Women without children such as Jennifer Aniston are perceived to have incomplete lives. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Our culture dehumanises women by reducing them all to breeders and non-breeders

Women are held back by a culture which groups us crudely into mummy and non-mummy camps; we must not fall into this trap of dehumanising ourselves.

Recently my mother told me about an encounter she’d had with one of my former primary school teachers. As is often the case with her, it involved an inordinate amount of boasting:

"I told him about all your degrees and your job and he said 'ooh, I always knew she was clever', but I told him it was alright because you’d still had children and were normal."

At the time it made me laugh. God forbid a woman having too many degrees to be “normal”! All the same, I knew exactly what she meant and why she had said it. She needed to reassure people that I hadn’t turned into one of “those” women; I hadn’t let university go to my head and forgotten my essential function. I can laugh all I want, but part of me knows that this matters. Like it or not, I am judged on my reproductive worth and I have not been found wanting.

In that respect, even though I lack the money, fame and status, I have one over on the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Kylie Minogue. Poor them! All of that success and yet they forgot the basics! Aniston can protest all she likes – claiming to have “birthed” and “mothered” many other projects – but she will still be looked upon as having “failed”. As the Observer’s Barbara Ellen writes in response to Aniston’s recent defence of her child-free status, “childless women, particularly as they mature past childbearing age, find themselves dismissed as redundant, withering, lacking”. As a mother, I can of course choose to feel smug, seeing it as payback for all those sleepless nights and dirty nappies; for once, I win! Yet if I’m honest, such a victory is illusory. In a culture that reduces all women to breeders and non-breeders, how could any of us win?

It’s tempting to pitch this as a tension between mothers and women who have not had children. I think, however, we need to put this in a broader context: that of all women still being judged by their reproductive role, regardless of whether or not they ever bear children. The story of Jennifer Aniston’s “failure” sits alongside countless others in which a woman’s worth is measured by the contents of her womb: the high-achieving executive described only in the press as a “mother of three”; the rape victim denied an abortion because her humanity cannot compete with the potential life inside her; the millions of post-menopausal women who become invisible while their male counterparts grow in stature. We are all judged on our childbearing capacities and whatever we do in practice – whether we have children or not – the fact that we are judged in this way diminishes us.

Radical feminists would argue that patriarchy seeks to control women’s reproductive labour. To many this sounds far-fetched; one might picture women literally being lined up to breed like livestock, something which clearly isn’t happening (although forced marriages and mass rapes could be seen to serve a similar function). In more liberal countries the availability of birth control, coupled with the often dubious claim that abortion is freely available, has been used to argue that women are no longer trapped by their biology. The control of women’s reproductive labour might once have been an issue but now, we are told, it is a thing of the past. Like many, I grew up believing that even if motherhood was limiting, at least a woman could opt out. But as responses to women such as Aniston and Minogue show, you can't.

Mother or not, you are positioned in relation to motherhood. The existence of birth control has not even allowed us to make the choice between being seen as a mother and being seen as an independent person; we can only choose between being seen as a mother and being seen as a non-mother. Either way we are defined by our capacity to produce someone else, someone who may be worth more than us; we are insufficient in and of ourselves.

At the risk of sounding old and mumsy, this is something which I think younger feminists often fail to recognise. It’s a phenomenon which only really kicks in once you've either had children or are perceived to be running out of time in which to do so. When you're young, you might assume no one is judging you as a pre-childbearing female; the truth is, they've already made their assumptions. Your reproductive potential need never be discussed, at least not until you've got pregnant or hit 35 without having done so.

People can live on unspoken prejudice right up until the "truth" of your reproductive destiny has become an unavoidable issue. In the meantime you can deny that perceived childbearing capacity has anything to do with the oppression of women in the twenty-first century, but you would be wrong. It has everything to do with it. This (perhaps actual, perhaps assumed) container inside us - this womb - is seen to offer something that we cannot: humanity. Dehumanised ourselves, we exist merely to carry its potential. There's not enough life in us to say, "no, I don't want this pregnancy, let me be"; not enough life to say, "without children I am already full and complete"; not enough life to say, "post-menopausal, I remain a creative force". Or rather, we say all of these things but we're not being listened to.

The belief that women are, deep down, just walking wombs is all around is, yet it remains difficult for women to challenge it in any united, coherent way. Instead we are pitched against each other. When child-free women argue their case, part of me is anxious and does not want to listen. I worry these women see me as conservative, lacking in independent thought, wholly absorbed in nappies, CBeebies and nothing else. Perhaps in turn such women see me as arrogant, someone who is convinced that the childless cannot know the true meaning of existence (whatever that would be). Yet while having children makes an enormous difference to the practicalities of one’s life, the ideological divide between mothers and non-mothers is largely illusory. When we talk to one another, we find we are still as diverse as ever, all of us held back by a culture which groups us crudely into mummy and non-mummy camps. We must not fall into the trap of dehumanising ourselves just because that is what we have been encouraged to do.

It is absurd that women such as Jennifer Aniston are perceived to have incomplete lives, trailing off into oblivion at the point where it becomes obvious that – shock! – they might never reproduce. Absurd, too, that we can place so high a value on the contents of an abused woman’s womb that we forget to see her humanity at all. As women we need to confront this together. We are not simply the childbearing and the child-free; our stories extend beyond the production or non-production of others. We are complete in our own right and deserve to be viewed as such.  

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear