Politics & Media
Feb 22, 2018, 05:54AM

Feminist Perspectives on Motherhood

Is biological reproduction a source of oppression, or a means of empowerment? 

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This is part two of a three-part series on social reproduction, feminist theory, and capitalism. Read part one, “Feminism and the Future,” here.

In part one of this series, I looked at two works of feminist science fiction offering very different visions of the future. Together, they suggest that the way we understand and approach social reproduction will be of decisive importance in pursuing and achieving a shared feminist future. To examine the topic more closely, it’s useful to consider competing perspectives on motherhood within the feminist theoretical tradition.

For feminist theory, motherhood’s been a recurrent source of disagreement. It boils down to a simple, but very difficult, and perhaps unanswerable, question: for women, is biological reproduction a source of oppression, or a means of empowerment? Further, what does that choice mean for social reproduction more generally?

In its most concrete form, the radical-feminist disagreement over motherhood concerns the role of reproductive technology—including in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, gestational surrogacy, and ex utero gestation—and whether those capabilities are a venue for feminist emancipation, or instead a backdoor method of consolidated patriarchal control.

The theorist and activist Shulamith Firestone embodies the radical-liberationist perspective. A formidable figure in second-wave feminism, Firestone argued strenuously that female reproductive biology was a shackle, and that motherhood was patriarchy’s oldest and fondest ally. In her radical manifesto The Dialectic of Sex, she put the matter bluntly: "Pregnancy is barbaric.”

For Firestone, women couldn’t be free without abolishing the nuclear family and relinquishing the practice of natural childbearing. This meant that those goals were synonymous with the feminist project as such: "Feminism is the inevitable female response to the development of a technology capable of freeing women from the tyranny of their sexual-reproductive roles—both the biological condition itself, and the sexual class system built up, and reinforcing, this biological condition." Consequently, Firestone put reproductive liberation at the center of her vision of feminist utopia; "the freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction" was her first revolutionary demand.

Simone de Beauvoir comes close to matching Firestone’s negative view of biological reproduction. A decade earlier, Beauvoir wrote extensively in The Second Sex about the social and psychological complexities of motherhood, but her squeamishness about the female reproductive body is hard to miss. Beauvoir, like Firestone, was frank about having kids: "Notwithstanding all the respect that society surrounds it with, gestation inspires spontaneous repulsion." She characterized the female organism as a natural slave to breeding, and thought that human women were put in the worst position of all: "Woman is of all mammalian females at once the one who is most profoundly alienated… and the one who most violently resists this alienation; in no other is enslavement of the organism to reproduction more imperious or more unwillingly accepted."

Beauvoir acknowledged the potential for personal gratification through motherhood, but only fleetingly. Mainly, she viewed childbearing as an existentially dubious practice, and one that was embedded in patriarchy. Having children was forgivable and maybe tolerable, but it certainly wasn't the key to feminist salvation. She said, "It is a mystification to maintain that woman becomes man’s equal through motherhood… There has been an enormous amount of talk about the sacred rights of women, but being a mother is not how women gained the right to vote; the unwed mother is still scorned; it is only in marriage that motherhood is glorified—in other words, as long as she is subordinate to the husband." For Beauvoir, motherhood was still institutionally tied to marriage, and marriage was still the cornerstone of patriarchy.

Firestone and Beauvoir both offer rigorous condemnations of biological reproduction, but radical-cultural feminists saw things differently. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich sharply criticized Firestone for "discard[ing] biological motherhood from this shallow and unexamined point of view, without taking full account of what the experience of biological pregnancy might be in a wholly different political and emotional context." Rich argued that motherhood has to be understood as a complex interrelationship of power and powerlessness, and so viewing reproduction as exclusively oppressive was small-minded. Rich noted, "If female biology was ever a source of power, it need not remain what it has since become: a root of powerlessness." For Rich, biological motherhood was not inherently negative, but instead had been warped and degraded by patriarchy. One of feminism’s crucial goals was to rediscover and reshape maternal power, in its most positive and progressive sense.

