Too often, we get stuck in the circular politics of “any choice as long as it’s this one”. Photo: Getty
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The myth of choice: some ways of giving birth aren’t “more feminist” than others

Childbirth is just one of the areas in which modern-day feminist beliefs can end up being appropriated by neoliberal and neoconservative agendas. Unless accompanied by structural change, “choice” is too often only meaningful for a small elite.

Occasionally the new feminism can feel exactly like the old sexism. Whenever this happens, the easiest thing to do is blame yourself. You are behind the times. You are immature. You haven’t caught on to the fact that what looks like sexism is now empowerment. You just can’t handle the truth because the new feminism is so counter-cultural – so totally “out there” – it would fry your tiny brain.

I find this happens to me a lot. There are so many things which seem not very feminist at all and yet it turns out they’re totally liberating. You just have to develop the correct mindset. If you’ve not yet reached this sublime state of being, then you just have to try harder.

Take childbirth, for instance. A century ago, first-wave feminists were campaigning for the use of pain relief during labour. It was, to quote Alison Phipps, “part of a broader fight to free women from the dominion of biology”. Fast-forward a hundred years, however, and it turns out that a drug-free labour is more liberating after all, as an act of resistance against “the pathologisation of women’s natural reproductive capacities”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this means we’d come full circle. Nevertheless, this time it’s different. Labour might still be painful but this time we have agency. This time we are in control of our bodies. This time we don’t need drugs. Why? Because we’re educated women making empowered choices. Because we’ve realised that the problem was all in our heads.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this modern understanding of reproductive realities. Even so, I’ve rarely had the nerve to admit it. I don’t want to seem dismissive of those who do feel empowered by childbirth. I don’t want to appear prudish and mistrustful of the female body. I don’t want to look like a pro-capitalist, materialistic sell-out and if medicalisation is now the mainstream, then surely natural childbirth really is the radical, liberating alternative. And yet it all feels rather odd. To put it bluntly, giving birth in agony or feeling a failure for having an epidural or caesarean does not seem very radical or liberating to me. On the contrary, the current insistence that it is – accompanied by flippant dismissals of those who are “too push to push” – strikes me as conservative and puritanical. I don’t think there is an easy way to give birth so why are we pretending that such a thing can, by sheer force of will, be within every woman’s grasp?

In The Politics of the Body, Phipps explores the ways in which modern-day feminist beliefs intersect with and may even be appropriated by neoliberal and neoconservative agendas. Childbirth is one of several areas of discussion, which also include breastfeeding, sex work, violence against women and the wearing of the veil. What many of these areas have in common is the way in which current feminist debate is focused not on structural support or political change, but on individual choice (albeit not without the intimation that there can be a “wrong” choice, such as having an elective caesarean or deciding to formula feed). It’s a focus which has, to my mind, allowed inequality in through the back door. As Phipps observes, “choice is to a large extent a function of privilege”. It’s all very well to tell women they are not victims of punters, male colleagues or the medical establishment, but unless you change the material conditions in which women make choices, choice will only be meaningful for a small elite. 

With childbirth and breastfeeding there is, Phipps notes, a telling disjuncture between the counter-cultural, egalitarian image promoted by middle-class campaigners and the statistics showing who benefits and who may, potentially, be harmed:

[…] although birth and breastfeeding activists have a tendency to present themselves as counter-cultural, and identify themselves with global Others in their appropriation of ‘traditional’ practices, there is little attention paid to the stigmatizing effect this might have on our own social Others, the working-class and minority ethnic women who may choose birth interventions or infant formula for a variety of structural reasons.

While the birthing practices of global Others are uncritically fetishised, promoting an image of “natural” birth as inclusive, little is being done to support women who are socially excluded and for whom birth interventions are more commonplace. Furthermore, the belief that breastfeeding uptake is purely a matter of education rather than one of enacting structural change (for instance, by encouraging workplaces to provide greater flexibility) places the responsibility on the individual woman. She is expected to think her way to her own empowerment. It is every woman for herself.

Phipps identifies a link between pro-breastfeeding rhetoric and “the neoliberal privatisation of responsibility: it is now a woman’s duty to build a better baby through breastfeeding and her fault if her child develops allergies, infections or other conditions such as obesity”. It is not that breastfeeding should not be supported, but the pressure placed on women is unjust. It becomes a means of letting all external social factors off the hook. You could have had a healthy child if you’d breastfed. You could have had an intervention-free labour if you’d educated yourself. That which at first seems empowering – it’s all in your hands! – turns out to be a burden.

I gave birth without pain relief and breastfed both of my children. I write this in the interests of full disclosure and yet it feels like a boast. Perhaps it is. I don’t want to feel proud and superior yet some small part of me does.  Without wishing to I’ve bought into circular politics of “any choice as long as it’s this one”. Even so, I don’t rationally believe one way of giving birth or feeding your child is inherently “more feminist” than another. On the contrary, I believe that as feminists we need to move beyond fetishising individual choice so that we may question the external conditions which shape our personal decisions.

Right now we treat choice as an end in itself, yet the choices we have regarding our bodies will always be finite. We will get old. We will die. In the interim, our bodies will not always do what we ask of them. We can view this as “failure” or we can view it as being human. We can enact change, but only if we are brave enough to recognise the limits of our own flesh. We can do better than perform intellectual contortions, remarketing the same old sexism as bright, shiny, vacuous liberation.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.