Monday, June 16, 2008

Choice, feminism, failure

Going through my email inbox this morning, I opened my e-zine message from Literary Mama, a website and web-zine I've come to enjoy (and will continue to enjoy, despite the grumpy pronouncements that are to follow).  These emails often start with a quotation from a famous woman.  Margaret Sanger, a person to whom I don't have any necessary objections, was featured: 

"No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."

Let me be excruciatingly clear: I am not part of the political pro-life movement.  I am not a political conservative.  In fact, I am so far left that you could say I have socialist tendencies.  

But I have a major issue with statements such as that by Margaret Sanger, above.  Why, you may ask, with good reason.  Well, let me tell you.  

Allowing women access to safe and legal birth control as well as safe and legal abortion is only a first step toward assuring women reproductive rights and social equality.  I understand that society is rather awkwardly "stuck" on that step and that it continues to be a matter of more than just contentious debate.  

But, look, "choice" is a chimera as just about anyone who's been through devastating life events will tell you.  We all operate on a daily basis as though we can make clear and definitive choices that will assure us of certain outcomes and guarantee our spot as one of the 'elect.'  Running through the American subconscious, left, right, and center, is a strand of thinking that wants to ignore the effects of chance, good or bad fortune, density of competition, and timing on achievements and failures.  We want to believe that, in an absolute sense, we earned or deserved everything that we accomplished or failed to accomplish, and that factors beyond our control had nothing to do with our relative successes or failures.  We want to believe that we are special, one of the elect, and that someone/something out there recognized that fact, saw our effort, and rewarded it.  Or we are sure we are Emily Dickinson and one day, it won't just be the divine presence that sees how wonderful we are!

I'm not saying that hard work, effort, and casting a wide net in the pursuit of opportunity and its attached rewards is a waste of time.  Of course not.  But there's a balance struck among hard work, luck/timing, the relative nature of competition, and the nature of success or failure.  And I'm not saying that the successful do not deserve their successes.  But there's a difference between recognizing how many factors both within and outside of personal control play in success, and participating in a common American attitude that the baby boomer generation has taken to new heights, that only the deserving experience success.

Yes, I'm referring to Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  I read this about 20+ years ago during a sociology course at Middlebury that focused on only three works by three authors: Marx, Weber, and Durkheim (Suicide, which is a study of groups and the parameters that modify and guide group action and thought).  I found my copy of Weber's book in March when I was home in VT and my mother was urging me to take whatever belonged to me that I could fit in my car and get it out of her house.

Despite the feeling as I took this sociology course that I wasn't sure I really understood everything that was going on, Weber makes the point that the Puritans (by way of the Calvinists) understood that only God grants individuals earthly success, that that success is a predictor of heavenly favor and admission to paradise, that none of us know whether we are one of the elect for certain, but that we can be pretty sure that if we are granted earthly success and riches, we're going to get waved through the pearly gates when we die.  God has anointed some of us the 'deserving.'

Maybe it's just because I grew up in New England, but I read a lot of this into the way the pro-choice movement has played out among women.  While Sanger is morally and ethically correct that women should be granted some control over their reproductive destiny (I say "some" because I don't think individuals have ultimate control over all of the events of which a life is composed), conscious choice is only a small part of the dilemma presented by motherhood.

For example, you can't just "choose" to be a mother and have your body cooperate, as the thousands of women who experience infertility will tell you.  And, despite vehement arguments I've seen on various listservs over time, you cannot always choose when or under what circumstances you will become pregnant.  Some people are lucky to be able to time pregnancies that cooperate with employment contingencies, some are not.  Some may luck out with the proposed timing of birth and maternity leave, others may find a carefully 'planned' pregnancy and correlative benefits disappear with a mid-term miscarriage or the necessity for long-term bed rest.  

"Choice" rhetoric also puts those women who find themselves pregnant unexpectedly and who are, on at least an individual moral level, unwilling to abort, in a big friggin' mess (as we might say in Vermont).  Women who give birth prematurely and whose children have disabilities, or women whose children are born with disabilities or develop them for one reason or another, or women who have moral qualms about aborting a fetus with known disabilities are all ripped off emotionally in the context of "choice" rhetoric.  

While various people will give lip service to the reality that none of us "choose" to have a child with problems, I always sense the idea lurking in the background that, well, we "chose" to be mothers.  That being an individual and personal choice, we have to live with the consequences.  That is, women only have a right to personal autonomy up until they cross the threshold of motherhood--you can see this at work in all of the studies that show how much differently society and the work force respond to the needs of male and female parents.  

And this is where feminism fails, if you ask me.  If all feminism can say to me about the limits imposed by chance on my life as a mother and the failings of the social safety net is, hey, honey, we're too busy preserving the rights of women who don't want to be mothers to fight for you, and, by the way, sweetie, you had a choice, ya just didn't take it--then that's a problem for me.  Because that smacks of Weber's observations about the original Jesus freaks, John Knox and the Calvinists, that maybe the powers that be just don't see me as deserving or that my misfortune is a sign of my inferiority.  

And the pro-choice movement is up in arms about pro-lifers who fail to see a distinction between church and state, while millions of other people who support "choice" participate subconsciously in a deeply ingrained, highly American strand of thinking that is tied directly to religion.

One of the most significant problems with feminism today is the use of the heavily freighted word "choice" to describe and evaluate the condition and circumstances of motherhood for millions of women.  Yes, women should have access to birth control and abortion, but motherhood should not be used to create a two-tier society among American women: those who "choose" to be mothers (the assumption being their choice exactly coincides with their expectations and that they willingly acknowledge they will accept the consequences, no matter how dire, unexpected, or life-limiting) and those who "choose" not to be mothers and are, therefore, entitled to the same freedoms as a man.  If women who have children are some third category of people in the gender wars who are not naturally entitled to the same opportunities and rights as a man, that should be a problem for feminists.   

1 comment:

Special Needs Mama said...

I personally think that feminism has been seriously derailed by the choice issue (and, frankly that they have been baited into being derailed by the religious right--NARAL and Planned Parenthood and everyone else couldn't just stand aside and let the anti-abortionists keep at it with their awful rhetoric). The real issues affecting women in this country have to do with equal pay for equal work, family and medical leave acts, affordable child care and so on and so on. Thanks for a great rant (!), full of terrific thought provoking insights. Blog on!