Category Archives: activism

Can’t strike/won’t strike? What would enable you to make a different choice?

IMG_0438There was industrial action planned for Thursday of this week: an NHS staff walkout at 9am lasting until 9pm, to make the point (again) that NHS staff deserve the 1% increase recommended by an independent review. Plans then followed for another walkout on the 25th February lasting 24 hours, with almost a month of working to rule in between these two days of actions.

This planned industrial action was cancelled only days before it was due to take place, when a “breakthrough” was negotiated in terms of pay, causing the strikes to be called off to allow union members to decide if they can accept the offer on the table.

I feel a bit weird saying this but I was relieved when the action was called off. I was glad that there was finally discussion happening around pay, an acknowledgement of the need for change, but it was more than that.

The first day of action was planned for my last day on placement in what was deemed an “essential service” (therefore exempt from participating in the strike) but as a student not counted in the numbered staff making up minimum staffing levels, I felt my status was less certain. I couldn’t let myself off the hook. Not because anyone was pressuring me to participate – my suggestion that I would was met with surprise – but because of pressure I put on myself. I was tying myself up in knots to work out how I could support this action without jeopardising my placement, as it was crucial I worked the day of the strike both in terms of hours and in terms of an assessment taking place that day, but my deeply held desire not to cross the picket line made it a difficult choice. I was lucky to have supportive mentor who was accepting of whatever decision I made, but perhaps luckier still that the strike was called off before I had to choose between my principles and my academic progression. I didn’t have to decide, and I am still not sure what I would have decided.

All this gets me thinking to what stands between us and the things we want to do, or the versions of ourselves we want/need to be. Each time a strike is announced I find myself thinking “if only everyone went on strike this time, imagine how much more quickly this issue could be resolved!” but then I remember it’s not that simple. There are many reasons people can’t (or feel they can’t) strike, and no one individual should be made to feel responsible for the action’s success – or ‘failure’. They did not ask to be put in a position where they either accept the unacceptable working conditions on offer, or stick their neck out. We can’t know the individual decision-making process people undertake when deciding whether to participate in industrial action or not. And we also can’t know the factors they are taking into account – their work culture, their financial situation (because for those on the payroll, striking means losing pay), whether their relationship with their team and manager is supportive, whether they are out at work about their politics… not to mention the additional considerations to take into account before standing on a picket line (because I would argue it’s somewhat of a privilege to have health that enables you to stand outside for four hours in winter making a point).

What we can do is ask of the people not yet able to stand in solidarity (and I count myself as potentially one of those people this last week) – “what would enable you to make a different choice?”.

For me, there is also an element of needing to acknowledge the confines of being a student midwife within the NHS, and they way this limits our options. A good friend of mine recently compared being a student midwife to being a teenager, in that it is a time when we experience the combination of overwhelming, overblown emotions with the realisation that we have very little say in how things can turn out. This certainly feels true to me.

However It also means I will continue to grow beyond this point. It is a necessarily temporary stage. I will not be a student midwife forever.

LINKS:

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jan/27/health-workers-strikes-supended-talks-breakthrough

Advertisements

Enough is enough.

Midwives at the picket line for the NHS strike for fair pay, 24th November 2014

Midwives at the picket line for the NHS strike for fair pay, 24th November 2014

This Monday, on the first day of my hospital placement, I joined the picket line from 7-11am to highlight the need for fair pay for NHS staff. The industrial action then continues for the rest of this week, as NHS staff will be working to rule, which means taking all allocated breaks and not doing any unpaid overtime.

This week of action is in protest of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s refusal to grant a 1% pay rise to NHS staff as advised by an independent pay review, meaning that staff pay is essentially falling when inflation is taken into account. There is more background information in this guardian article if you haven’t heard much about it – I feel like it’s been massively under-reported.

This strike followed on from the initial strike on the 13th October 2015, which was the first time since its inception 133 years ago that the Royal College of Midwives voted in favour of strike action. This has been framed by the press as a sign that things must be bad, if even the moderate midwives who consider their job a true vocation, are striking. I have never considered myself, or the other radical midwives I know as “moderate”, but perhaps we are an unrepresentative sample!

I joined the picket line as a student member of one of the main unions, not only because any pay rise that is won following this industrial action will benefit me once I qualify, but because to cross the picket line felt too much like undermining the action my fellow workers – both symbolically, and literally as the presence of students providing extra pairs of hands to help out and diminishes the impact of the four hour strike.

