Of all the public services being hit by the cuts, those dealing with issues considered to be private are suffering the most. But what does “public” and “private” mean, in this context?
Public goods are things that benefit society as a whole – education, healthcare, wellbeing. Public services are the things that facilitate these goods – schools, universities, the NHS, libraries, parks and green spaces etc.
However, there are other less well-known public services that facilitate public goods, such as publicly funded domestic violence and rape crisis centres, drug and alcohol addiction clinics, Sure Start centres etc. These less visible services have all been the first to go in the government’s slashing of public services and to muted outcry. Why?
These services deal with issues that are considered to be “private”.
Two strangers fighting in the street is “violence”, but violence in the home is “domestic” violence. It is, therefore, not a “public” issue.
Why? Domestic violence is “domestic” because it happens in the home – the “private sphere”. Similarly, drug and alcohol addiction afflicts individuals who have hit hard times; so many people think there doesn’t need to be a public service to deal with this. Pregnancy, maternity, and raising infants are considered to be private, family issues, not something that promotes a public good.
However, what this fails to see is that all of these issues are social issues. “Domestic” violence leads to the death of two women a week in the UK and will be experienced by 1 in 4 women in their lifetime. This violence against women (VAW) is hidden because it is “private”, when in fact it should be a cause for common concern. Drug and alcohol addiction predominantly affects the poor and dispossessed; it is caused by wider issues in society – poverty and status inequality. Pregnancy, maternity and raising infants form the fundamental basis of the reproduction of any society.
By reducing these issues to the “private” sphere, the voices of the marginalized are further oppressed, and because these norms are so ingrained in our thoughts and practices, we fail to see their significance.
The feminist critique of public and private
Feminists have theorised the hierarchical binary oppositions that form the basis of Western philosophy and culture. This theoretical technique is called ‘deconstruction.’ To put deconstruction simply, every concept has an opposite; for example, high and low, public and private, men and women. The first part of the binary is considered superior to the second – high is better than low, the public is superior to the private, men are considered superior to women. And so on…
The hierarchical ordering of concepts creates structures of advantage and disadvantage, i.e. power.
So we have:
Men – Rationality – Intellect – Independence – Politics in the PUBLIC sphere
Women – Irrationality – Emotion – Dependence – Family in the PRIVATE sphere
Feminism has exposed the public/private binary (at least in Western cultures) as the core of women’s oppression. Women are embodied/emotional/nurturing creatures in the private sphere, as opposed to intellectual/rational/dispassionate men in the public sphere. Hence, “women’s issues” are not public issues.
The feminist answer is to dismantle the binary and transcend the public/private dichotomy altogether. In the meantime, however, we must fight to maintain the provision of domestic violence services, drug and alcohol clinics, and SureStart centres as public services; they are not luxuries or helping-hands for the private sphere. And while we’re fighting for public services, it’s time for a radical rethink as to what they actually are.
Really? Aren’t women liberated?
Sometimes it can be hard to see this happening in our society. Women can break through. More women go to university now than men. Women can become political philosophers, or engineers, or scientists, or whatever we want. But this doesn’t stop the trend of issues associated with women – rape, domestic violence, pregnancy and maternity – being relegated to the private sphere. Just because a few women have been successful does not mean that the status hierarchy that has defined Western cultures for millennia has been overthrown. It’s also important to remember that without feminism, we would not be in this position at all.
In some countries, women still can’t be seen in the public sphere. But the work of grassroots feminists is paving the way for women’s liberation. Just look at what’s happening across the Arab World; the role of women in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen is inspirational. Tunisia was the regional leader on women’s rights; but in other countries in the region, through the revolutionary movements women are finally breaking the barriers of the public sphere, demanding their voices be heard and listened to.
Why bring this up?
I want to highlight that using the terms “public” and “private” is not neutral. These words are infused with connotations and assumptions beyond their direct meanings. It’s important when we’re talking about public services that we include those that are less obvious, or even ones that have previously been ignored (universal child-care?).
The cuts are regressive in terms of gender equality. Women earn 15.5% less than men in the same jobs in the UK, so will pay back university fees for longer (you could see this as a good thing – David Willetts recently told some women students that because women earn less they won’t have to pay fees back, making the policy “progressive”!). Women make up two thirds of public sector workers so will disproportionately suffer from job losses. Women claim almost 100% of child benefit, and 53% of housing benefit. Lone parents and pensioners, most of whom are women, will suffer the greatest loss in public services: lone parents will lose services worth 18.5% and female singles pensioners 12% of their incomes.
It’s essential that the left-wing and anti-cuts discourses don’t perpetuate gender inequality too. We have to recognise it in the language we use, the claims we make, and the actions we take, always critiquing and always seeking to improve.