(Re)producing gender – transcript

This is a transcript, for text readers, of my Feminism 101 lecture (Re)producing Gender.

‘What giving birth really feels like’ (in Cosmopolitan, 2015)

“Everyone said pushing was the best part, and they were dirty liars. Pushing out a baby feels like taking a giant, fiery poop. Like if you ate 100 hot peppers and then pooped out a watermelon. That’s what it felt like.”
—Amy, 32

“Giving birth was like experiencing every feeling and emotion possible. It was one of the most amazing times with my husband and we were given the incredible gift of life. No matter how different it went than we wanted it to, it was awesome! My husband would like to add that he imagines it to feel like ‘sliding down a joy rainbow into a cloud of kittens.'”
—Katie, 28

Before we start….

  • Not everyone who gestates, births and/or breast-feeds infants identifies as a woman, though they share certain biological characteristics
  • Not everyone who mothers children has given birth to them – ‘mothering’ tends to refer to primary caring, which people of all genders can engage in and mothers can be non-birth parents, adoptive or foster parents or part of alternative family forms
  • Not all women will be mothers – some will not be primary carers to their children and some may not have children at all
  • The assumption that all women are mothers (or potential mothers), and the identification of pregnancy with womanhood, is a gendered stereotype

However, social norms about reproduction and mothering are often bound up with social control over women and stereotypes of femininity. Many of these norms around ‘appropriate’ mothering will apply to those who are birthing and feeding infants, or mothering infants regardless of whether they gave birth to them or not, and regardless of the gender of the parent. Some, on the other hand, may not and there may be different issues at stake.

‘Because I’m not a mom…and I wasn’t breastfeeding or chestfeeding, for me, there wasn’t any assumption that this kid needed to be with me. The idea was you could separate him from me earlier on [in order to share custody], but all the hormones from giving birth, all the other connections are still there, and it was incredibly painful.’ (Felix, trans man)

‘I was huge, like, it grew like everything came in, so that was dysphoric and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was producing a ton of milk. I mean I could have nursed her fine you know but I just….It’s like these two things warring inside of me. One, I’m transgender, but two, I’m a really big proponent of attachment parenting. I think that it’s awesome. I think that breastfeeding and babywearing and family bed and all that stuff really help.’ (Adam, trans man)

From McDonald et al, ‘Transmasculine individuals’ experiences with lactation, chestfeeding, and gender identity: a qualitative study’ (2016)

In terms of reproduction, we have to both examine AND trouble binary gender – controlling reproduction has been a way of controlling women, even though not all women reproduce/mother and not all those who reproduce/mother are women.

Discuss with your neighbour: why is it important to control reproduction in patriarchal, capitalist and colonial societies?

1. Reproduction and oppression

The first oppression

Radical feminists theorised reproduction as the cornerstone of women’s oppression in patriarchal society. They defined sex-based oppression as the first oppression, because it was biological (based on women’s dependence on men for protection and survival during frequent pregnancies and the neonatal period, as well as men’s need to control their offspring). What Firestone calls ‘sex class’ springs from this fact – this created the first division of labour (and class antagonism) based on sex, from which all others spring.

‘This natural division of labour was continued only at great cultural sacrifice: men and women developed only half of themselves. The division of the psyche into male and female to better reinforce the reproductive division was tragic: the hypertrophy in men of rationalism, aggressive drive, the atrophy of their emotional sensitivity, was a physical (war) as well as a cultural disaster. The emotionalism and passivity of women increased their suffering. Sexually men and women were channelled into a highly ordered – time, place, procedure, even dialogue – heterosexuality restricted to the genitals, rather than diffused over the entire physical being.’
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (1970)

Capitalism and the nuclear family

  • Capitalism creates an economic incentive to control reproduction: the key function of the family is to produce/maintain the workforce
  • The capitalist separation of the spheres of production and reproduction entrenched binary gender and exacerbated women’s oppression (in pre- and non-capitalist societies there is evidence that gender roles were and can be very different)
  • The ideology of the nuclear family emphasises women’s ‘natural’ inclinations for nurture and care, which supports their confinement to the reproductive sphere and hides their domestic labour as labour

‘To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking. For centuries the reproduction of human beings has been a collective process. It has been the work of extended families and communities, on which people could rely, especially in proletarian neighborhoods. It is only with the advent of capitalism that reproduction has been completely privatized, a process that is now carried to a degree that it destroys our lives.’
Silvia Federici, ‘Revolution at Point Zero’ (1974-2012)

Capitalism and bourgeois gender

  • Colonialism exported the capitalist model of gender and the family as a means of controlling land, production and resources
  • Extended family units were broken up; women were dispossessed of land and power and put under men’s control; indigenous populations were defined as less than human because they did not conform to white, bourgeois gender

Reproductive slavery

  • Coerced reproduction was as central to slavery as forced labour
  • Sometimes enslaved men were used as ‘studs’ for the purposes of impregnation
  • Alternatively, female slaves were raped by white owners (which also functioned as a form of terrorism, as it did in the colonies)
  • However, enslaved women were seen as ‘breeding stock’ not mothers – the meaning of motherhood (and womanhood) was defined and controlled by white bourgeois society

‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’
– abolitionist Sojurner Truth to the Akron Women’s Rights Convention, 1851

Pause for thought: How do contemporary distributions of reproductive labour reflect these patriarchal, capitalist and colonial structures and dynamics?

