In 2018, I carried a hot water bottle under my coat to the picket line. Frozen toes and chapped cheeks to save not just our pensions, but our profession. There was a particular emotional quality to those strikes: the cold, the carnival, a love-language that we brought out of our jobs straight onto the picket. I don’t want to be on strike, I am doing this because I love the university and all it could be. The cold assured me of our sacrifice.
I didn’t need the hot water bottle again, although we didn’t win. In 2019, I carried my first son under my coat instead. As a historian, I analyse how people in the past used children to describe their political ambitions. Women, often, brought up to believe that their own needs are illegitimate, claimed rights of their own with a promise to save the children. And yet here I was, believing that in striking I was saving something I loved for the next generation, incarnate under my coat.
Management mocked our utopian thinking, made us feel like the university didn’t require our love. In March 2020 we saw that it did. Staff walked straight off picket lines to record and upload when they couldn’t access childcare, prescriptions, or pasta. We continued to care for our students even as all we loved about the job was stripped away. This duty of care, of course, did not go both ways. In September 2020, staff were called back to poorly ventilated classrooms. So much privilege in realising, only then, what my precarious colleagues have always known: that work won’t love you back.
The strikes, the pandemic, the babies: they left me without a blueprint of how to be in the profession. The trailblazing feminist historians of the 1970s saw their work as an escape from duty of home, a place of their own. But when I had my own children, I imagined them, at first, as an escape from the work. They were the thing that would place limits on how much I could give to my job. But this once again left me like the child-saving feminists of my research: only able to articulate a claim for myself through my care for another.
Instead, what pandemic motherhood has given me is a sharpened sense of when love is being weaponised to deny even the most basic of rights. The pandemic university has been not an escape from the unrequited labours of love, but an extension of its demands. Our love was the precondition that made our exploitation possible.
It’s 2022 now. That first baby is a toddler and I carry his younger brother instead. It is damp, rather than cold, and the toddler refuses to wear a coat. The rain seeps through his jumpers. I am not out here to save the university, from itself or for my children. I am out here now for us, and for our rights. I am not out here to fight for a job I love but to fight for a job that doesn’t need my love, so I am free to love how and what I choose.
Emily Baughan is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield, and the author of Saving the Children: humanitarianism, internationalism and the British Empire (2021). She tweets at @emily_baughan.