December 29, 2010
Last week, my 5 month-old daughter made her theatrical debut as Baby Jesus in our church Christmas pageant. It was a precious happening because all of the other children, ages 3 and up, became serious and silent when they realized a real baby, and not a doll, was at the center of all the commotion. And Ellie – method actress that she is – slept soundly throughout the entire production.
I was Mary. As I sat there before the congregation in an itchy blue shawl with bobby pins pinching my scalp, I listened to the story of Jesus’ birth…or as I’ve learned to think of it: “Mary’s delivery.”
From the Bible’s Gospel according to Luke:
…God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…For no word from God will ever fail.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.
(Oh my! “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”?! Is that an archaic description of rape or what?! All that and she doesn’t even get to choose his name?!) This cannot possibly be accurate. (Smirk.) For starters, if we believe that Mary was indeed a virgin and then mysteriously conceived a child without having sex, it would take a lot more than a seven-sentence conversation to quell any doubts and fears she’d have about her immaculate conception. Luke doesn’t go on to tell us how Mary probably ran straight away to talk to her sisters, female cousins and friends, mother figures and others about her predicament. True to form, she would have analyzed the situation to death and tried to figure out what God Most High was thinking! Every woman would have nodded and smiled reassuringly, but inside thought to herself, “Yeah right…an angel told her that?! What a hussy!” And once the news leaked to Joseph, he and his posse of male relatives and friends would have accosted Mary until she named the father of her unborn as one other than the Lord so they could beat him to a pulp. This quiet acceptance is so…so…final century B.C.!
Additionally, I take issue with the whole virgin-conceives-the-living-god narrative, not unique to Christianity. The idea that sex – for women, at least – is dirty and cannot possibly result in a pure birth forms just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the gritty details we live in denial about – such as where and how the Holy baby comes out of the so-called virgin’s body - form the bulk. It’s easy to shrug off the biological impossibility of this conception. It’s much more difficult to accept our imperfections and our feeble humanity in the face of such grace. Not only is the baby superhuman, Mary must have been superhuman too. (Oh right – she was “highly favored.”)
More from Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
What kind of a birth story is that?! There’s more language in there about a census than there is about Mary’s experience. And what the fuck do Caesar Augustus, Quirin’i-us and David have to do with it?! The words “according to” in gospel according to… are really telling. History has been written primarily by men. And in Mary’s day, this experience of pregnancy and childbirth would have been witnessed by women and its story passed from mother to daughter in an oral tradition. Were there a Gospel according to Oprah, for instance, we might know more truths about the birth of Jesus.
As it is, when I was a child, I listened to this distorted nativity story with no incredulity whatsoever. Joseph brought Mary to Bethlehem on a donkey. He knocked on the door of the inn and was told that there was no room for them inside. So, they went to the stable where she (painlessly) gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Yeah…you try riding on a donkey when you’re nine months pregnant! And there really were no inns; just homes and travellers relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers. A stable? Fine; but note that Joseph would have had little to no knowledge of the female body. That means Mary was on her own. She had no midwife and no sisters to prop her up so that gravity could help her baby travel down and out. How did Joseph know to cut the umbilical cord? Was he put off by all of the blood and shit that comes with baby? And when Jesus had trouble latching to Mary’s breast, who helped her feed him?
Because history has traditionally ignored such details, we’ve lost much: the practice of midwifery has dwindled and even disappeared from certain parts of the world, and the knowledge that women are strong enough to give birth naturally has practically evaporated. And we take the authors’ word for it - or rather their lack of words - that Mary’s delivery was uneventful. There’s nothing about the actual birth of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew: instead, Matthew chooses to focus on how Joseph was able to forgive Mary for whoring about and conceiving a baby behind his back. John and Mark don’t mention the Nativity at all.
So that’s it! That’s all Mary gets. There’s no reverence for the anguish she must have felt – as every woman feels – in the uncertain moments before giving birth to her first baby. When I had my moment of “great doubt,” I was 9 centimeters dilated and just about to begin pushing. It was then that I asked for pain medication and was encouraged to continue without by my doula. Mary had the relief of no such science, and the assistance of no such saint.