Some figures

  • Women worldwide carry out around two and a half times more unpaid domestic and caring labour than men, with little state support and almost no input from capital (UN Women, 2016)
  • However, white middle class women with professional jobs are increasingly outsourcing at least some of this work to others (the ILO estimates that of 67 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 % of these are women and 17.2 % are migrants). This work often carries few to no employment rights, especially for migrants
  • Surrogacy is also a booming business – estimated to be worth $2 billion worldwide (Lewis, 2019) – in which reproduction itself is outsourced (often by privileged Western women to women in lower-income countries)

2. Feminism and maternity

The relationship between feminism and maternity is complex and ambivalent. There have been tensions between opposing the reproductive basis of women’s oppression and the tedious/painful nature of much reproductive and caring labour, and revaluing femininity and women’s traditional social roles. There has also been an emphasis on opposing forced/coerced reproduction, although this has not been evenly applied. Reflecting its bourgeois and colonial roots, much mainstream feminist thought and activism has been underpinned by ideas about the ‘right’ sort of maternity and family.

The first wave of Western feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries was concerned with women’s suffrage, health and education, within a framework of support for the traditional family (votes for women were thought to strengthen the family’s political representation). Many of these campaigners also supported eugenic programmes in which privileged white women like them were encouraged to reproduce while women of other classes and races were not (see Lewis 2019). The ‘famous five’ in Canada, who fought for women to be able to serve in the Senate, also campaigned (successfully) for people deemed ‘mentally deficient’ or ‘insane’ to be sterilised.

Second-wave feminism from the 1960s on was concerned with opposing the medicalisation of Western reproduction and the denial of abortion rights. Both issues were seen within the framework of patriarchal control of women’s bodies.

The medicalisation of childbirth

  • As capitalism developed in the West, reproduction had become increasingly medicalised and technologised
  • Until the 17th century childbirth and the neonatal period in most parts of the world had been positioned firmly in the domestic arena
  • Western medicine professionalised reproduction – mothers became ‘patients’ and control was taken from women/midwives and put into the hands of male doctors
  • This also created new markets – for drugs, technologies and specialist expertise

Feminist resistance

  • Feminists argued that women were being treated as objects of medical knowledge rather than subjects with their own agency
  • They also argued that medicalisation was a masculine agenda which was disembodied and focused on symptoms rather than experiences
  • Childbirth interventions and especially formula feeding were also associated with profit-making imperatives (and there were scandals especially around Nestlé’s aggressive marketing of formula in developing countries)

‘The female body has been both territory and machine, virgin wilderness to be exploited and assembly-line turning out life. We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence—a new relationship to the universe. Sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed. This is where we have to begin.’
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (1975)

These feminist critiques gave rise to ‘natural’ childbirth and parenting movements in many Western countries, which had significant influence on policy. Frameworks endorsed by the World Health Organisation and other bodies now focus on achieving ‘normal birth’ and exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first year of life. In the UK, there are targets in many NHS trusts for increasing ‘normal birth’ rates, reducing caesarians and encouraging breastfeeding.

(picture of a baby grasping an adult’s thumb, with the caption: ‘A human body can bear only up to 45 del (unit of pain). Yet at the time of birth, mothers feel up to 57 del. This is similar to 20 bones getting fractured at a time. Can you imagine it now, the mother’s pain and love?’)

(infographic of ‘the breastfed baby’ describing a wide variety of benefits of breastfeeding – including heightened visual acuity and less tonsillectomies – many of which have dubious basis in science)

Talk to your neighbour: do you think the success of ‘natural’ birth and breastfeeding movements can be seen as a feminist victory? What might be the impact of these movements on the distribution of reproductive labour?

‘The feeding of babies takes place in what I call a “risk culture” marked by the constant production of scientific information about risks, especially health risks, and a pervasive neoliberal sentiment that every individual has a personal responsibility to make sense of this information, prevent health problems, and act as a good citizen. This risk culture shapes how scientists evaluate the relative risks of formula and breastfeeding. It also structures how maternal responsibility is defined in public discourse, how breastfeeding advocates make claims about risk, and how the government uses fear to persuade women to breastfeed.’
Joan Wolf, Is Breast Best? (2011)

‘A version of the culture wars can be seen playing out here, with women who choose childbirth interventions or formula feed (who are largely working-class and/or BAME) presented as ignorant and lazy or at best in need of education. This invisibilizes the important role of economic, social and cultural capitals: being able to choose a home birth, for example, often takes time and research and carries expense; and breastfeeding is not easily combined with paid work or other responsibilities.’
‘The idea of maternality as a route to liberation also needs to be set alongside the fact that despite almost fifty years of second wave activism and some important political gains, the ability to combine motherhood with other social roles does not yet fully
exist in many parts of the West and worldwide.’
Alison Phipps, The Politics of the Body (2014)

3. Abortion rights

The right not to reproduce has also been a key focus of feminist activism, with bitter battles in many countries over the absence of safe, legal and free termination. Denial of abortion rights reflects capitalist and nationalist ideologies of motherhood – a woman seeking termination is in dereliction of her sacred duty to reproduce for the economy and state (which, in turn, restricts the rights of all pregnant people whether they identify as women or not).