My placement was in a non-essential service (unions negotiate with health trusts to establish which services are deemed essential, to ensure for example that ambulances can answer emergency 999 calls and that women going into labour are provided with care for themselves and their baby) and students are not included in the minimum numbers needed for areas for the hospital to run safely, so supporting the strike was a realistic option for me. Some will have found themselves unable to strike because they were working in an essential service, but for others in positions similar to me I wonder what it would take to make them strike next time? How can we support each other to make that leap? If all NHS staff in non-essential services went on strike next time, think how much more quickly this pay dispute could be resolved!

The midwives in the photo at the top of the post were my strike buddies for the duration of the picket line, and whilst I don’t imagine any of us relish the thought of another strike, I will give my support to another one – and another one – if that’s what it takes to secure fair pay for NHS staff.

 

The Cissexist Language of Midwifery Care and Reproductive Justice.

I started trying to write a post on the way my pro-choice views on abortion intersect positively with my midwifery practice, but I realised that first I needed to address the way that the language of midwifery care and reproductive justice is cissexist. Lauren Rankin spells it out when she says

We must acknowledge and come to terms with the implicit cissexism in assuming that only women have abortions. Trans men have abortions. People who do not identify as women have abortions. They deserve to be represented in our advocacy and activist framework. Honestly, I am guilty of perpetuating that harmful myth, both in my rhetoric and framing. I often frame abortion restrictions as misogynistic attacks meant to control women’s reproductive lives, and that is true. But abortion restrictions also affect the lives of people who aren’t women, and they hinder trans men and gender-non-conforming people and others who were Designated Female at Birth (DFAB) from accessing abortion care, as well.

Lauren Rankin, Not Everyone Who Has an Abortion Is a Woman – How to Frame the Abortion Rights Issue

I went to a training day on abortion activism (run by Abortion Rights) last year, attended by feminists and anarchists involved or interested in grassroots activism and campaigning. And it was refreshing to talk about “people wanting/needing abortions” without the discussion stalling when the other people in the conversation couldn’t understand why we weren’t saying women, or worse refuting the fact that it’s not only women getting pregnant (radfems, I’m looking at you again). And yet even though the space we made challenged the cissexism of typical reproductive justice dialogue, the cissexist language was still was inescapable. The news clips we watched, the stats on how many abortions are performed in the UK each year all talk about women and women only. The statistics we have for UK abortion rates take into account every registered abortion, but they do not record the person’s gender because it is assumed they are women. These statistics we quote, that “1 in 3 women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old”… these statistics implicitly misgender all those people who are not women who have abortions.

The same happens in midwifery. Language misgenders, both implicitly and explicitly. Because, on both an individual and systematic level, the possibility of trans men and non binary people becoming pregnant is either not considered or wilfully ignored; all language is inherently cissexist.  As midwives we talk constantly about “the woman” (or worse, “the lady”) as though it had not even occurred to us that not everyone who is pregnant is a woman, or that these people do not exist, or that they are such a small minority that it is ok for our language to erase them.

It is not ok. But everyone does it. I am even finding myself doing it.

A couple of weeks into my training I started to realise I wasn’t imagining it, midwifery lecturers were constantly talking about “the woman” and as students we were picking it up too. I queried it, explaining that I realised we said “the woman” rather than  “the patient”, because midwifery is about providing care through a normal physiological event (pregnancy and birth) rather than treating illness. But what about those people who aren’t women who are pregnant..? After clarifying that I didn’t mean cis men who have a developing embryo implanted in their abdominal cavity(!), the lecturer told me there hadn’t been any non binary people or trans men who had accessed midwifery care in our city and this seemed to suggest my point was moot. I didn’t believe her (because I imagine there must have been people who were not women, but were read as such by staff who didn’t feel safe/comfortable/have the energy to come out) but the discussion moved on.

Aside from the obvious problem of potentially misgendering (implicitly or explicitly) individuals accessing maternity care by talking only about women, there is the further problem that the language we use shapes the way we think and the way we see the world. By talking only about women, we are conditioning ourselves to think only in terms of women, to assume womanhood of everyone in our care. It is both habit-forming and world-shaping. When I started my training I always said “pregnant person” but everything I read, everything I am taught is saying “women”, and I am starting to slip up, to give up, and it’s not good enough.

I want people of all genders to be able to access midwifery care if they need it, without worry that they will be misgendered. I want NHS midwifery staff to have awareness raising sessions so they understand what is meant by trans, non binary, cissexist, misgendering. I want to rid policies and guidelines of their cissexist language. I want space on the paperwork we fill in at initial midwifery booking appointments to have space to ask about the person’s gender so we don’t simply assume they are all women.

