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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The UK is suffering from an extreme case of generational inequality

Millennials across the developed world are struggling. But the UK stands out. 

 

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics may refer to her first trip to Hawaii, but they could just as easily apply to UK trends in generational living standards that the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission has uncovered. That’s particularly so in light of new analysis comparing these trends internationally.

While there are huge living standards differences between high-income countries, there is also much shared ground, with the financial crisis and demographic patterns putting pressure on younger generations’ living standards everywhere. But the UK stands out. With the partial exception of Spain, no other country in living memory has experienced as large a “boom and bust” in generation-on-generation progress across both incomes and home ownership rates.

On incomes, the millennials (born 1980-2000) who have reached their early 30s are just 6 per cent better off than generation X (born 1966-80) when they were the same age. This is very small progress indeed when compared with the progress older generations are enjoying – baby boomers (born 1946-65) in their late 60s are 29 per cent better off than the silent generation (born 1926-1945).

These sorts of slowdowns have occurred in most countries, but not to the same extent. In the US, millennials in their early 30s are doing 5 per cent worse than their predecessors, but this compares to relatively modest 11 per cent gains for generation X relative to the baby boomers. In fact, in the US – despite higher levels of income – the absence of generational progress is what stands out. Typical incomes in the US for those aged 45-49 are no higher for those born in the late 1960s than they were for those born in the early 1920s.

Back to the UK. The “had it then lost it” story is also clear when we look at housing. Our previous research has shown that young people in the UK face much higher housing costs (relative to incomes) than older generations did when they were making their way in the world. In a large part this is driven by the rise and fall of home ownership.UK home ownership rates surged by 29 percentage points between the greatest generation (born 1911-1926) and the baby boomers, but this generation-on-generation progress has been all but wiped out for millennials. Their home ownership rate in their late 20s, at 33 per cent, is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for the baby boomers at the same age (60 per cent).

This fall between generations is much smaller in other countries in which housing is a key areas of concern such as Australia (a 12 percentage points fall from boomers to millennials) and the US (a 6 percentage point fall). As with incomes, the UK shows the strongest boom and bust – large generation-on-generation gains for today’s older cohorts followed by stagnation or declines for younger ones.

Let’s be clear though, the UK is a relatively good place to grow up. Ours is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with high employment rates for all age groups. In other advanced economies, young people have suffered immensely as a result of the financial crisis. For example, in Greece millennials in their early 30s are a shocking 31 per cent worse off than generation X were at the same age. In Spain today the youth (15-30) unemployment rate is still above 30 per cent, over three times higher than it is in the UK.

But, if everything is relative – before the parking lot came the paradise – then the UK’s situation isn’t one to brush away. Small income gains are, obviously, better than big income falls. But what matters for a young person in the UK today probably isn’t how well they’re doing relative to a young person in Italy but how this compares with their expectations, which have been shaped by the outcomes of their parents and grandparents. It’s no surprise that the UK is one of the most pessimistic countries about the prospects for today’s young.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. In other parts of the world and at other times, large generation-on-generation progress has happened. Building more homes, having strong collective bargaining and delivering active labour market policies that incentivise work are things we know make a difference. As politicians attempt to tackle the UK’s intergenerational challenges, they should remember to look overseas for lessons.