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GLOBAL | winter 2003


UK's Conservative Party Turns Feminist?
Better childcare, family-positive policies produce results

Ms. Winter 2003

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Ms. Magazine Digest
Weekly News Digest

"Feminism is the new natalism." With that statement, David Willetts, the U.K.'s shadow work and pensions secretary rocked the nation's perception about the Conservative Party's policies.

Willetts released a document called "Old Europe? Demographic Change and Pension Reform." In it, he says the European economy risks disaster if more women do not have more children.

Declining birth rates in Europe mean that over the next 50 years, the European Union will have 40 million more people over the age of 60 and a reduction of 40 million in the number of people ages 15 to 60.

"By 2050 Europe will have a shrinking population, a low underlying growth and a falling share of world output," Willetts writes. "Nobody wants to force women to have more children than they wish. But we have created an environment in which people are having fewer children than they aspire to. I'm not saying that women should go back into the home. The evidence is very significant. It is the societies with the most traditional roles for women (and men) such as Italy, which have the lowest birth rates."

Child with UK Flag

Photo by Tim Graham/Corbis

Family-friendly policies would help families have higher numbers of children. (Or could this be a Tory response to immigrant labor from the global south?)

Polly Toynbee, a respected columnist for The Guardian, called Willetts' document "remarkable" and "a radical departure."

"Gone are the moralizing obsession with single mothers and the yearning for a golden age of family values," Toynbee writes. "Here, instead, is a hard-headed feminist manifesto. If the Conservatives do adopt the paper's policy implications, they will leapfrog Labour in modernity."

Toynbee cites Sweden, with its universal childcare and growing birthrate, as an example of a society that fosters feminism and families. (High birthrates alone do not make good economies.)

"So this is not about forcing or bribing women, but simply removing the obstacles to motherhood and creating a society that supports working mothers," Toynbee writes.

Could the Republican Party in the United States be listening?