Andrea Dworkin, perhaps the most notorious of the radical-cultural theorists, took a characteristically dark view of where reproduction was headed. She saw reproductive technology as "the misogyny of the future" and a harbinger of "the coming gynocide." According to Dworkin, artificial reproduction wouldn’t liberate women from patriarchy because in spite of those innovations, "male control of reproduction will stay what it is; the hatred of women will stay what it is; what will change will be the means." If women were to allow reproduction to become fully co-opted by patriarchal reproductive technology, then "reproduction will become the kind of commodity that sex is now."

But reproductive commodification would be only the beginning. For Dworkin, giving up biological control over childbirth risks actual extermination: "Once women are biologically expendable on a grand scale, political women need not be tolerated on any scale." Dworkin’s visions of holocaust and annihilation are over the top, but beneath her morbid rhetoric she seems to be asking whether and how political femaleness can survive its own obsolescence in the face of reproductive technology, which she predicts to be more degrading than it is liberating. She reminds us, with chilling simplicity, that when it comes to how women are treated, "We know what men can do."

We can see that the question of motherhood has been a major site of controversy in the radical-feminist tradition. But in truth, it’s even more complicated than that. The above discussion has been limited in scope, and shouldn’t be taken as exclusive of other perspectives, including those offered by transfeminism and women of color.

At the level of intersectional difference and detail, it’s easy to lose sight of feminist commonalities. But if we’re to move in the opposite direction and extrapolate back to generalities, we come back to the question of politics and privacy.

The personal is political, the second-wave activists taught, but under patriarchal conditions the politicization of the personal can backfire. Writing in 2000, Kate Millett touched on this in her introduction to an updated edition of Sexual Politics. On the one hand, advances in reproductive science come at the perfect time: just as the feminist movement is achieving key political victories, medical technology has arrived to seal the deal. But as things currently stand, “control over [reproductive technology] is in the hands of a male scientific establishment increasingly driven by corporate profit and Western class interests. Why not wombs rented from the poor for the rich?" she asked, anticipating the commercial surrogacy that’s already a reality for many poor women. The question, then, might have less to do with personal values than political ones. Millett asks, "What uses may be made of the new biology, by whom, and for what ends?"

And so it seems that before technology can point the way toward a Firestone-Piercy utopia, the left must work hard to redefine traditional political coordinates associated with autonomy, privacy, choice, and reproduction. The American right and left are understood to disagree on the state’s role vis-à-vis reproduction, but the disagreement is more about how, not whether, the state should participate in regulating, controlling, and supporting social reproduction. Both sides favor one type of state action while opposing others.

Conservatives fear state intervention in childrearing, spooked by images of gulag kindergartens and test-tube babies. Yet those same conservatives wield the state apparatus to obstruct and erode women’s access to abortion services, contraception, and sex education. Progressives oppose governmental restrictions on individual reproductive autonomy, while simultaneously pushing for greater state investment in family planning, promoting the widespread availability of contraception, and social welfare programs designed to benefit single mothers and children.

Reading these commonplace positions against one another, we can see that the traditional public-private distinction doesn’t hold up when it comes to the politics of reproduction; both right and left political orientations are happy to say what goes when it comes to reproduction, each promoting state regulation, support, and control, even as such intrusions stoke intense anxieties in the opposition.

Such striking ambivalence in American political culture forces us to confront the extent to which we’re comfortable with politicization of the supposedly private sphere of family, and whether we’re ready to adopt truly progressive attitudes toward social reproduction. In other words, the left should realize, remember, and emphasize that being pro-choice is a necessary condition for progress, but not a sufficient one. Ultimately, it might not be family values, but political economy, that will represent the biggest barrier to reforming social reproduction.

The third and final part of this series will explore the pained relationship between capitalism and social reproduction.

—Follow Tom Syverson on Twitter: @syvology


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