Is motherhood a kind of slavery?

Tanya Gold writes that "motherhood and autonomy can never coexist" - but how does that affect the debate over abortion?

Forced motherhood is a kind of slavery, because motherhood and autonomy can never coexist.

Tanya Gold on abortion, Comment is Free

I am a mother. I’m also pro-choice. Much as I appreciated Tanya Gold’s recent piece on the human cost of anti-choice ideologies, the above statement, which appeared in the final paragraph, has got to me – and stuck in my mind ever since.

When Gold writes of motherhood and autonomy never co-existing, does she mean all motherhood or just the forced motherhood of her earlier clause? Is this merely a case of over-editing or an actual belief about every experience of being a mother? If it’s the latter, I’m unsettled (and would advise Gold to steer well clear of anything by Rachel Cusk).

Mothers are not a different class of human beings, or rather, if they are, they shouldn’t be. They are people with a wide range of experiences, beliefs and responsibilities. We shouldn’t have to big up the magnitude of motherhood in order to convince ourselves that reproductive rights matter. If we are able to value women regardless of their reproductive status then that should be enough.

I’ve never been a fan of fiddly justifications for abortion. “My body, my choice” irritates some people because it’s so straightforward - but surely that’s how it should be. What other reason is there? The consequences of denying women access to safe, legal abortion can be horrific and fatal – as in the cases detailed by Gold — but they can also be less dramatic and hence, in the eyes of some, less worthy of taking into consideration.

Continuing with a pregnancy against your will can be reduced to the status of mere “inconvenience”. Of course, to anyone with an ounce of empathy, that cannot be really the case. Even so, I write as someone who has always enjoyed being pregnant – not the worry nor the sickness, but the sheer excitement of it all. I’d willingly give my body over to that again (if only childcare – and, come to mention it, anything else child-related – wasn’t so bloody expensive). My pregnancies have never been unwanted pregnancies. As a justification for reproductive choice, I think that matters more than whether children are unwanted. We have to locate abortion within the experience of pregnancy and birth – not what comes after – to understand why it’s relevant to the status of all women (regardless of whether or not they themselves wish to and/or could become pregnant).

There is a rhetorical value in focussing on the worst consequences of anti-choice fervour – the death of Savita Halappanavar, the pressures that drove desperate women to Kermit Gosnell – but it risks derailing the pro-choice argument. It talks over the fundamental rightness of any person faced with an unwanted pregnancy being able to make decisions for the sake of their own physical and mental wellbeing, however trivial that appears to anyone else. There are anti-choicers who do not want women to die; they nevertheless think it their right to measure out the appropriate level of suffering before any support is merited. When we talk about rape, we do not – or at least should not – talk about valid and invalid reasons for not consenting to sex. I don’t think pregnancy should be any different (in making a comparison to rape I don’t mean to suggest that the fetus has agency or somehow “deserves” to be destroyed, rather that no one else should decide when an infringement of the boundaries of our own bodies is sufficiently harmful to us. This may be subjective but the difference between pregnancy and termination is clear-cut – as is the fact that no one else can experience these things on your behalf).

Pregnancy, birth and parenthood can be joyful experiences. It frustrates me when anti-choicers think this can be held as some kind of trump card. Look at the fluttering heartbeat on that scan! Look at the lovely babies growing in the headless diagram! As if billions of women haven’t been pregnant and remained pro-choice. As if they haven’t had their own mix of children, miscarriages and abortions over the course of their lifetimes. As if they don’t know that pregnancy is magic – but that it’s a terrible kind of magic if you are unable to consent.

When Gold suggests “motherhood and autonomy can never coexist” I think she is wrong – at least, insofar as motherhood merely represents one of the many dependencies and responsibilities we develop in relation to others, all of which limit our independence. But these limitations are not comparable to the way in which a lack of reproductive freedom impinges on bodily autonomy – and on the ways in which all of us can feel that we are, at all times, wholly ourselves.

A baby holds its mother's hand. Photo: Getty

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

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.