This is the part where all the MRAs chime in: “But Joseph’s experience really was harrowing!” they whine. Sure it was. It must have been very difficult to accept your betrothed’s impossible explanation for how she became pregnant without you. But what would have been really harrowing was if Joseph had knocked down the door to the “inn” and demanded that somebody give his wife a bed…and some rags and water and loving care. That’s right: a hero Joseph would have shouted, “Let us the fuck in!” And when those three idiot “wise” men showed up, he would have told them what they could really do with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Seriously, I can just picture the look on exhausted Mary’s face as she endures what must have been the original, extraneous baby shower; but instead of sea of pink or blue crap, she found herself with useless luxury goods. “Uh, thanks for the gum resin…really. But did you bring me anything useful, like burp cloths or a bottle warmer?”)
As a Christian, I try to find meaning in biblical stories rather than focusing on the details. But when it comes to Mary, there are no details; so what can I learn from her story about mothering? According to these accounts of her, she meant nothing more to Christianity than her anatomy, which was the vessel in which Jesus came to Earth. I wish the authors had seen it fit to value and relay her experience so that we might learn how strong, rather than subordinate, women can be.
The Nativity should not be a catalyst for women-man hatred. Ahead of his time, and perhaps even ahead of ours, German theologian Meister Eckhart (circa 1300) wrote: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
I agree. Fuck anatomy! We could all use a little of Mary’s grace!
August 1, 2010
That’s a pretty ominous ellipsis, especially given the photo of the lovely lady and her baby bump to the left. No no: this is not one of those essays about a woman who regrets getting married and having a child. Certainly not! The happiest moments in my life have been in marriage and pregnancy. I can’t wait to meet my baby. Today is her estimated due date. She lovingly reassures me that she’s alive and well in my belly with some good, strong kicks. She’s just not quite ready to emerge.
I used to fall in love a lot and get hurt a lot; but not anymore. I wouldn’t do that over because I think I’m better equipped to appreciate the love in my life now having been heartbroken more than once.
But on the eve of welcoming a new baby into the world, I find myself taking stock of the life I’ve led. And while I love where I’ve landed, there are choices I look back and wonder about. For instance, I went to film school and then pursued a master’s degree in English literature. I love writing and making movies, and acting; but they have become hobbies, secondary to the writing that I do here and in my career as a special needs writer. My fantasy is to go back to age 18 and make a different choice in education: to become a nurse and then join the Peace Corps and travel the world helping women in developing nations.
Now, it’s true, that science has never been my strong suit. I would have had to work very hard at nursing to make a success of it. And without the abilities and experiences I’ve accrued to this point in television, journalism and public relations work, I don’t know how good I would have been at marketing myself as a missionary. This work would have required me to swallow much of the pride I have choked on over the past 10 years in learning to get along with others in this world. (Let’s just say that I don’t walk softly.) I have also learned how to work hard at things. When I was 18, I didn’t work hard at anything. I might have given up the Peace Corps when it got too hard. Now I know that it’s the hard that makes something worth doing.
I would have had to become a politician, a grant writer, a beggar rather than a chooser… All of these things, like science, don’t come easily to me.
But there it is: as I travel boldly forth into motherhood, I wish that before I’d done this precious deed, I’d done another. I wish that I’d given something sustaining to women on a larger scale than I do now, making donations to food pantries and spreading information online and buying jewelry from indigent African women’s charities, etc. I wish I’d really been able to help.
This is probably a normal thought process to experience. It doesn’t mean I have any real regrets: as I said, I love where I’ve landed. And it’s good to have a fantasy; I think it makes me more prone to doing all of the little good deeds I can. I should never forget how fortunate I am, and I want to make sure that my daughter too knows how fortunate she will be. She is already loved beyond human comprehension. She is already blessed with much first world privilege.
