It might be intended as humour, but it’s also a reflection of what we think of pregnancy and women. Photo: Iain Farrell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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How should we celebrate pregnant bodies? Not with twee maternity T-shirts, for a start

In a world where women are shamed for their bodies, we should recognise how empowering, and phenomenal, a wanted pregnancy can be.

Bad news for anyone wanting to purchase an annoying, objectifying maternity T-shirt: A Pea in a Pod have pulled their Wake Me Up When I’m Skinny shirt from sale, following complaints about how offensive it is. Not to worry, though. One can still buy the classics: Baby On Board, Under Construction and (worst of all) It Started With A Kiss. The choice is yours: reduce yourself to a dehumanised vessel or offer the world a twee reminder that you – yes, you! – have had at least one shag. Oh, and there’s also Pink or Blue, Either Will Do (so you can make sure everyone knows that you are going to stereotype the hell out of your kids, not that gender matters to you AT ALL).

It’s hard to convey just how depressing I find all this stuff. You’re pregnant – you are making a real, live human being inside your own body – and all you’re supposed to be thinking is “Christ, I’m fat” or “Way-hey! I’m like a Renault 5!” I know it’s humour but it’s also a reflection of what we think of pregnancy and women. Can’t we do a little better? I think of my pregnancies as a time when I felt immensely proud of my body and its capabilities. So I’m not the first woman to have a baby – so what? It’s still amazing. If I were to design my own maternity T-shirt, it would say “GOD-LIKE CREATOR OF HUMANS” (either that or “Pro-choice – wanna make something of it?”, depending on my mood).

There are few things that I would seriously describe as empowering but a healthy, wanted pregnancy has to be one of them. Despite the enormous physical toll (plus the minor annoyance of not being able to sleep on your stomach for months on end) you can have moments when you look in the mirror and think “Ha! I am a total genius”. Who cares if you’re only doing what humans and other primates have been doing since time immemorial? It is an actual person being made in your actual body. For me it brings to mind The Onion’s spoof moon landings headline: Holy Shit Man Walks On Fucking Moon. It is that ludicrous. A separate consciousness – someone who will have their own thoughts, feelings and passions – is being formed right under where you’re digesting your dinner. And yes, perhaps strictly speaking all you’ve had to do to get there is have unprotected sex but still: you rock. It’s just a pity the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way.

It seems to me tragic – but not coincidental – that the group of people most likely to gestate other human beings have constituted an oppressed class for millennia. Like many feminists, I do wonder if that is a large part of what’s behind misogyny: not just the desire to control reproduction, but sheer, naked jealousy at what most people with wombs are able to do. Forget penis envy, it’s womb envy we really should be talking about. To be able to conjure up another person from inside you may be mundane, but it’s also mind-blowing. There is nothing that any other human can make that measures up to that, but what do we get in return? A rigid gender hierarchy which rewards those at the bottom with low pay, pension poverty, domestic exploitation, hard-line resistance to individuals making their own reproductive choices, and last (and, to be fair, probably least) totally rubbish T-shirts.

This does not seem to me a decent recompense. Why can’t we be appreciating pregnancy, and the pregnant, a little more? I’m conscious this is easier said than done. Already we tread a fine line between ignoring pregnancy altogether and idealising it with the sole purpose of viewing women as walking wombs (and, post-menopause, as mere spent forces). The media is fond of treating wanted pregnancies as morality tales, in which women who behave virtuously get to take home their little bundles of joy, but as anyone who has struggled to conceive (or to not conceive) will know, a huge part of it comes down to luck. It would be unfair to heap praise on individual women for something which they may or may not have desired, and which may or may not have been due to any exceptional effort on their part. Nonetheless, broader recognition of pregnancy as both a social good and as something really bloody miraculous still wouldn’t come amiss.

Especially in a culture where women and girls are frequently made to feel ashamed of their bodies, shouldn’t we be trying to provide as much space as possible to appreciate their full potential? “Wake me up when I’m skinny” does the precise opposite. “Wake me up when the world fully appreciates just how utterly phenomenal I am” would be a step in the right direction.

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

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.