Saturday, August 15, 2009

Defining Female Empowerment?

The whole battle between the two camps is due to the faiure [sic] of women in the country to fight for real empowerment. They take up an 'easy' cause, child birth and child raising, to fight for with the enemy that does not exist, other women. Rather than fight men for equal pay (the ERA is STILL not ratified in this country!), equal opportunity, fight sexism, fight discrimination, they pick easy 'battles' with no true winners. My partner calls the breast-home birth-epidural-vaccination battles 'Hen Chatter'. No real substance or results. These arguments do nothing to better the lives and livelihoods of women or our daughters. Filled with hystrionics [sic] and personal anecdotes they are just busy work, like darning once was, for women. Keeps the little women busy and from tackling the real fights. Keep it up ladies and we will remain in the 1960's for another half century. Empowering women is not about how you have a baby!

-Ali (excerpt from her comment in response to "Pushing Back: Has the natural childbirth movement gone too far?" by Lisa Selin Davis)
I linked over to Lisa Selin Davis' essay from the Citizens for Midwifery blog. Initially I expected the article itself to get me riled up. But it turned out to be fairly balanced. Just a few painful jabs. Then I started reading the comments. Why do I let myself read the comments? The essay's title is quite fitting, in fact. Except Jennifer Block's title was making reference to the way women as a whole are "pushed" into less than ideal maternity care. This essay refers to the way women "push" each other. And, after reading the comment by "Ali" above, I certainly did feel as though I had been violently shoved to the ground.

My immediate reaction was... I have to write a blogpost! So I opened-up this window, poised to spill my reaction on the blank screen with gusto. But I stopped myself. I knew I needed to take a breather so I could express myself with a level head.

So I folded our (massive) piles of laundry while my husband and kids scrubbed the toilets and cleaned the bathrooms. Then we all put our piles of clothes away. And we put more loads of laundry in the washer. Now, with my sweet babe napping, and my husband getting lunch ready, I think I'm ready to say what's on my mind. I do my best thinking while completing seemingly brainless tasks, I think--showering, housework, etc. Multi-tasking is fun, no?

Here's what I've been thinking about today...

4.3 million births were registered in the United States in 2006 (source). And the vast majority of women worldwide will give birth at some point in their lifetimes. That translates to a mind-boggling number of births. So, in my view, what happens to women in childbirth is an issue that should matter to all women everywhere.

But, of course, we are all in different stages of life. The issues that matter to each of us are usually those most pertinent to our circumstances. I happen to be in my childbearing years. I have spent the past six+ years totally immersed in childbirth and childrearing. That is where my head is. So I am well-versed in the abuses toward women (and babies) occurring within that sphere. On the flip side, most of my female age-mates have spent the last six years in graduate school and the workforce, building their careers. They would be well-versed in the abuses toward women within their spheres.

Doesn't it make sense for all women to work within their own spheres of influence? What good would I do championing the cause of females in the corporate world if I have absolutely no idea what it's like to be in their shoes? What good does it do for any woman to say, in essence, "What matters to you is meaningless! My crusade is so much better than yours!" It reminds me of the similar sentiment that my work as a "stay-at-home" mother is menial or pointless, or that my career choice is somehow harming the progress of womankind. It is attitudes such as these that have led me to eschew the "feminist" label.

"Ali" accuses me and other birth advocates of fighting with "the enemy that does not exist, other women." But what has she just done? Is she not attacking me and women like me? I have always tried to make it clear that I do what I do to educate, inspire, and empower other women. Not ever to attack them. And, yes, I said empower.

Let's talk about empowerment. I can't tell you how many times I've heard women say, following the birth of their child, "That was the most empowering experience of my life!" I would love to see the day that childbirth is empowering for every woman, and never disempowering, as it is for too many. "Ali" may not be aware just yet, but women across the country are abused daily by their maternity care providers (many of them males). Can't we agree that needs to change?

Women can be empowered in a multitude of ways. Having a salary equivalent to a male executive is only one of them. Shouldn't "feminism" be about what matters to all women, not just about what matters to one small niche of them? Who is Ali to decide what ought to be empowering to other women? Aren't we all entitled to decide that for ourselves?

The fact of the matter is that the childbirth experience is a huge, often life-changing rite of passage for women. And what happens during that special experience matters deeply to many women, and rightly so. How does it harm the progress of womankind for us childbirth advocates to focus our efforts on maximizing the empowerment of that pivotal, life-changing experience? Can "Ali" and her partner really believe these issues are "hen chatter" or "histrionics"? Or that our efforts "do nothing to better the lives and livelihoods of women or our daughters." It is, in large part, because of my love for my daughters that I continue my crusade.

Furthermore, I happen to believe that darning is a valuable lost art--one I very much wish I had. Oh how many hole-filled socks I could have made wearable again!