There is one other thought that creeps into my mind at night between awake and asleep. I wish that before I had deliberately become pregnant – in addition to checking myself thoroughly for and finding the motherhood desire – I had learned what pregnancy and childbirth mean in this modern world of ours. The first course I had taken in pursuit of my master’s degree was about reproductive themes in literature. I read the words of midwife Ina May Gaskin and “Conceiving the New World Order” and “The Continuum Concept” and more. I was given some idea that childbirth had become a pathology and I envisioned going into labor screaming as orderlies wheeled me through the emergency room doors of a sterile hospital on a squeaky gurney. And I knew I didn’t want that experience. I knew that what I wanted to happen between me, my child and my husband would be altogether much more spiritual: a rite of passage.
But as soon as I missed a period, I bought a pregnancy test and jumped for joy when it sprouted a plus sign. And I ran into my OBGYN’s office expecting a feminist greeting. (It is, after all, a practice of three women.) How naive was I? Very. I should have turned around and run away the minute a nurse handed me a document about HIV – my HIV status – and didn’t tell me what it meant. I ran frantically into the hallway trying to find somebody to explain why I had to give an AIDS document to the labor and delivery nurses at the hospital. “And do I have AIDS?” I asked. The woman frustratedly read the paper and told me “no.” As it turns out, by law, I’m required to submit proof of this upon admission to the hospital for childbirth.
How could they have assumed I would know this? How come they looked angry with me when I didn’t? How come what followed was not a patient explanation of things to come, but instead a flood of instructions about cord blood banking and choosing pediatricians their office preferred? Were there kickbacks to be had? Why didn’t they want for me what I wanted?”
Subsequently, I should have left this practice when they told me that the only way they deliver babies is with the mother on her back and her feet in stirrups. Stirrups make me uncomfortable and I don’t think lying on my back works with gravity, I told them. But they didn’t care.
At this time, I had already begun to work with a doula: a person who assists women before, during and after labor. Her primary function: pain management. But she has also been a wonderful resource for reassuring words and information. She told me, for instance, that the closer I get to my daughter’s delivery, the softer my stool would get. And it has. So, following a threat from my OB several weeks ago that I would have to be induced before the due date because it was estimated that my daughter was a “big baby,” I made a point of explaining that I had been experiencing diarrhea. Well, it turns out that real “diarrhea” has to happen four to five times a day to count as…diarrhea. I received a lecture. What I had was “soft stool,” and I should never confuse the two again. I had only mentioned it hoping that she would make the connection that my baby was well on her way. No need to induce. No need to pump me full of chemicals before my cervix is ready to dilate so that I end up in a C-section giving birth to the behemoth waiting a full hour or more before I could bring her to my bosom. Needless to say, the doctor did not get it.
Then she abruptly performed a pelvic exam, which was surprisingly painful. I groaned and she whipped her hand out of my vagina. “Good!” What? What was good about what I had just experienced? “You’re dilated,” she told me. How much? One to 2 centimeters. So I really was moving right along.
The induction discussion continued: “We only induce mothers on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you don’t want to be induced on the 26th (of July) then you’ll have to be induced on the 2nd or 3rd of August. We’re not doing any inductions on the 9th or 10th and you can’t wait until the 16th.”
She left me alone with my husband to decide. Meanwhile a mousy nurse came in to answer any questions we might have. She explained that they do the inductions on Mondays or Tuesdays so that the babies are born on Wednesdays. Then she caught herself and smiled awkwardly: “Of course, they will deliver your baby any day of the week if you come naturally,” she said shyly.
I was in a machine. I was a cog, a moving part. I wasn’t a mother-to-be. I wasn’t a human being. I felt like a child, or something less independent than a child: a pet. Nowhere in any of the literature I’d read, nor anything that my doula had told me, did “big baby” signal a medical need to be induced. My blood pressure was a constant 110 over 70. Good. My baby’s heart rate was brilliant and strong. Good. I had gained a mere 30 lbs. or so, right in the middle of what was considered “normal.” Good. But the more I pushed natural childbirth on these doctors, the more they resisted. They wanted to plug me into a formula for their success in private medical practice, not encourage me to experience the one and only time that this baby will ever be born with joy and awareness and peace of mind.
