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Birth Without Mothers, Feminism Without Women
What we don't talk about when we won't talk about "women."
This week, I’m drawing on an excellent conversation between Emma Green and Louise Melling of the ACLU about the push to talk about “birthing people” rather than “mothers.” On Thursday, I’ll be returning to your conversation about the pressure to make domestic work invisible.
And a piece I’ve been working on for years has just come out from behind the paywall at Reason. I’ve followed the work of the Brooklyn Bail Fund for a long time, and I was shocked when they announced they were ceasing to pay bail. The reason? They felt they’d been incorporated into the carceral system they wanted to dismantle.
I’m very proud of the piece, and I’m grateful that my reporting work sometimes opens the door for me to simply call people up and ask them questions I urgently want to know the answer to.
I really appreciated Emma Green’s interview in the Atlantic with Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, about the push to use words like “birthing person” instead of “mother.”
The pitch is that the language is more inclusive—by removing all mention of gender, no one who is laboring to deliver a baby would feel excluded if they feel uncomfortable being considered a woman or a mother. But, even leaving aside questions about how self-determined gender is, there’s an obvious cost—women tend to make progress by advocating for ourselves as women. A gender-neutral approach usually winds up being a male-dominated approach.
You might think that birth would be a safe exemption, since, however broad the language, the overwhelming majority of people giving birth are women. people giving birth would ever imagine that “mother” isn’t the term that covers them. (This is a fight that is big on twitter, and relatively niche in the real world).
But women’s medicine is marked by misogyny. Maya Dusenbery’s Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick is a chronicle of the ways that women’s conditions are underresearched and women’s pain is often dismissed, not treated.
In hospital births, women have made progress in advocating for labor approaches that put the woman’s needs ahead of the doctor’s convenience, but it is still common for women to be rushed into a C-section for the sake of a shift change. Many women are still asked to push in positions that are hard for them and the baby, but let the doctor sit more comfortably.
I’ve seen enthusiasm for taking womanhood out of delivery, and opposition, but I usually see these conversations happening on separate parts of my twitter feed. I don’t know Green’s personal views, but I really appreciated her asking questions that I’ve been wanted to hear advocates of “birthing person” engage with.
Green: This may be an unwelcome imaginative exercise. But I wonder if you have spent time thinking about why this makes some people on the right so mad. Why do you think people care about this?
Melling: Look, why do people get mad that people marry the person they love? If you want to have a child on your own, why do people get mad? If you fall in love with somebody of another race? I think there may be some people who are confused at first—changes in language have to come with education. But for those prominent politicians, whether it’s on abortion rights or transgender rights or voting rights, there’s clearly an effort to have society be more narrow in imagination and inclusivity.
It’s one thing for Melling to consider the tradeoffs of foregrounding women versus being maximally broad, and to decide that the best approach is inclusivity. But what’s so frustrating here is that she doesn’t consider there to be any tradeoff.
The only objections she imagines come from ignorance or prejudice. There’s no room to think that women need a certain kind of narrowness and specificity in order not to be ignored. Women’s rights are human rights, but if we only talk about human rights, we expect to find women’s particular rights at the bottom of the list or ignored entirely.
A bit further down, she says something I had a little more sympathy for:
One analogy that I think might help is breast cancer. I don’t even remember when I first heard about men who get breast cancer. I will admit: I hadn’t thought about it. The man who has breast cancer has his own fear of the diagnosis. Then he’s going to struggle going into a whole host of places that are gendered. We addressed a gap in care to try and encourage women to come forward and have a community. But we also need to make space so that men with breast cancer can be recognized both by the medical profession and by the rest of us.
I do not want men with breast cancer to be left out of the conversation about treatment and support. But it’s also relevant that 100 women die of breast cancer for every man who dies from it. I don’t want to write off those men, but the best response may be targeted outreach, rather than an inclusivity-through-neutrality approach.
And, even in small things, men and women will have different worries about treatment. A man may be worried about having a woman’s disease, a woman may need to know more about the range of reconstructive options and how to respond to pressure to treat physical evidence of her treatment as embarrassing or unwomanly.
On a much smaller scale, I remember hearing a range of objections to the “Save Second Base” shirts being sold as a breast cancer fundraiser in college. It’s true that tying cancer prevention to canoodling excludes men with breast cancer. But most of us objected because it framed screening as worthwhile for the benefit of men who want to fondle breasts, not for the benefit of saving a woman’s life.
It is hard to imagine women can advocate effectively for ourselves without advocating for ourselves as women. It is even harder to be convinced by pushes for inclusivity that, rather than engage the cost of downplaying “women” as a category, claim there is no tradeoff to be made.
When have you benefited most from being able to build solidarity with other women as women?
How do you approach calls to solidarity on topics that affect women most deeply, but aren’t limited to women?
(With that last, my mind goes to parental leave—I certainly want it for dads, too, but their needs are different than those of moms who are recovering physically from birth, and who may be nursing or pumping long after leave ends.)