In the same way that there seems to be a slow but sure shift away from heteronormative language in midwifery care (as both policies and practitioners start to talk about “partners” rather than “husbands/fathers”) I want to see a shift away from cissexist language. A lot of the times when we are talking generally and we say women, we can instead more accurately say “people who menstruate”, “people with uteruses”, “people who are pregnant”, “people needing abortions”. Instead of saying “she” we can say “they”. We can find new ways to convey meaning.

And don’t tell me it’s too hard – it can’t be any harder than having to navigate a maternity service designed for women when you are not a woman – which is what we are essentially asking of some people unless we sort this out.

My Midwifery Root(s) – Part 2

At one point, I was pretty good at rattling off the reasons I wanted to be a midwife. I had a speech prepared that I could recite whenever someone asked me, finely tuned after the gruelling application and interview process I went through to start my training. It went something like this:

“I have always had strong feminist politics, and feel that I have a responsibility to use my time and energy to support other women. I have been involved in various forms of feminist activism (including reproductive justice) since my teens but became aware of a disconnect between the activism, or voluntary work I did in my spare time, and the unrelated paid work I did alongside to leave me with enough spare time and energy to engage in activism. I also became aware of friends around me experiencing burnout, and recognised the need for a more sustainable path to allow me to continue to stay true to my values whilst also taking care of myself. I want to work as a midwife for the NHS because it is a way for me to sustainably support and care for women at a potentially transformative point in their lives, by providing a service that is free at the point of access, thus providing care regardless of the woman’s financial situation.”

And that is all true. And it’s a tidy narrative that perhaps won the hearts of feminist interviewers on the panel, but it is not the whole story, and doesn’t explain how I got to this point.

I had spent my late teens and early twenties adamant that I did not want a career. I wanted a succession of jobs that left me enough time and energy to do the things I really wanted to do, because I couldn’t imagine a career meeting that need. I went from school to university and fell in with a 3rd wave feminist crowd. We had a lot of fun writing zines, collectively organising gigs and events to give women space to perform and share their art, and I just wanted to find a job that was sufficiently low-commitment (which largely also mean low-pay) to allow me the time and energy to keep doing all those things. I went on to become more involved in political campaigns around abortion, attend demos and protests and found endless ways for feminist activism to take up my time and I loved it. I spent over a year volunteering on a rape crisis helpline, and I trained as a volunteer doula to act as an advocate and birth partner for asylum seeking women who didn’t have a support network around them during pregnancy and birth. It started to feel unsustainable. I’m not happy with the distinctions we place between paid work and voluntary work, but you can’t away from the fact that one allows you to pay your rent and bills and the other doesn’t. I was doing office work full time alongside my voluntary work at first, which meant I was doing ok financially but I was getting tired. And then later when I started looking into midwifery and realised my existing qualifications wouldn’t get me into university to train as a midwife, I quit that job and went back to college for the pre-course requirement so I was just studying and volunteering, and then I was hard up and tired. Midwifery training seemed a distant possibility, although it was what I was aiming for.

My interest in healthcare started around the same time as the zines. I loved skillsharing, diy, feminist health zines – about charting your cycle, self examinations, mental health, herbal remedies… encouraging everyone to learn about their bodies and how to look after them. I joined a radical health collective which was made up of a mixture of lay people, wannabe or trainee health practitioners, hippies and anarchists and if I’m honest we did a lot of sitting around talking about periods, for better or for worse. Around this time I was particularly into a book by Louise Lacey, called “Lunaception” which was a how to (and why) book about aligning your menstrual cycle with the lunar cycle, which gives you an idea of the headspace I was in. I think I started my doula training around this time, but not as a conscious stepping stone to midwifery.

A selection of zines from my health zine collection.

A selection of zines from my health zine collection.

Before I realised I *wanted* to be a midwife, I had the realisation that I *could* be a midwife. And it came in my mid twenties, through getting to know a fellow anarchafeminist woman who had recently qualified as a midwife. As we chatted in a shared community space, I had a kind of lightbulb moment as I realised that midwifery provided the opportunity to work in an explicitly feminist manner, as an autonomous practitioner, for an organisation (the NHS) that was for the people. It would be hard to get into, and to train, and then to do… but hopefully it would also be worth it. It provided a sustainable way to support women and myself, without completely compromising my values.

As I approach the halfway point of my training, and the focus on assessments increases and I start to wonder if I am starting to aim simply to pass my degree rather than to qualify as a midwife so I can begin the real work of being an autonomous midwife, it is worth reminding myself why I want to do this.  It is worth revisiting my roots. so I can stay true to my intentions as I grow and progress.