Later that day, I bled and was crampy. The OB hadn’t told me that was a possible side effect of the painful pelvic exam. Thank goodness for my doula.
A week and a half ago, I found myself in the office of three merry midwives. Approximately 12% of women in America use midwives for labor and delivery, as well as other gynecological health care. And now, I am one of them. Gone was the briskness of nurses and doctors who didn’t care to know my name. Gone were the threats that failing to induce my delivery would result in a stuck shoulder, a ruptured placenta or a dead baby. Gone were the callous efforts to pound me into a schedule for convenience’s sake. All of this was replaced with what feels like love and happiness. If there is a problem, there is a doctor to care for me. But if all goes well, as it has for the past 40 weeks, a midwife will deliver Ellie from whatever position feels good to me; as my doula smiles and cheers me on; as my husband lovingly strokes my hair and perhaps sheds a tear as we see our beautiful baby, however big, for the first time.
So, “if I had it to do over…” I would have realized a long time ago that the fear-mongering and the routine, indifferent treatment of a pathological birth experience were not for me and I would have visited the merry midwives and shared my smiles and tears with them throughout this precious time. I was ignorant. But I know so much more now; so much that I can be a cultural resource for my friends and family members who approach the prospect of motherhood the same way I did: believing I have no rights and fearing that my body is not capable of doing the things that billions of women have done naturally before me. Movies and television teach us that childbirth is painful. They don’t teach us that women are strong enough to endure that pain.
As I’ve said twice before, I love where I’ve landed.
We have a secret in our culture…and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong. -Laura Stavoe Harm
June 9, 2010
The countdown ’til baby for me is just under eight weeks. This time in my life has been a precious experience. There are days when I feel like the most beautiful and powerful woman in the world, and days when I want my body back so I can do all of the things I used to: drink alcohol in moderation, swim a mile with the crawl stroke, have comfortable sex with my husband rather than “Tetris sex,” or even just walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded. And there are days when I look around the world – my locale, the newspapers, the blogosphere, etc. – and I realize that this exciting time isn’t universal even though it should be. Pregnancy and its resulting motherhood in its best form should be a choice lauded by others, for all women who want it. It isn’t.
Here are just a few of the pregnancy and motherhood related issues at large in the world today:
- Maternal mortality is on the rise. According to the Los Angeles Times and others, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has doubled in the past 10 years putting this country’s death rate higher than 40 other industrialized nations. Two women die from pregnancy-related complications every day in the U.S. And while that may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 11,000 or so babies that are born here each day, it’s still a scary number when you picture the faces of moms-to-be whom you know. “For each death, experts estimate, there are about 50 instances of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth that are life-threatening or cause permanent damage.” What are the causes of these complications and deaths, a third of which experts say are preventable? Obesity, increases in age of expectant mothers, increased implementation of cesarean sections, increased elective induction of labor by medicines, and over-reliance on electronic monitoring devices are being blamed as the main culprits of maternal death.
- Is it okay to fat shame a mom-to-be? The New York Times reports that growing obesity among pregnant women is linked to higher risks of birth defects, cesareans (risky for moms) and even death for newborns. While this rise in obesity has been met publicly with disdain from the healthcare industry and subsequently a rebuttal argument of obesity support from those under attack – accounting for everything from the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup, trans fat and other additives found in inexpensive foods to even the perils of dieting and being too thin, etc. – in the case of pregnancy, obesity may have more to do with a failure on the part of the mother, putting her unborn child at risk due to her obesity, than her right to maintain her own body the way she wants to or is even able. It must be tricky for doctors to address this issue with their patients because conventional wisdom suggests that moms-to-be shouldn’t try to lose weight during pregnancy. (I had to drop out of Weight Watchers when I conceived because the program no longer offers a pregnancy plan.) But a doctor can’t tell an overweight woman not to have a baby, can (s)he? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to the pro-life argument: you can’t do with your body what you will because of the rights of your unborn child?
