“Reproductive freedom” is being defined as a person, not just a womb

Motherhood can be life-changing, but women shouldn’t have to consider it some kind of “destiny”.

Motherhood: it’s a complicated, difficult, but presumably rewarding journey that propels you headfirst into public property faster than a stint on the X Factor. Suddenly, it seems everyone knows what’s best for you – what you should (or shouldn’t) be eating, drinking, and, most importantly in K-Middy’s case, wearing (a recent headline asked whether or not she’d be “frumpy like Diana”). For those who carry their offspring in their womb, this first taste of motherhood usually comes from someone in the frozen foods aisle boldly placing his or her hand across their swollen uterus and enquiring about the due date - and repeat, for every other day for the next long few months, until, like a woman of our acquaintance, she explodes, and finds herself yelling “GET OFF ME AND FUCK OFF” at a perfect stranger.

Others have less irritating initial experiences: epiphanies during ultrasounds or when they first see their newborn’s face, for instance, in the brief period of relief in between the lasting effects of an epidural and the government’s next announcement that they’re raising tuition fees again. Undoubtedly, becoming a parent has the power to change a huge amount on a personal level. But for women, one other thing is also for certain: whether it’s a panel on This Morning discussing whether “breast is best” for the hundredth time, speculation in the latest tabloid over whether Beyoncé was wearing a “false stomach” during her pregnancy (really), or the patronising assumption at a dinner party that you’ll “just grow out of” deciding not to have children, the choices that an individual woman makes about motherhood are almost always assumed to be free topics of public discussion.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the fall-out from Hilary Mantel’s fairly uncontroversial essay on perceptions of royalty in the media, extensively quoted out of context and then reimagined as a “catfight” between her and Kate Middleton by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The Mail heavily implied that Mantel’s criticism was in some way connected to her inability to have children: a jealous rant at the demonstrably pregnant Duchess, because women’s words – even in academia – must only be prompted by deep-seated Freudian emotions linked to their biological “destinies”, especially when babies are involved. Like the evil barren stepmother from folklore, Mantel is cast as the older women jealous at the Princess’ youth and fertility. So obvious was the fairytale connection (for what are celebrity stories if not fairy tales?) that these archetypes even manifested themselves in cartoon form, showing the double Booker Prize-winner gazing into a magic mirror too divine the fairest of them all and seeing, of course, Kate.

While it got its teeth firmly set into Mantel and her supposed infertility, it was sharpening its claws for the next victim: Heather Frost, a mother-of-eleven on benefits, who was receiving a six bedroom council house – or, as the right wing press would have it, a “mansion”, as opposed to a fairly economical – two kids per bedroom at least – use of social housing. Frost had piqued the media’s ire by supposedly buying one of her children a horse (although in fairness every mother who has served up Findus lasagne in the last ten years is probably guilty of that crime). Apparently, a mother in receipt of state welfare should expect that the nation scrutinise the nuances of her parenting decisions in return. It’s only fair, after all, since Frost had rudely “chosen” to have eleven children she couldn’t afford, and would probably have had more were it not for the small matter of cervical cancer. And yet, her children, who have presumably already had a fairly tough time of it watching their mum fall prey to a life-threatening disease, are expected to receive punishment for her reproductive choices. Never mind the wee ones and their entitlement to warmth and shelter, it’s more important to the bitter mob in the comments section that the mother learn her lesson for daring to reproduce to such a great extent.

Of course, little is said of how Frost, might have had a reasonable expectation of some child support from the childrens’ fathers. Fathers, particularly absent ones, are afforded some societal judgement themselves - but all too often, “motherhood” is equated with “parenting”, while “fatherhood” is extracurricular, and women are held to much higher standards in this arena than their male counterparts. Which brings us to the other news story this week – the IVF reforms, including the raising of the upper age limit to 40. Cue much commentating on irresponsible and selfish women leaving it too late to get pregnant, and how the state shouldn’t be expected to fund such an endeavour. Their male counterparts, however, (you can call them “career men” if you like) are never berated for their bachelor lifestyles that delay parenthood. Women dawdle and dilly-dally, while men euphemistically sow their wild oats and enjoy their freedom. Such stereotypes save anyone having to think about things in too much depth – throw a woman who couldn’t care less whether she has kids or not, or isn’t that invested in the whole shebang, and it all gets rather too nuanced and complicated to make simplistic headline-grabbing value judgments.

In media land, while middle class women are spunking up £3,000 a cycle on IVF, working class women breed indiscriminately, producing children they can’t afford to keep. In fact, neither “group” has anything approaching true reproductive freedom. While one lot is wrestling with a lack of information regarding contraception, not to mention the expectation that giving birth is all they are good for, the other is trying desperately to assert their independence from all of that, only to find it difficult to conceive later in life. Of course, most women fit into neither group, because they are both, largely, media confections, but the point about reproductive freedom stands. Who, truly, can be said to possess it? You might say the aristocracy, unhindered as they are by financial or career related concerns, but then the Waity Katy/Royal Womb narrative would beg to differ.

Having a baby (or not) is a personal choice that is different for every single woman, and one that occurs for a myriad of reasons. It often also involves a man. And yet, there seems to be very little empathy regarding any of those choices viewed as being within the woman’s remit. It’s always a case of doing it wrong. Thus there is no sympathy for the woman devastated by her inability to conceive, nor for she who is unable to cope with her many children. Less so for she who does not desire children at all. She must have a screw loose, or rather, something missing in the biological nuts and bolts make up the various components of “womanhood”.  “Being a mum” is still seen by many as our natural state; so much so that women who choose not to breed (especially feminists) are widely seen as “cutting their nose off to spite their face”. Men are often taught that women will ask for the standard package – marriage and babies – as soon as a certain amount of time has passed. Women’s media feeds us back the idea that that is a woman’s place and natural aspiration: flick through any celebrity magazine and witness a female public figure who has recently popped out a child instantly transformed from human of interest into “yummy mummy” or “tiger mother” or “momtrepreneur” (anything, as long as it’s not “tax-wasting benefit scrounger”). Such archetypes are used to divide us, when what we need most is to have empathy for one another and an understanding that motherhood can be life-changing, but that it does not come to define us. In other words, the true meaning of “reproductive freedom” is being able to define yourself, first and foremost, as a person.

 

Women can't be divided into "yummy mummies" and "tax-wasting benefit scroungers". Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.