Saturday, March 6, 2010

Re-post: Defining Female Empowerment

The feminism chatter on CJane's blog has got my head spinning. Now I'm all befuddled and not really sure where I stand, but it brought my mind back to this post from last August, so here it is again in case you missed it...
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?


Liz Johnson said...

Holy moly re: the comments on CJane's post. I read like 20 of them and my head was spinning. That said, since I'm 391 on her comment list (and nobody will ever read it), here are my thoughts on feminism (that you might already know):

"I would love to read all 372 comments, but I can't. That said, I don't understand why different can't simultaneously be equal.


Equal sums of different parts. That's how I see men and women. And I proudly self-identify as a feminist, for what it's worth."

Also, I agree that the biggest focus of feminism should be empowering women. Not fighting against, but empowering. And more often than not, "birth activists" are fighting against an establishment that has led to the subjugation of women and their agency, not against the women themselves.

Uppity Woman said...

This, too, has been on my mind quite a bit and I really identify with your perspective and your thoughts. I find it ironic in many ways that oftentimes people who identify themselves as feminists seemingly ignore the abuses you mentioned, or don't believe that issues related to childbirth are relevant somehow. What is even more ironic is that there are also people who abhor the title of "feminist," or just feminism in general, and want nothing to do it, including the "feminist" component of childbirth and breastfeeding activism.

It sometimes seems that those of us who are in the arena of childbirth activism are on our own. The feminists don't want us. The anti-feminists don't want us. 85% of women in America will give birth in their lifetime, but it's not relevant? Go figure.

Tianna said...

I find it interesting that the one thing women can do that men are physically incapable of doing, giving birth, is the one thing that stereotypical feminists disregard. Apparently they are so caught up with becoming men … err… becoming like men that they forget that we are special in our own right.

Why do we fight to become people that God did not create us to be? Why do women yearn so much to be exactly like men? Can't they see that God created our bodies different than men and thus, perhaps, we are meant to live differently as well? Why can't we take this beautiful gift that we have been given and accept it as just that. A gift. Women, accept the fact that we are special. We are empowered with a gift that no man could ever have. Embrace it!

Augusta said...

I've always felt so irked when "feminists" like Ali spout off things like this. I think you're probably right--they know about the injustices in their realm. By default (in some respects), I think they are UNfamiliar with the injustices that occur in OUR realm. I think that if women like Ali really knew that what some birth professionals put women through during their birth experiences, they'd be steaming mad. Just as I didn't understand how hard it is to be a mother and a SAHM until I was one, perhaps Ali and women like her simply don't understand our experience and frame of reference.

And I would hardly call women speaking out and fighting against forced C-sections and other issues we face on a daily basis(hello? Bodily integrity issues? Genital mutilations that are still happening in our very own country with the complicity of a patriarchal medical establishment?) unimportant or unworthy. I hear SO MANY stories from women whose bodies, minds and hearts were broken from their birth experiences. Fighting to stop that seems like a VERY worthy cause.

And she is also uninformed about who we fight for/against. I'd say that protesting women having coerced c-sections or legal threats issued against them for not "complying" is benefitting women, not fighting them.

Great post!

Heatherlady said...

Really wonderful post Lani. I LOVE how you likened the "lifting where you stand" analogy given to the priesthood to the women. I think that is SO important. I think that one of things that is most dangerous about all these different Feminist battles is that they tear women apart when we really need to be unified.

Speaking as a self-identified feminist and a woman who has struggled with feminist issues her whole life I can see where these women are coming from. Yet for me the most eternal and empowering truths about what it means to be a woman and about how relations can be between men and women have come when I focus on the family-- on the partnership between men and women-- and not just on women or just on men. Birth is one of the biggest steps in that partnership and empowers it more than anything. Birth and family are not just "hen chatter" they are EVERYTHING and if the other feminists don't see it that way they are missing the big picture.

emily said...

hey, i haven't gotten into reading the feminist comments section yet, but i just had to let you know about this cool article on nytimes right now. it's about the low rates of c-section and high vbac rates at native american hospitals:


OrganicMama said...

Well spoken. OM