverty, about being dumped on by men who have walked out, about low expectations. Undoubtedly some of these women would find paid jobs a help - but the pay would have to be high enough to make them feel slightly less poor, slightly more able to grasp at opportunities.
For, even though Benn calls for a "new politics of motherhood", she fails to make a particularly new or convincing case for renegotiating childcare between partners. Giving up money for time is what the affluent can do to equalise responsibilities, but this has been said before, not least by Betty Friedan, so vilified for her book The Second Stage in the Eighties.
Where Benn convinces, without spelling it out, is in demanding society take real responsibility for children - its own future. Society would want to ensure children do not grow up in poverty because of the effect it has on them later. Society would want women to feel opportunities abound because their children will then grow to feel that life is full of possibilities. Society would want mothers to have enough money to go out because that break from their children, however much they love them, will give them energy and a sense of fun to share with the next generation.
This, then, is not about renegotiating privately. Nor is it wholly about renegotiating the relationship between women and the state, although that is part of it. This book, although Benn does not focus on it fully, is about the state's relationship with children, and its lack of will to get rid of child poverty, so that 20 years from now, its citizens can look at the world with hope. That is the book Melissa Benn ought to have written. It lies within the sub-text, emerging only occasionally into the main argument, as at the end. But that is the passion in the book, more than the critique of feminist writing, more than the swipes at bourgeois feminist triumphalism.
That is the real argument against those who wish to see divorce made more difficult, and fathers forced to pay. You can do all that, but men will still leave women, or women will throw them out. And then what about the children? It was never their fault, and we need them to shape our society where opportunity beckons, but often not for them.
Julia Neuberger is chief executive of the King's Fund and chancellor of the University of Ulster