So, "Ali" wants to get women away from their "needlework" and out fighting the "real fights" in the feminist agenda. I'm glad there are women like her fighting for equality in their realm of experience. But if you imagine all of womankind as a whole, perched on a tabletop, doesn't it make sense that we can't just raise one corner? Shouldn't we all "stand close together and lift where we stand" and improve every aspect of women's lives simultaneously, each exerting our efforts in the areas most suited to us? You work over there, I'll work over here, and together we'll all make a difference? Isn't that how it should be?


Bridget said...

Hi, I'm Liz's friend from college and I can't believe I didn't know about your blog before. I read a bunch of your posts yesterday and today and they are fabulous! I also read your birth stories. Beautiful. I just wanted to chime in here and say that YES, giving birth (in my specific case, with my second child, naturally) was THE most empowering thing I've ever done.

I am dumbfounded by Ali's comment. I don't even know where to start. I will only say that in my case, at least, learning more about what should be my rights during birth made me a "winner." And that I think there is hardly any better way to feel empowered as a woman than to have a baby in a respectful environment, wherever/with whomever that is.

Carry on!

Lara Eppley said...

I COMPLETELY agree! Empowering women, as a whole, is about helping women to be able to do what they want to do (in whatever area they choose), without somebody else (male or otherwise) telling them what to do. I like your comparison of the table top. We should all be working together, for the benefit of all women! I loved the points you made. I second the motion to "Carry on!"

Faithful Lurker said...

I completely agree with you. I often wonder why the feminist movement doesn't include treating women equally and with respect in EVERY aspect of our function, ESPECIALLY childbirth. It is the only thing we are completely alone in as women but we continue to let ourselves be bullied by male OB's, lawmakers, etc. It just irritates me.

Why can't we inspire each other and help other women realize the power of their creation and their divine ability?? It isn't a fight WITH each other, it is a fight FOR each other to help each other be stronger.

Just my two cents. Great post btw.

missy. said...

It seems to me that Ali has misread the purpose of feminism in many ways. The point--the definition--of feminism is to promote equality and equity for women, and to give women voices where they have historically or recently not been heard. This is reflected in a wide range of issues. Every feminist is going to have certain issues that resonate more deeply for her/him, based on their personal histories and beliefs, and I think that many self-proclaimed feminists will acknowledge birth care issues as an important component of the reproductive issues that we all struggle with.

I, for one, think that we are talking about perfect examples of the sorts of issues that feminists are concerned with. The story of how wise women (midwives) were gradually ejected from their seat of power by the developing male medical establishment? An ideal arena for feminist critique. The story of how pregnant/laboring women are routinely dismissed as being hysterical and irrational if they try to stand up for themselves in male-dominated hospital settings? Likewise. The story of how breastfeeding has been undermined by unethical corporate practices, to the point where many women in less-developed countries have watched their babies die of malnutrition after being handed misinformation about the ideal way to feed babies? Let me at 'em.

I've long believed that pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding are feminist issues that affect the majority of the world's women at some point in their lives...and belittling these huge issues (dismissing them as "hen chatter") mostly just strikes me as naive. This discussion is partly about empowering women... but it's also about preserving women's health (and babies' health), promoting women's education, supporting women's self-determination, and engaging in best practices because they are best for WOMEN.

Buscando la Luz said...

I love all your comments, ladies! Keep 'em coming!

Bridget said...

Faithful Lurker mentions the other factor I was thinking about - I don't know where this Ali person is, but in my experience, feminists have yet to take on this last great battle. It is so easy to quiet us with the "whatever gets me a healthy baby" line. Who can argue with that? But I just feel like it is possible to have a healthy baby AND a healthy mom, all wrapped up in a beautiful birth experience.

I would love to see the really motivated, with-it feminists (or whoever) take on the issue of getting women informed about their birth options.

Melody said...

Reading Ali's comment made my blood boil, and then your articulate reply was like a breath of fresh air. Thank you for taking the time to think it through and then to come up with a reply that was not just spiteful and vindictive, but thoughtful and compassionate. You are an amazing lady! Thanks for inspiring us to be better and kinder, as well as proud of our accomplishments in our own spheres.

I desperately hope you entered this essay, or at least part of it, as a comment on that article.

Sarah H said...

Very well said! Love all the comments too.

Fig said...

I read Ali's quote backwards (because I'm smart like that) and so got really confused. Like I thought she was on the natural birth side, mad at the women who demand epidurals and/or C-sections. Sorry, I'm not so good with the keeping up lately. :-)

Anyway, I think you should submit this essay somewhere. It's fabulous, and I couldn't agree more. And as you know, I get really sick of women who claim to be feminists tearing each other down. Not cool.