March 11, 2015

In The Motherhood Trenches: Why mothers need feminism

I recently read a critique of feminism that I hadn't experienced before. This isn't a wholly unusual experience; I may be rabid about it, but I'm not experienced. I'm a brand new, bright and shiny feminist. Kind of.

In the time that I've laid claim to the label and started reading about feminism, I have seen many thoughtful critiques of it. I like to think that along this journey I'll add my own. And there are so many valid criticisms, sometimes it's hard to know where to start. Sometimes they are from points of view I relate to--like working women--but often times, they are from points of view that I have not experienced personally--like women of color and transgendered individuals. As I read and reflect on these criticisms, I adjust and change my own feminism.

So what was the criticism that I hadn't seen? The idea that modern feminism isn't working for mothers.

It absolutely floored me.

After all, one of the founding faces of feminism in the US was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a mother of seven children. Margaret Sanger, arguably the face of the contraception movement in the US, was so committed because she felt repeated pregnancies had left her mother too weak to fight off disease--she did it, in other words, for mothers, as well as for women everywhere.

And feminism has done well for mothers, on many fronts--the ability to divorce and still have custody of their children, to name one.

Like any piece of writing, it made me think. As I reflected on it, I couldn't help but enumerate all of the ways in which I see feminism working for mothers everyday.

Wage Equality

This is, perhaps, a buzzword, but it's one that affects a significant number of women.

You'll often encounter pushback against this statistic: it doesn't take into account experience. More women leave the workforce. Etc. Etc.

But when we're looking at wage equality, and we're unpacking those factors, it still remains: Women make less than men--77 cents on the dollar. Women of color tend to fare even worse, with black women earning approximately 64 cents and Latina or Hispanic women earning just 56 cents on the dollar.

There are a lot of reasons for this wage inequality, and it's not as simple as making a law that says, "Pay people the same," although that would be a great start. It also requires us to look at a variety of support structures--paid leave, family friendly workplaces, and valuing work that is viewed as traditionally feminine (often inexplicably, as in the case of teaching, which was at one point a male-dominated field).

Parental Leave

The United States remains the only nation in the developed world without a proper paid parental leave system.

It's important to emphasize parental leave, in my opinion, for two reasons. One, not all people who give birth identify as women. I'm sure we can all remember the "pregnant man" story that made the rounds a few years ago. We often identify birthing as uniquely feminine, and it is in some ways--but we've got to be cognizant, especially when pushing for sweeping social and legal change, that we don't inadvertently ostracize those that can share the experience but do not identify as women.

The second reason parental leave is important is that fathers and partners should be involved, and we as a society should recognize the importance of that. This is no longer the Mad Men era where Dad can sit in the waiting room shooting whiskey and smoking cigars. We know that involved parents are important, and we should emphasize that by creating a system of parental leave that allows parents who give don't give birth to take time to bond with their baby and support the parent that did.

Maternity Leave

Ha ha! You thought I was done! Fooled you! I kid, I kid.

In all seriousness though, we need to reframe maternity leave. This is a medical necessity. A body that has given birth needs time to heal, and yet, many women--usually those working low-income work--simply aren't able to take this time safely, without losing their financial security.

This is not a "perk". It's not a "benefit" that can be included in a package.

It as an absolute, non-negotiable requirement for the health and safety of individuals that give birth. And that is how it should be framed, always.

Contraception Access

The ability to control pregnancies is incredibly important to anyone that is capable of becoming pregnant, including those that are already mothers. Believe it or not, mothers still have fully functioning parts and often, still have a human sex drive, but may not want to conceive again until they are ready (or ever). I know, shocking, right?!

Contraception has health benefits, both from its use and from the ability to time pregnancies. ThinkProgress said this while talking about the importance of the Affordable Care Act's mandatory contraception coverage:

A Harvard Medical School study found that oral contraceptives reduced the risk of ovarian cancer by 10 to 12 percent during the first year of use and by about 50 percent after five years of use. It also prevents significant health risks to women and infants by allowing women and couples to achieve healthy birth intervals and prevent unintended pregnancy. Having too short a gap between pregnancies has been linked to negative health outcomes, like low birth weight, preterm birth, and small size for gestational age. Unintended pregnancy is also linked to several negative outcomes for women and children’s health, including delayed attainment of prenatal care, economic hardships, and relationship problems. Publicly funded contraceptive services have decreased unintended pregnancy among health center clients by as much as 78 percent, studies show.

And yet, oral contraception is obscenely expensive--often prohibitively so for those without insurance coverage.

Abortion Access

A significant number of American women that have an abortion already have at least one child. For these women, access to abortion is important for maintaining their standard of living and providing the best life possible for themselves and their children.

But across the United States, an increasing number of restrictions are being put into place--often with little to no reasonable provocation. We know that abortion is safe. Indeed, it's often safer than pregnancy and childbirth are, and yet, there's a whole slew of interest suddenly in making sure that clinics meet absolutely irrational guidelines for the services that they provide. There's  renewed push to outlaw abortion past a certain number of weeks when these abortions occur in such a small percentage of women. In West Virginia for instance, out of all of the women that will choose to have abortions in a given year, only eight will be past 20 weeks gestation--and yet, this is the top of their legislative agenda. To outlaw a procedure that will be undergone by eight women. Eight.

These restrictions affect women. These restrictions affect mothers.

Affordable Quality Childcare

Childcare is absolutely crucial to feminism. Simone de Beauvoir even touched on the importance in The Second Sex. Without quality childcare that families can afford, parents will have to continue to make decisions about who will work, what work will be done, and who will stay home, and in the world that we live in, that typically manifests as women taking lower paying jobs that have a more flexible schedule or dropping out of the workforce altogether.

It also means parents will have to sacrifice, especially low income parents, because they have to work and don't have access to affordable quality care.

Social Safety Net

In 2014, there were 12 million single-parent families. 83% of those were headed by females.

The Single Mother's Guide breaks down this situation. The median income for these families in 2013 was $ 26, 000, about a third of what a married couple could expect to make. The overall poverty rate was 39.6%, while 51.9% of those were living in extreme poverty--making less than $10, 000 a year for a family of three. 34.4% of these families were "food insecure."

Cuts to our already weak social safety net leave these individuals with little support.


This list is by no means comprehensive. It's a "best of" list, based on my personal priorities as a woman, a mother, and a feminist.

When you look at "mainstream" feminism--which is really whatever feminist concepts make it over into pop culture--you see an obvious disconnect in these areas. The people writing the books that you'll see on an endcap in Barnes and Noble often don't have much experience with the struggles of working women of any stripe, let alone the struggles that are specific to women of color, or to transgendered individuals.

The answer, of course, isn't disengaging from the conversation. It's widening it. It's taking time to make cohesive, logical arguments about why supporting women is important to our society as a whole--because it is. It's absolutely crucial.

Feminism is for all women--and especially for those of us in the motherhood trenches.

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