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.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.