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Social Text 18.1 (2000) 143-151

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Subject to Suspicion: Feminism and Antistatism in Britain

Lynne Segal *

Only state intervention and welfare reforms can put an end to women's economic dependency, and thereby free women from men's control, that doughty feminist reformer Eleanor Rathbone argued just over eighty years ago. 1 How her old statist rhetoric betrays her. Women's economic dependency and welfare reforms are currently on everyone's minds, but in an ambience generating thoughts only of purging most of those receiving any benefits at all.

Today in Britain, in the long shadow of the United States, the political usage of the term economic dependency is being definitively transformed. The notion of welfare benefit no longer promises the hard-fought-for amelioration, but rather the definitive symptom, of dependency: the erstwhile utopian cure is resignified as the disease. It is some years since Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon traced the genealogical transformation of dependency in the United States, noting its conjunction with a flourishing, deceptively feminist-sounding self-help literature on autonomy. 2 This is why single mothers can be demonized if they don't work, even while married women with young children can be demonized if they do. Shifting a mother from dependency on the state to reliance on a man for economic support, in this troubling slippage, supposedly removes her from the pathologies of dependency. It is a massive deception.

The continuing offensive against welfare provides perhaps the single most general threat to Western women's interests at present--at least for those many women who are not wealthy and who still take the major responsibility for caring work in the home. As feminists in the 1970s made so clear, and sought so hard to transform, women are most vulnerable to the very worst pathologies of dependency when they are most at the mercy of husbands or male partners, especially during and after pregnancy and childbirth. Indeed, midwives in Britain have recently been asked to look for signs of abuse in just such women, following alarming reports from the United States examining the bruised bodies of pregnant women and those who have recently become mothers. 3 Similar antitheses exist in relation to needy children. Carolyn Steedman has written eloquently of how the expansion of welfare in the late 1940s gave a particular confidence to working-class children like herself: [End Page 143]

I think I would be a different person now if orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn't told me, in a covert way, that I had a right exist, was worth something . . . its central benefit being that, unlike my mother, the state asked for nothing in return. Psychic structures are shaped by these huge historical labels: "charity," "philanthropy," "state intervention." 4

Liz Heron echoes these sentiments, although, like Steedman herself, she was well aware of the limitations of such services: it was their paternalistic, undemocratic delivery that made them vulnerable to subsequent attack. Introducing her anthology of autobiographical writings by girls growing up in Britain in the 1950s, Heron writes: "Along with the orange juice and the cod-liver oil, the malt supplement and the free school milk, we may also have absorbed a certain sense of our own worth and the sense of a future that would get better and better, as if history were on our side." 5 Not any more! The shedding of public responsibility for the welfare of poorer women threatens to devastate the lives of millions of children in Britain, just as it has already done in the United States over the last two decades. 6

Increasingly in Britain the new myth of "dependency culture" is used to condemn those receiving any form of state service, marking them out as vulnerable to "welfare dependency." Yet, despite the hassles and indignities they now face, surveys of single mothers have shown that a majority would still prefer dependency on the state to their experience of dependency on a man. 7 That option is now disappearing. In alliance with Reagan and the American Right, there was no doubting Margaret...


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pp. 143-151
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Archived 2005
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