‘Participants in the abortion debate, therefore, are defending a world view – a notion of what they see as sacred and important – as well as a view of the embryo. Concretely, a decision about the moral status of the embryo is an implicit statement about the role of children and women in modern American society.’
Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (1984)

However, this is mediated by other factors such as class, race, gender identity and disability – and the line between abortion rights and eugenics is sometimes crossed, often via narratives around ‘population control’ and scarce resources. Many early birth control and abortion activists, including Marie Stopes in Britain and Margaret Sanger (one of the founders of Planned Parenthood) in the US, believed in eugenics and made ideas of population control a key part of their advocacy (this is continued today by some ‘women’s health’ organisations working in lower-income countries which advocate sterilisation).

Some examples

  • Planned Parenthood and NARAL in the US have historically opposed restrictions on sterilisation abuse on the grounds that these would interfere with ‘a woman’s right to choose’
  • In Peru, forced sterilisation programmes launched by President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s, aimed at ‘driving down poverty’, received plaudits from some feminists
  • There are also ongoing debates between feminists about sex-selective abortion (especially in East and South Asian countries), and between feminists and disability rights activists over abortion for foetal abnormality
  • Feminist campaigners have also largely been silent about the forced sterilisation of trans people in many countries in Europe and further afield

As a result, many disabled feminists, feminists of colour, trans feminists and others use the framework of reproductive justice rather than abortion rights, as this includes the right to continue as well as to terminate a pregnancy, tackling questions about the economic and other resources necessary for doing so.

‘In retrospect, it is evident that highlighting abortion rather than reproductive rights as a whole reflected the class biases of the women who were at the forefront of the movement. While the issue of abortion was and remains relevant to all women, there were other reproductive issues that were just as vital which needed attention and might have served to galvanize masses. These issues ranged from basic sex education, prenatal care, preventive health care that would help females understand how their bodies worked, to forced sterilization, unnecessary cesareans and/or hysterectomies, and the medical complications left in their wake. Of all these issues individual white women with class privilege identified most intimately with the pain of unwanted pregnancy. And they highlighted the abortion issue.’
bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody (2014)

Some feminists have also argued that contraception and abortion are less about ‘sexual revolution’ for women than sexual access for men – creating intercourse without consequence for men and legitimating a genital, penetrative mode of sex that most women do not find particularly fulfilling.

‘It was the brake that pregnancy put on fucking that made abortion a high-priority political issue for men in the 1960s–not only for young men, but also for the older leftist men who were skimming sex off the top of the counterculture and even for more traditional men who dipped into the pool of hippie girls now and then. The decriminalization of abortion–for that was the political goal–was seen as the final fillip: it would make women absolutely accessible, absolutely “free.” The sexual revolution, in order to work, required that abortion be available to women on demand. If it were not, fucking would not be available to men on demand. Getting laid was at stake.’
Andrea Dworkin, Right Wing Women (1983)

Key questions:
How do we create a more equal division of productive and reproductive labour (with, hopefully, less of both for everyone)?
How do we ensure that nobody is coerced to reproduce, while all those who want to, can?

4. What’s the alternative?

Firestone’s solution is technological – completely artificial reproduction and diffusion of child-rearing to the whole community, while cybernetics reduces the amount of paid work. Lewis’ instead involves a redistribution of gestational labour – dissolving the distinctions between reproducers and non-reproducers, mothers and non-mothers. Both have in common a desire to end the family as we know it.

‘A feminist revolution could be the decisive factor in establishing a new ecological balance: attention drawn to the population explosion, a shifting of emphasis from reproduction to contraception, and demands for the full development of artificial reproduction would provide an alternative to the oppressions of the biological family; cybernation, by changing man’s relationship to work and wages, by transforming activity from ‘work’ to ‘play’ (activity done for its own sake), would allow for a total redefinition of the economy, including the family unit in its economic capacity. The double curse that man should till the soil by the sweat of his brow and that woman should bear in pain and travail would be lifted through technology to make humane living for the first time a possibility.’
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (1970)

‘We are all, at root, responsible…. We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy.’
‘Let’s bring about the conditions of possibility for open-source, fully collaborative gestation. Let’s prefigure a way of manufacturing one another noncompetitively. Let’s hold one another hospitably, explode notions of hereditary parentage, and multiply real, loving solidarities. Let us build a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than by kin. Where pregnancy is concerned, let every pregnancy be for everyone. Let us overthrow, in short, the “family”.’
Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now (2019)

What is your response? Do you think either or both these solutions are desirable and if not, can you think of something better?