I’m having a lengthy and deep conversation on feminism with a friend on another blog (will share the link when we’re further along) and found to my surprise that I had used the term “women’s liberation.” I haven’t really heard that since the 1980s. Honestly, I thought feminism was past it. Aren’t we in the fourth wave or something like that?
Women, as a group, have not yet liberated ourselves, and that has much to do with childbearing and childrearing. Start with the very beginning: conception. Our technology gave women the ability to postpone or prevent it – birth control. That was huge. It changed gender. It gave women of childbearing age the ability to function socially, economically, and culturally like men. But from the beginning, legislators passed laws prohibiting this new technology from being used. (See the Comstock Laws.) Women are still fighting for the right to access birth control and this means that some women are prevented from choosing whether or not to have babies. The phenomenon of rape makes this even more true.
So even if we didn’t choose to give birth, we find ourselves suddenly presented with the all-consuming and unpaid job of caring for a baby.
We can give our children up for adoption, but to suddenly lose a human being that has been a part of your body for nine months, not knowing whether that human being will flourish, is a hard choice. A woman who does this is at risk from suffering long-term physical, psychological, and social repercussions. (Here’s a 1999 review of the research, mostly from the era of closed adoptions. Apparently more recent research, including open adoptions, is scarce.)
For those of us who keep our babies, we are presumed by our current Western patriarchal culture to have primary responsibility for caregiving. Feminism has changed that, to some extent. Men can and do share caregiving responsibilities. Did you know that even men can nurse, by the way? All men can nurse for comfort, and some can lactate. A man can mother every bit as well as a woman. But we don’t call men “mothers,” and why? The overall cultural assumption is that only women can mother.
Meanwhile, feminism didn’t change a more fundamental problem: in an economy that depends on the exchange of labor for a wage, and requires money to carry out normal life activities, the job of caregiving of children doesn’t come with a wage. This set mothers up for economic dependence, or, in other words, a lack of liberation.
The phenomenon of men as primary caregivers doesn’t change this fundamental reality. It only extends this economic dependence to a new group of people. The only way we could really be liberated from caregiving-specific economic exploitation is if the entire community took on the responsibility of bringing up our children. But the U.S. has really gone backward in this area–cutting funding for education, using “stranger danger” to restrict children to the home, and prolonging adolescence. Where are all the kids you used to see playing in the streets? (There’s a whole movement in opposition to this, BTW.)
Our role as primary caregiver, combined with economic exploitation, means that a woman is left largely alone to take on the multi-year, 24-hour-a-day responsibility to bring up the child. If we have money, we can pay somebody to do it part of the time. But that just means we can use economic privilege as a workaround, to avoid some of the consequences of our exploitation. If we are living in a relationship with equals, our partner can help care for the child. Since one or both partners end up needing to be in the paid workforce, though, that just spreads the exploitation to two people. And for the many women who are still following the model in which the wife obeys the husband, we’re just back to women being economically dependent on men.
All in all, there are plenty of women without access to money or social supports, and for these women, having a baby puts them in a position where all their options are bad. Marry someone who might be abusive and controlling? Give up the baby, abandoning it to who knows what fate? Keep the baby, but work long hours in addition to the 24-hour-a-day job of caring for a baby? Many women will put up with slavery-like conditions to make sure our children are O.K. We are not liberated.
If women require money to be liberated, and not all women have money, women as a group are not liberated. Women’s liberation is an ongoing struggle.
(Don’t get me wrong, by the way–I am not saying women’s liberation is the only struggle. See my post on collective liberation.)
What about women who are not mothers? Let’s divide them into two groups: fertile and infertile. The phenomenon of rape, combined with legislation that prevents women from accessing contraception or abortion, means that a man can convert a fertile woman into a mother without her consent. Any fertile woman at any time, could potentially lose her liberty through no action of her own. In such a case, can any fertile woman be considered free? Our liberation is provisional. Many women can solidify this provisional liberation into real liberation, but again, in society as we have currently set it up, that requires economic privilege.
What about women who are infertile? (Girls, women on reliable birth control, post-menopausal women, male-bodied women, and so forth?) Are they liberated now that women can hold jobs, vote, and generally participate in what used to be considered a man’s domain? Or does a lack of liberation for fertile women bleed over and affect infertile women too? After all, there’s no clear visible difference between women who are fertile and women who are not. The decreased social status conferred on one group will indeed spill over to another. Social oppression goes hand-in-hand with economic exploitation.
Women’s liberation has yet to be achieved.
So what should we do? Keep on keepin’ on.