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20 January 2016updated 04 Oct 2023 9:54am

Why disregarding motherhood and women’s bodies won’t help feminism

Bodies matter. Bodies that eat, sleep, care, nurse, love and, yes, gestate. The world, and the sexism that pervades it, doesn’t make sense without them.

By Glosswitch

The first thing you should know is, I’m not like all the others. I’m not like all those women you see babbling at the playground gates, or in cafés, babes in arms, drifting mindlessly through the day, brains turned to mush due to sleeplessness, hormones and lattes.

I’m not one of the yummy mummies, smugly superior, or one of the earth mothers, slavishly devoted to their own little cult. I’m a person first, a mother second and female third, if at all.

That, at least, is how I used to think, through divisions, carefully analysing which parts of my life would render me most worthy of the status “full human being”.

To be such a person, I reasoned, one must excise all of those things which have no relevance: gender roles, biology as destiny, female body as a thing in itself.

I would strip myself down to the essence of me, heart, bones, brain, nothing more. Other women, well, they could do what they liked. But I wouldn’t be one of them. Kids or no kids, I wouldn’t be just some mummy.

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Then, of course, I had my epiphany, or so one might predict. I looked into my newborn baby’s eyes and realised, there and then, that it was my destiny to nurture, setting all ideas of self-realisation to one side.

Or rather, this is not quite what happened. I had my children and I carried on feeling like a person, even if I found myself having to follow the mummy script to keep them alive. I was not like all those other mummies, for whom it was no script at all. “Mummy” was just who they were.

The question “what is a woman?” – that annoying, wheedling, pseudo-intellectual musing, of which there’s no equivalent asked of men – takes on a particular meanness when considered in relation to maternity.

If feminism is to be, not the liberation of women, but the rejection of gender roles per se, then Mummy belongs in the past. We can still make use of her body and her day-to-day work – of course, why not? – but the idea of her having a subjective self fades away. To associate one’s gendered location in the world with milk and flesh and blood is simply not the done thing, at least not any more.

Like many women who write about motherhood (“mummy bloggers” we are called, derisively, as though we have no voice other than the sing-song tones one might adopt with a petulant toddler), I started writing, at least in part, to show that I wasn’t one of those mothers, the dull ones, the unquestioning ones, the ones who identify with woman-as-mother and mother-as-woman without any idea of how narrow their worldview has become.

I wrote to show that not all of us were mere bodies, gestating wombs, milk producers, bleeding holes, but that some of us prioritised the mind. I thought I could write my way out of my female flesh, this dead weight around me.

Instead I found something else: that bodies matter. Bodies that eat, sleep, care, clean, nurse, love and, yes, gestate. The world, and the sexism that pervades it, doesn’t make sense without them.

“Holier than thou breastapos”

When is misogyny not misogyny? When it’s directed at women who deserve it – the ones who conform to all the stereotypes that hold back the rest of us.

Take the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), for instance. Writing in the Telegraph, Celia Walden argues that “NCT has become a by-word not just for posh parents, but holier than thou breastapos (‘breast is always best’) who use the NICE guidelines upheld by the charity as a stick with which to beat any mother-to-be lily-livered enough to contemplate pain relief during labour.”

Walden goes on to claim that, despite the best intentions of Nick Wilkie, the organisation’s current and only male CEO, there is no point in trying to improve things since, “all the funding and will in the world won’t change the fact that if you put a group of women in a room together and bring up the thorny issue of child-rearing, you’re more likely to get a hybrid of catty girl guides crossed with Stepford Wives.”

Obviously there’s a lot to unpack in this type of criticism. First, there’s the fact that many women are indeed made to feel bad for “failing” to give birth or feed their babies “the right way” (but not only, one might add, by the NCT).

Then there’s the idea that the typical NCT mummy is too privileged to understand the needs of women less ideologically driven than her.

Finally, there’s the basic assumption that all women are bitches. It’s just that normal life, which prevents them from congregating in such specific circumstances, tends to keep this bitchiness in check.

All of these things played a part in my own decision never to attend NCT classes. I’d heard they were expensive and while the “N” in the acronym actually stands for “National,” I’d assumed it was “Natural” (which, indeed, it used to be), which also put me off.