- Abortion might mean eugenics for some. According to Womanist Musings, “(a)n anti-abortion group in Atlanta is targeting Black women by putting up billboards stating that Black children are an endangered species.” The New York Times also reports that some activists consider Planned Parenthood to be a racist organization that promotes elevated abortion rates among black women, with blacks accounting for 13 percent of the U.S. population yet 40 percent of its abortions. While Womanist Musings writer Renee upholds the validity of this fear while negating its foundations in a provable truth, she – as a womanist – asks for white pro-abortion activists to get involved in standing up for the rights black women share to elect abortion procedures. It makes me very sad indeed to think of a racist telling a happy expectant mother that she should abort under the guise that she’s better off without her baby, when really they mean that we’re better off. But I am sickened by the idea that some activists are telling women that they should keep their unwanted pregnancies because it’s their duty to their race.
- Men think pregnancy is ALL ABOUT THEM! According to CNN, dads-to-be run the risk of postpartum depression too. Okay, I’ll buy that. But they don’t run the risk of maternal mortality, fistulas, varicose veins, back spasms, incessant heartburn and much, much more due to pregnancy. So sack up, dads! Now, it is true that the males of many species can act as incubators for embryos during the early months of fetal development. But only seahorse males have the unique privilege of being “pregnant dads-to-be” simply because of their inherent anatomy. While transsexual human males have given birth successfully, their pregnancies are due to inherent female anatomy (though, by choice, these men are known as “males”). Why would a cis male want to serve as a fetus incubator? Is it that he just can’t stand that females have one power that he doesn’t? Why does science need to find out if this unnatural occurrence is possible when there are so many other challenges it could be conquering: Alzheimer’s, autism, maternal mortality, etc.? By the way, guys, early scientists believed that women were “just incubators” and, until a couple of hundred years ago, didn’t believe female anatomy played any special role in conception and delivery of newborn babies. We know better today. I happen to believe that our reproductive anatomy may be the one cis privilege women have over men. So back the fuck off! And just because your wife has given birth, doesn’t mean you have the right to tell me how to run my pregnancy “the right way.”
- Feminist mothers are under fire. I recently read more stay-at-home mom hatred on a radical feminist blog. One writer posted something about moms being too preoccupied with baby stuff “to do the reading.” What the fuck does that mean?! Do women who go off to careers or jobs every morning outside the home have more time during the day to read than moms providing in-home childcare? Do childcare workers also fail “to do the reading” too? Is it the baby stuff or the mom stuff that cuts into women’s “intellectual development?” (Apparently, I’m standing on the precipice of ignorance because of the major time-suck my child – wanted as she is – will be for me!) Intellectual development like exercise is something we make time for. And there are many fine activists who are also mothers. Crystal Lee Sutton (the real “Norma Rae”) died in 2009. She had three children and worked as a union organizer in North Carolina during the 1970′s, that lazy bitch!
Furthermore, an overview of Elisabeth Badinter’s new book “Conflict: The Woman and the Mother” (Badinter is of course the heir apparent of Simone de Beauvoir because she’s, ya know, French) reports that Badinter “blames feminists for inventing the idea of women as victims, putting men on trial and making maternity itself a political act.” (And she’s a feminist because…?) Badinter also thinks that women are being socially pressured into unsafe situations: “The ‘green’ mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of ‘a degenerated industrial civilization’ that would deprive her of ‘an irreplaceable experience,’ to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers – in other words, to discard the inventions ‘that have liberated women.’ Which of any of those green alternatives is unsafe? Home births are controversial in the U.S. but not necessarily less safe than hospital births. As I mentioned earlier, doctors are considering what caused the rise in maternal mortality here. Funny they aren’t looking into washable diapers, right?!
