Some food for thought for feminists.
On a superficial level, it’s hard to take seriously anything the “reproductive-rights” crowd says about wars on women, contraceptive access or abortion. The rhetoric on these subjects has become so hysterical and mendacious that we spend most of our time simply trying to clear up misconceptions. There’s been a flurry of that this week, after the Supreme Court decreed that the family-owned craft store, Hobby Lobby, should not be required to provide abortifacients to their employees through their health coverage plans. (No, Hobby Lobby doesn’t exclude contraceptives from their plan altogether. No, they don’t force their female employees to share their religious views. No, covert right-wing operatives are not coming to snatch women’s 28-day packs out of their grasping fingers.)
Far-left secularists can be a little surly in the throes of cultural victory. As Ross Douthat astutely explains, it’s disappointing for them to find that their political triumphs in Congress have been squashed by the Supreme Court. Still, there are explicable reasons why the contraceptive topic brings out craziness. They are convinced that contraceptives and abortion are a necessity if women are to occupy the place in society equal to men.
There’s a brutal logic to it. In the modern world, respect and status go hand in hand with earning power and professional success. If women are bearing children through their promotional years, this will impose enormous responsibilities on them, making it exceedingly difficult for them to stand equal to men in a competitive workforce. The only solution is to relieve them of the burdens associated with maternity. Leveling the playing field requires us to relieve women of their reproductive handicap.
There are quite a number of problems with this scheme. First of all, a society must have children if it is to continue. Some people even want them. When societies encourage women to delay or forego childbearing for the sake of careers, families get smaller and less numerous, and eventually workforces start to thin as populations age. Some Western countries have now contracepted their way into serious demographic decline.
For women themselves, the situation is complicated, and most of the obvious solutions turn out to be excessively simple. On the one hand, it isn’t reasonable simply to inform women that they must find their joy must in hearth and home, and forego the benefits of professional accomplishment. There are goods to be gained through rarified specialization, and one thing the modern world has made clear is that women, like men, can find satisfaction in these opportunities. Women can also have talents that are genuinely valuable to employers and to society. On an economic front we have something to gain from capturing these.
It isn’t enough, therefore, to decree by fiat that women need not pursue professions, and that motherhood is their “full time job”. In a society that values rarified excellence and professional specialization, women will feel some attraction to that, which is not evil in itself.
At the same time, it could not be more evident at this point that there are consequences, not merely, but especially, for women themselves. However aggressively they apply their modern tools of contraception, abortion and artificial fertility treatments, modern physicians still cannot give their patients everything that they want fertility-wise. Modern women still become pregnant when they do not wish to be, and fail to become pregnant even when a child is their most fervent desire. Abortion has emotional consequences that women do not expect, and more aggressive fertility measures (such as IVF) all come with side effects and risks and, of course, a very steep price tag. Even apart from the moral concerns, there are very serious reasons to be dubious about these practices.
How many women feel that they are free to live contraceptive-free, if that’s their preference? This is a question that should be posed more frequently than it is. My anecdotal experience suggests that most women, even if they have some interest in giving up contraceptives, feel that this is an overwhelming, well-nigh impossible step. Their husbands (or boyfriends) won’t want to shoulder their share of the responsibility and discipline. Their bosses will be upset with them if they have too many children. Their friends and extended family will view them as reactionary nutcases.
Is it fair to subject women to invasive, risky treatments and to bombard them with mood-altering hormones, all to fulfill the expectations of their employers or their men? Doesn’t this seem like the sort of thing that should anger feminists and Marxists and promoters of all things organic and natural? Progressives love to talk about “my body, my choice,” but don’t seem interested in defending the choice to embrace one’s body for what it naturally is.
What if we approached this problem from the other direction? Suppose we saw it as a good thing to be the sort of person who can bring new life into the world. Imagine we taught girls to see their wombs as a feature, not a bug, of femininity.
What other social changes might accompany this paradigm shift? Men would have to take their “sexual partners” more seriously. When a man sees a woman as the possible mother of his children, he is far less likely to treat her as a sexual plaything. Employers and communities would come to have more respect for mothers, including those with the audacity to be highly fecund. No more would “breeder” be tossed around as an epithet for women with large families.
With that positive view of femininity established, we could turn our attention to the continued desire many women will have for rarified excellence and professional specialization. I am not suggesting that there are any neat or easy solutions that will enable childbearing women to have identical professional prospects to men or childless people. We should let go of the idea that it is possible for women (or men, or anyone) to “have it all.” But it is perfectly possible for us to embrace with seriousness the goal of honoring women’s natural thirst for personal excellence and accomplishment in ways that are consistent with her natural fecundity.
I think it’s very possible that this “priority reversal” could make for a world that is better, not just for society, but for women in particular. Perhaps someone should pose this as food for thought for liberal feminists.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.