I was convinced that even if I were to overcome my usual social anxiety, I still wouldn’t get on with the other women. I just wasn’t that sort of person, a full-on mum, a mumsy mum, Mummy with a capital “M”.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t – and, to be honest, still don’t – see the point in birth plans and the like when labour is so varied and unpredictable. I did not want to align myself politically with “those women.”

As a middle-class woman on the verge of becoming a mother, I felt conscious of how tenuous my own grip on political acceptability had become. I was determined to walk the path of virtue, carefully avoiding the Mumsnet careerists on one side and the Starbucks stay-at-home mums on the other.

In Of Woman Born, her 1976 analysis of motherhood as both experience and institution, Adrienne Rich describes herself looking at her own mother and thinking, “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.”

I remember thinking this not just about my mother, nor even mothers of a previous generation, but also the new mothers around me. I watched them fall like dominoes, women who’d stood as individuals collapsing into an indistinguishable pile of muslins, wipes and lost priorities.

It all seemed so conservative. What was wrong with them? Hormones? Lack of drive? Or did the social conditions of motherhood unleash something that feminism – good old feminism – had fought in vain to suppress?

It’s only now, three children on, sitting at home, breasts leaking and sagging, intermittently breaking off from typing to play with a pair of tiny feet, that I feel willing to name the problem: femaleness. Or fear of femaleness – this sense that inside each of us is some dark, indistinct mess that threatens to overcome the neat lines we have carved out for ourselves, the edges that we hope will convince that we, too, are human beings, not mirrors to reflect or holes to be filled.

It’s what Naomi Wolf calls “the primordial soup of femaleness, of post-fecundity” (shush, Naomi! You’re not meant to let on!). I don’t want to be just some female, like an animal. I want to be a person, like a man.

Overriding nature

I doubt there is any feminist who has not, during some long, dark night of the soul, encountered the worrying thought “but what if women are inferior to men?” After all, it can often seem as though there’s plenty of empirical evidence to support such a proposition.

For instance, in How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran comes right out and says that, “women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years”:

“Come on – let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn’t. […] Nearly everything so far has been the creation of men – and a liberal, right-on denial of it makes everything more awkward and difficult in the long run. Pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men, that the experiment of female liberation has already happened but floundered gives strength to the belief that women simply aren’t as good as men, full stop.”

It is easy to understand the attraction of this argument. As far as history is concerned, men did the things that matter because the measure of whether something matters depends on whether it was done by men.

So rather than try to situate yourself within a narrative that will always purposefully seek to exclude you, why not cut your losses and treat the here-and-now as womankind’s starting point?

Like many women of my generation, I grew up thinking that we were special. What I thought of as a unique, brand new combination of factors – sexual liberation, freely available contraception, legal abortion, the decline of manual labour, the growing presence of women in public spaces – would mean that for the first time ever, women would be free. Sexual inequality would be a thing of the past because the one thing that had held us back – the female body – would become an irrelevance. If you can think like a man, then you are one, or so I thought.

Such optimism relied, of course, on several misconceptions. I saw progress as linear, believing that one was either on the right side of history – the side of good – or one was not.

I decided male control of women’s reproductive lives had been down to ignorance and a lack of medical knowledge, not intent. I assumed that inequality was based, not on men’s desire to appropriate and exploit women’s resources, but on historical circumstance rendering said resources worthless.

I honestly felt that in the blink of an eye, thanks to the pill, the 1967 Abortion Act and the demolishing of the odd lingering stereotype, we’d all be sorted. Biology is not destiny, that’s what they all said.

And yet here we are, still waiting. Clearly, while second-wave feminism made a good attempt at vanquishing the female body (special thanks to Shulamith Firestone), it just didn’t go far enough. Women still get pregnant. Babies still need feeding. Over 800 women die in childbirth every day. We obviously need to work a lot harder at putting Mother Nature in her place.

To become a mother at all is seen as a betrayal of this project of liberation from the body. The very least one can do is ensure that one’s experience of maternity is as “unnatural” as possible.

