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  1. The Weekend Interview
11 February 2023

Pregnant Then Screwed’s Joeli Brearley: “I think motherhood radicalises you”

The activist on newly political mums, the idea of a women’s strike, and why Britain’s broken childcare system could decide the next election.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 24 October 1975, women in Iceland went on strike. Children were overheard playing in the background of bulletins read by male newsreaders. Shops ran out of hotdogs as fathers scrambled for something easy to cook. Banks, factories and schools had to close. To this day, men there remember it as the “Long Friday”.

Iceland now ranks as the best place in the world to be a woman, and features as an example for Britain to follow in Joeli Brearley’s 2021 book, The Motherhood Penalty. Like their Icelandic sisters in the Seventies – who were striking for equal pay and to show their worth – British women today are angry. They’re stuck with the second-costliest childcare system in the world, the fathers of their kids aren’t taking shared parental leave, and they’re having to drop out of work. Many would find life easier with a policy like Iceland’s of use-it-or-lose-it paternity pay.

“I think motherhood radicalises you,” said Brearley, 44, looking decidedly unradical in a thick tangerine jumper, sipping milky tea and sitting cross-legged on a sofa in the eaves of her house in suburban York. “So many women I speak to say the same thing: they have a baby, they suddenly see the world in a completely different way.”

The founder of the Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS) legal advice charity lives here with her nine- and seven-year-old sons, Theo and Jack, partner Tom, and cocker spaniel Paz. A Nintendo Switch by the television and mini air hockey and table football are overlooked by book shelves that include works by Helen Pankhurst and Germaine Greer.

Ten years ago, Brearley found out she was pregnant. The day after she told her boss at a children’s charity the news, she was sacked. Unable to fight a discrimination case (her pregnancy was precarious – a doctor warned her to avoid stress), she grew furious. In 2015, she founded Pregnant Then Screwed, which last year gave free legal advice to 80,000 people fighting pregnancy or maternity and paternity discrimination.

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“That was the first time I had experienced such extreme inequality because I was a woman – it was like a blindfold being taken off,” she said. “Prior to that, I would never have called myself a feminist; it just didn’t occur to me. I was a fully signed-up, cooperative member of the patriarchy and quite happy about it! Then I realised what a fool I’d been.”

Lately, her charity has become a campaigning force – and a political headache for the government. It’s no surprise. UK families spend 29 per cent of the median wage on childcare costs, and full-time nursery for under-twos costs two-thirds of a parent’s weekly pay in England. And all while the average worker in the early-years childcare sector earns just £7.42 an hour. Almost a fifth of parents have been forced out of their jobs because they can’t afford childcare.

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Last December, ministers caved in to the demands of figures including Brearley to count childcare provision as infrastructure, like GP surgeries and public transport. Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, is developing a major childcare policy ahead of the next election, taking inspiration from Anthony Albanese – the Australian Labor prime minister who was elected last May on the promise of a radical childcare policy with subsidies of up to 90 per cent. Labour wants to guarantee a nursery place from the end of parental leave through to primary school.

Even Liz Truss, whose premiership was otherwise disastrous, correctly identified costly childcare as a drag on UK growth. She suggested relaxing staff-to-child ratios in nurseries and increasing free childcare provision for three- and four-year-olds to 50 hours a week – plans dropped by Rishi Sunak. The extent of the Prime Minister’s offer, at present, is a “letter-writing campaign” to beg stay-at-home mums to return to work. There is a rumour, however, that he may be persuaded to give childcare vouchers directly to parents instead of the current inadequate subsidies – a policy devised by Onward, a think tank co-founded by No 10’s current deputy chief of staff, Will Tanner.

It’s now widely accepted in Westminster that childcare will be a battleground at the next general election. Compared with when she started PTS eight years ago, Brearley has noticed “a definite change in the narrative around childcare from all sides, in terms of what the public and politicians think about it”. 

Like so much else in the era of rising inflation, this is partly down to costs increasing much faster than wages. “The percentage that people are spending on childcare is now so completely ridiculous that it’s genuinely pushing middle-income families into poverty, and that’s just a completely new thing,” she said. “The public are starting to go: ‘Hold on, that doesn’t add up, we’re making it impossible for parents to work, and we need them in the economy.’”

On behalf of current and future parents, PTS is calling for childcare to cost no more than 5 per cent of a household’s income. Among the 400,000 Brits subscribed to PTS’s mailing list and social media channels are around 70,000 who reliably write to their MPs with such policy demands. “If you break that down by constituency, in swing seats, we have a real influence over what people are voting for and what they’re talking to their MPs about,” said Brearley with a smile.

Tory politicians may be facing the renewed wrath of “Worcester Woman”: a pollster’s caricature of Middle England mums thought to have defected from Conservative to Labour in 1997. After all, 67 per cent of people at the Halloween-themed “March of the Mummies” demo, organised by Pregnant Then Screwed across 11 cities last October, said they had never been to a protest before and didn’t see themselves as “the protesting type”, when surveyed. “It’s childcare that’s getting people out of the door,” Brearley observed.

Raised in Halifax, West Yorkshire, by affluent “die-hard Tory” parents, her own childcare was a mix of being taken to work with her mum – who was a part-time window dresser in shopping centres – and being passed between a “bunch of old ladies” who lived around Halifax. Her father, who founded a major clothing brand, was never around.

“I would see him on a Sunday, watching Formula One, and that was basically it, he was always working,” she recalled. Her parents had a “miserable marriage” and divorced: something that motivates Brearley today. “Because they took on these traditional roles, ultimately it meant they didn’t understand each other. I think parents who share the unpaid and paid labour more equitably are happier.”

On efforts to split parenting duties in her own family equally, Brearley admitted it’s still “not perfect”. Being self-employed, her partner – who runs his own media company – couldn’t take shared parental leave. “The burden was on me to begin with, and I really struggled,” she said. “And then because you’re doing everything when you’re on maternity leave, you’re fully trained up, you’ve learned how to put the kids to bed etc, so it would inevitably be like: ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do that, can you…?’”

In her book, a practical guide crossed with a manifesto, Joeli Brearley advises mothers to “go on strike” if the domestic load becomes too great. How about a national women’s strike then, to coincide with Britain’s new age of industrial action? “I would love us to have a women’s strike,” Brearley said. “We’ve mused about it before, this notion of women, mothers, downing tools. We’re not Iceland – it’s much smaller and the UK is so disparate, people think so differently… But we’ll have to get inventive if we don’t see anything happen in the next year.”

[See also: Madonna at the Grammys: Plastic surgery isn’t feminist]

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