Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rethinking the Feminist Position on Choice

While doing some research on freshmen trends for a class I teach, I ran across a 40 year trending report published by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program [CIRP], a project of the Higher Education Research Institute out of UCLA.  CIRP surveys 300,000 incoming freshmen annually, at over 600 colleges and universities nationwide.  

Buried among much fascinating data I found a graph depicting the shift in student views on abortion.  The question asked was a simple yes or no question, "Should abortion be legal?"  It was not confounded by nuances like health of the mother, pregnancy as the result of rape, number of weeks to viability, parental consent or issues of the various medical procedures.

There's a myth among women of my and my mother's generation - the generations that actively fought for women's rights, including control over one's own reproductive system:  today's women - the GenX and GenY women - don't get involved in the issue of choice because they perceive the matter as settled.  Such a belief, if true, would indicate that most women are comfortable and have acclimated themselves to the existence of an abortion option.

This chart belies that belief.  

Just for grins, I decided to see what today's women are talking about.  What I found surprised me - putting aside altogether the arguments of the religious right - two opposing but feminist positions.  I'm going to lay them out and then posit that we need to dialogue ourselves to a third, more equitable position.

The first, the one I am most familiar with, was the one rung out with the full feminist furry of my generation, the pro-choice position: 

A woman's ability to exercise her full citizenship rights requires her to be able to determine when and if she wants to have children.  Anything less relegates her - without choice - to the kitchen.

The other, more current, opposing feminist, pro-life perspective: 

The idea that women need the option of abortion in order to participate fully in society outside the home in fact is dictated by a male-centered world view that values commerce more than motherhood.  

To speak the pro-choice position another way, if women are to be valued in the workplace, we must free ourselves of the women's work of motherhood that splits our loyalties between our children and our jobs, freeing us to work with as singular a purpose as any male toward society's goals, whatever they be.  

To speak the pro-Iife position another way, if, to be rewarded with opportunity and money like men in a man's world, we perceive the need to give up or perhaps put aside - for now? for ever?  - the very thing that makes us uniquely women - the ability to carry children - then abortion is a solution that accommodates a male-dominated - not a feminist - view of the world

I find I am strongly drawn to the rationale of the latter view, while yet denying that the right solution is the outlaw of choice.  I prefer a third viewpoint, "reproductive justice," that emerged first from the Black Women's caucus in 1994, and has since been put into succinct language by an organization called the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice:

"Reproductive  justice  exists when  all people  have  the economic,  social  and  political  power,  and  resources  to  make  healthy decisions  about  our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves,  our families,  and our  communities."   

SisterSong, a reproductive justice movement (and much more), illuminates this idea, 

"Human rights provide more possibilities for our struggles than the privacy concepts the pro-choice movement claims only using the U.S. Constitution. Reproductive justice emerged as an intersectional theory highlighting the lived experience of reproductive oppression in communities of color. It represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power."

For me, this perspective makes sense for all women, regardless of skin color.  The good fight for the right to make choices about my own reproductive path still has to be made in the court system, of course.  But in a way, my generation's perspective was one deeply embedded in the male world view - one in which we felt the path to success was paved by the opportunity to put aside child-rearing in order to do what - they - men - were doing.  Still, that left us with gut-wrenching choices about parenting versus getting ahead.

As I reread my own writing, I am bothered by the mere fact that I identify the possibility of "getting ahead" as an alternative to parenting.

My friends and I experienced these choices repeatedly and painfully.  Some could afford nannies but still anguished over what they missed.  Most, including me, couldn't afford or didn't want a nanny to sub for us.  We used day care, or worked part time, regardless of the loss of income.  

Personally, I wrestled with it the best I could.  I hurried a wedding and put off law school when I discovered I was pregnant.  By the time I got to law school, I was single again.  I took only those classes that did not interfere with my children's school schedules.  I took a reduction in pay at my first job in exchange for the guilt-free freedom to come and go for my children's assorted needs, even though I put in as many hours as everyone else in my firm - many of those hours from home, after my girls slept.   Later, I slowed and eventually put my practice aside - gave away excellent clients - to care for my adolescent children when their lives got complicated and they needed me.  

Their father never saw any of this as his role.   Today, like many, many women, my lifetime earnings, my career path, my current work are all impacted by the choices I made.  Their father's earnings, career path and current work were not impacted by parenting obligations.

This is wrong-headed and oh, so short-sighted.  Bearing children is the path of survival for our species, and women are uniquely gifted with the ability to bear our future.  Yet, society has not figured out a way to reduce the conflict between bearing and caring for children, and taking an active, participatory monetarily rewarded role in the workforce, in policy-making, in communal and national leadership.  

It's a good thing baby-making is an instinctive urge, because if more and more women simply shook the urge in order to have what men have, society would eventually wither away.

There are those who will read this and cry foul.  They will say that they've managed to have brilliant careers and feel very good about their parenting too.  And I applaud all of you who've managed that.  But the numbers belay.  Click this sentence to read a study that shows women's but not men's income is negatively impacted by childbirth.  Click this sentence to read a study that shows the lifetime earnings gap between men and women continues despite the progressively larger number of female entrants into many fields.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm still all for choice.  I'm simply saying, we need to rethink the rationale we've accepted for needing choice, and work toward a system of commerce that embraces true choice - the choice that rewards women for being vibrant, active, fully rewarded societal participants, with or without children.   

No comments:

Post a Comment