As Laura Kipnis argues in Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, an anthology of writers on the decision not to have children, “if it were up to nature, women would devote themselves to propagating the species, compliantly serving as life’s passive instruments, and pipe down on the social demands”:

“It’s only modern technology’s role in overriding nature—lowering the maternal death rate, inventing decent birth control methods—that’s offered women some modicum of self-determination. If it comes down to a choice, my vote’s with technology and modernity, which have liberated women far more than getting the vote or any other feminist initiative (important as these have been), precisely by rescuing us from nature’s clutches.”

The implication of this is that in their natural state, without any form of intervention, women are defective human beings, incapable of autonomous action.

Nonetheless, there are limits as to how far technology may cure us of our femaleness (at least if the species is to continue). Hence something else, in the form of pure ideology, must be used to tie up the remaining loose ends.

The female body is no less real and no more flawed than the male body, yet belief in the former is increasingly positioned as an unhelpful prejudice – a notion at best romantic, at worst bigoted – that one must leave behind.

I understand the impulse. There is something hugely gratifying about being the woman who says “fuck you” to all the biological-clock-too-posh-to-push-is-that-your-hormones-love bullshit that comes our way.

In the current edition of Glamour, the trans author Juno Dawson argues that defining women “by their biology […] limits women to being baby-making machines”.

To feel that maternity – both as experience and as cultural ideal – plays any role in what makes you as a woman is to fall into an anti-feminist trap. It is to go back to associating woman with the body alone, while man gets to maintain possession of the mind.

As Katrine Marçal observes, “woman can only gain entry to the categories that count economically and politically if she leaves her body on the other side”.

It is a funny sort of trap, though. Why shouldn’t all female people – regardless of whether or how they have given birth – be able to lay claim to the female heritage of pregnancy and birth, without this being seen to close off all other avenues of human experience? Isn’t the fact that we do not do this part of the reason we accept the lie that we have “basically done fuck all for the past 100,000 years”?

In The Politics of Reproduction, the philosopher Mary O’Brien points out that an individual woman need not be fertile or have given birth in order for female reproduction to have resonance for womankind “for woman’s reproductive consciousness is culturally transmitted”:

“It is a tribute to the indelibility of male-stream thought that we should have to make this point. Man knows himself as some kind of universal being with all kinds of shades of power and promises of immortality which particular men do not and cannot demonstrate. Man as universal may indeed be rational and noble and creative, but in the particular man these qualities are quite often as invisible as ovulation or conception. It is precisely this capacity to posit himself as universal, to assert a brotherhood of man, which has permitted men to make the history of man. The historical isolation of women from each other, the whole language of female internality and privacy, the exclusion of women from the creation of a political community: all of these have obscured the cultural cohesiveness of femininity and the universality of maternal consciousness.”

Men, these rational beings, have all sorts of myths; we just happen to consider them truths. Men find their bodies mystical, empowering, potent; we’ve just accepted penis-worship as logical.

Women who gather to talk about pregnancy and birth are dismissed as idle chatterers, silly mummies, sleep-deprived baby bores. Women who see female bodies as real, complete bodies, not just defective male ones with a hole where a penis should be, are considered quaint and hippyish at best, bigoted and deluded at worst. We mustn’t, we end up thinking to ourselves, ever end up like one of them. 

Yet maybe we should brave the embarrassment and condemnation, as other women have done before us. I now think that as a sex class, regardless of our personal reproductive histories, we should be more conscious of our collective history, and how it has determined perceptions of our power or lack of it.

We should be asking why female people have been, and continue to be, made so confused, embarrassed and divided about our bodies and how we come to know ourselves through them.

As Susan Maushart writes, “the sad and strange fact of the matter is that women continue to ignore or deny the sanctity of their experience and to reject the omniscience of their own flesh. We would rather learn women’s business from a schoolmaster or a shaman – anything but a witch, anything but a woman”.

“A needless and grotesque thing”

Birth choices – insofar as any of us have them – are always political and always wrong. Avoid all intervention and one is a dupe, a gender essentialist who needlessly fetishises female pain. Go for the fully medicalised option and one is an unwitting victim of the men (always men) in white coats, alienated from the awesome potential of one’s own female body.

Either way, the experience of labour becomes emblematic of women’s so-called liberation: you might think you’re in control, love, but no one else will see you as anything other than a victim of false consciousness.

In this way it’s possible to pretend that places where women gather to exchange information regarding pregnancy, birth and childcare – in NCT classes, mother and baby groups or in online parenting communities – are little more than gossipy ignorance exchanges.

Moreover, the “bitchy women” stereotype outlined by Walden becomes an effective way of dividing women (“don’t trust her, she’s judging you because you bottle-feed / wimped out with a caesarean / had a reckless home birth!”) and of further trivialising the discussions that take place in what are, at root, communities of women united by emotional and physical experiences that exclude men.

There is a historical precedent for the dominant culture to seek to undermine exclusive bonds between women based on shared reproductive experience. The mistrust directed at the midwife, the village wise woman, the old crone, etc, reaches forward in time to the ridicule directed at mummy bloggers, the derision reserved for hypno-birthing classes, the sheer fury aimed at feminists who believe that having a female body matters.

Indeed, the implication that women, as a reproductive class, should not organise based on shared social and embodied experiences, is simply a new way of replicating the “burn the witch” superstition of yesteryear.

Alluding to the early modern suspicion of midwives coinciding with the rise in the medicalisation of birth, Rich describes how, “the deliberate withdrawal of women from men has almost always been seen as a potentially dangerous or hostile act, a conspiracy, a subversion, a needless and grotesque thing, while the exclusion of women from men’s groups is rationalized by arguments familiar to us all, whether the group is a priesthood, a dining club, a fishing expedition, an academic committee, or a Mafioso rendezvous.”

I think this is worth remembering the next time any female-only space is subject to accusations of bigotry.

It’s not that one could or even should say that one way of experiencing pregnancy and birth is better than another. It is, as Rebecca Schiller demonstrates in her brilliant review of global birth rights All That Matters, complicated and one of the most complicating factors arises from the way in which both intervention-free and medicalised birthing practices have been appropriated and weaponised by patriarchal culture.

There is no “right” answer when it comes to something as personal as giving birth, yet we are made to feel there should be.

What is more, women’s apparent “failure” to come up with the definitive answer on something as complex as our own bodies is used to suggest that we should hand over responsibility to someone else.

Women need a political and economic framework within which to position their reproductive work regardless of the form it takes. Instead they are asked to choose between two equally restrictive models.

In The Politics of The Body, Alison Phipps suggests that it is natural birth advocates whose narratives have failed most of all in challenging the dominant culture, “partly due to their resonance with contemporary neoliberal and neoconservative agendas, for instance the resurgent gender essentialism and pronatalism which characterizes the moral-political rationality of the New Right”.

While Phipps makes an entirely valid connection, I think that if we are going to ask whose narrative is most counter-cultural – the bare-breasted, free-birthing, stay-at-home earth mothers, or the drug-quaffing, bottle-wielding, salaried mammas – then we need a more specific definition of gender within the culture itself.

What, exactly, do we need to set ourselves for or against? Is it enough to say “the New Right”? What of the New Left?

It seems to me that in current framings of gender, which seek to distance the social construction of masculinity and femininity as far as possible from any analysis of reproductive difference, the male exploitation of female bodies catches up with us either way.

We’re not choosing between liberation and oppression; we’re just deciding how we should be packaged for consumption, wholesale or in pieces. Woman remains a piece of meat – would you like her organic or factory farmed? Do you want marriage – an all-inclusive, one-woman lifetime deal – or would you rather have sex on a pay-as-you-go basis, with a side order of global surrogacy as and when?

Ask for a third alternative – one in which female subjectivity is placed on a par with its male counterpart – and you will be told that you are behind the times. The very idea of a female subjectivity is considered shamefully reactionary (a female brain, or a feminine subjectivity, not so much).

So women are left in a kind of no man’s land, caught between two sides fighting over the female body as male territory. In such a situation it often feels best just not to make any demands at all.

As Rich wrote four decades ago, “there is nothing revolutionary whatsoever about the control of women’s bodies by men”. She also claimed that “the repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers”.

We are as far away from this as we were in 1976 and the problem is not the “gender essentialism” of any particular political “side”. With Left and Right all we really see is an argument over how best to appropriate female sexual and reproductive labour; it’s a question of form, not content.

Given that, it seems unfair to treat certain women as cheerleaders for a political agenda that necessarily overlaps with how they wish to use their bodies if the only way to get out of this is not to have a female body at all.

Biology as destiny

Biology is destiny. Not in the way that Freud meant it – die Anatomie ist das Schicksal, a hole is a hole, a woman is merely the thing she is not – but insofar as our existence is shaped by the physical, birth, life, death.

When we talk about justice, equality and liberation, we are talking about access to the resources that sustain life: food, shelter, healthcare, warmth, physical and emotional support. Privileged groups take such things for granted; marginalised ones are expected to provide them for others while their own needs go unmet.

There is a common misconception as to the reason why many feminists stress the link between gender as a social hierarchy and human reproduction. It is not because we believe all female people can or should get pregnant. It is because no male people can, yet every single person, male or female, came into being inside a female person’s womb.

Our original, fundamental dependency on a female body is immeasurable, so we don’t measure it at all. Instead we deny, erase and reject. This colours how we see the world. It makes us think stupid things, accept stupid ideas: penis envy, female masochism, male potency versus female weakness. These are all ways in which we deny awareness of our original status – that of parasite – and move swiftly on to blaming Mummy.

Every single misogynist was once a tiny, vulnerable embryo in a uterus. Most entered the world, head first, via that unspeakable hole, the vagina.

You, too, were nurtured by the body of someone who might have dared to think that space her own. This is not some outdated, retro biology, dating back to a time when people were too foolish to see that sex is a construct; this is how life is made.

Is it possible to talk of why men hate women – and why they seek to control the reproductive lives of females – without taking this into account?

The narrative of reproductive difference is one of need, dependency, sacrifice and the potential for exploitation. If we cannot talk of this difference as fundamentally related to the construction of gender, then it seems to me we do not care much for broader social inequalities at all. 

Writing in the Guardian in response to Maria Miller’s women and equalities committee review on gender, Polly Toynbee argues that, “feminists shouldn’t be side-tracked into ‘what is a woman?’ theology when most women still confront the same basic old barriers”:

How do you bring up children and have a career? Why are you paid less? Why do you own less? Why are you more powerless? Why are women prone to assault, mockery and contempt? How do you live with a man? How do you bring up sons? How do you be human first?”

Yet it is ludicrous to think that such issues have nothing to do with sexed bodies and the vital resources which they do or do not provide to a broader community.

To claim, as the website Everyday Feminism does, that “what matters is how one feels and identifies, not one’s private parts” is merely to offer a cool girl update to Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”.

One does not come into being via an individual act of will. Yet this is how we want to see things in order to justify a view of the world in which no one is fundamentally bound by responsibilities to others.

Katrine Marçal describes the way in which contemporary images of the foetus in utero reinforce this worldview by erasing the social and biological context of its origins:

“The baby floats, an independent astronaut, with only an umbilical cord connecting it to the world around. The mother doesn’t exist. She has become a void – the already autonomous tiny space hero flies forth. The womb is just a room […] The picture don’t show any relationship between mother and child: we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals.”

We should not be surprised that a Tory government hell-bent on sabotaging social support networks and offloading care onto the “Big Society” (aka middle-aged women) should not want to think too hard about whether fighting gender inequality could be linked, not just to challenging social stereotypes, but to the redistribution of labour and wealth.

If we have a politics that necessarily denies the inevitability of dependency, sacrifice and need, then the “privileged” mummies of Mumsnet and the NCT will always cause a particular level of discomfort.

The idea that there are physical sacrifices and dependencies that cannot be circumvented by modern ideas of self-definition is disconcerting.

We accuse these women of reinforcing gender stereotypes, but what we cannot admit is that if we saw a genuine end to coercive gender roles, this would not mean that more of us could identify out of the carer role. Care work is not oppression; it is life. An end to gender roles does not mean we get to be the people we always knew we could be, all the time. All of us should be carers, whether we want to or not.

It’s not a truth with which I am particularly comfortable. And I still have no intention of joining the NCT. Even so, I find that I, too, am one of “those” women. Female, a mother, a person, connected to other people. That is how it has to be.

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