- Pregnancy choices are dwindling. What I mean is this: women may not feel empowered to give birth the way they want to. And really, shouldn’t we be calling the shots? Isn’t how you give birth just as important as why and if you give birth at all? The choice to deliver naturally is in the same league as the choice of whether or not to deliver at all. Now, if your birth plan calls for an elected cesarean, a premature induction of labor, a preemptive episiotomy and the biggest, badass epidural you can find, go for it! Enjoy your “twilight sleep.” (That’s an Edith Wharton reference not a condemnation.) But if you’re like me and you want to have a natural birth unless there occurs a medical emergency, you should have that right too and not feel pressured by your obstetrician to lie flat on your back and throw your feet up in the stirrups like a cowgirl. You should be allowed to stand or squat or roll on your side or face the mattress on all fours…whatever works for your body and your baby. And you should be allowed to choose your place of birth: hospital, birthing center or home. Medical organizations in the U.S. oppose home births claiming they’re risky for moms and babies alike – but we must be skeptical about this stance since healthcare in the U.S. is centered on a capitalist, for-profit model. It is currently legal to hire a midwife and conduct a home birth in 37 states, though no state prosecutes mothers for electing to give birth at home. In Britain, Canada and Australia, to name a few, midwifery and home births are much more prevalent than in the United States. (Incidentally, it is very difficult to find reputable statistics about the (un)safety of home births. Please feel free to chime in if you have any.)
When I found out I was pregnant, I excitedly booked an appointment with my OBGYN and skipped merrily into her office where I was greeted by one automaton nurse after another shoving paperwork I didn’t understand into my face. The two big questions: do I want to elect a cesarean section and do I want to bank my baby’s cord blood? I hadn’t give either any thought. I mean, I’d assumed I would give birth vaginally because that is, after all, how birth happens. What they were telling me, in essence, was that I could elect to forgo all of the hassle of nature’s greatest surprise and declare upfront that I wanted to deliver my baby “painlessly” and according to schedule so that I didn’t miss a day of work beyond my planned maternity leave. And as to the cord blood, they were telling me that the hospital where “we like to deliver” only works with one private bank. For weeks, my husband and I tried to find a public bank we could give Ellie’s umbilical cord blood to for the good of the many and the integrity of our checking account. No public banks in our area are currently accepting blood. I have been guilt-tripped by the established medical machine into feeling like a lousy mother because I am throwing my daughter’s cord blood away.
I hired a doula. She’s going to help my husband and I experience this birth as a rite of passage instead of an emergency pathology if possible. When I talked to my OB about working with a doula, she asked rather abruptly, “She’s not going to tell me how to do my job is she?” I muttered “no” under my breath, lamenting that this doctor couldn’t look me in the eye, remember my name or think about my birthing experience beyond her role to play in it. Under the advice of the doula, I asked what position the doctor was comfortable delivering my baby in, and to my dismay, she told me that she’s only comfortable “the normal way” with me on my back and my feet up in stirrups. I was heartbroken and didn’t want to tell the doula that my voyage of discovery was going to end “normal(ly.)” How I wish medicine could be there for our risks and emergencies and leave us alone to find our inner peace. I should have made better choices or stood up for my wishes or felt empowered to choose earlier in my pregnancy…but I just didn’t know any better until now.
So, as I mentioned earlier, there are some days when I feel like a goddess and other days when I feel like I’m doing just what every other mother-to-be does and I and my baby are nothing special. Western medicine has a plan for us. It, like other feminists, has rules and expectations. My pregnancy and motherhood are violating somebody’s idea of how they should be.
On those goddess days, I fight back assumptions and shaming. But today I feel defeated. It’s time to do yoga.
May 12, 2010
Over the past two years as I have blogged about my feminist concerns and read those of others, I have become increasingly wary of the word “privilege.” It gets wielded an awful lot in feminist circles, most commonly attached to the word “male.” “Male privilege” is the go-to term when a feminist doesn’t have a fact-based argument to oppose one made by a man, feminist or otherwise. “Oh, there you go inflicting your male privilege on us,” is not uncommon to read in the feminist blogosphere. (Incidentally, for making this observation, I shall now endure scrutiny from other feminists who will call me an “MRA” – Men’s Rights Activist.)
I am not interested in eroding the rights of men; merely enhancing the rights of women.
I was asked to leave one feminist blog and have been blocked from two threads on another. How did this happen? I thought we all wanted the same things. In each case, it seems that two concepts of privilege became wedge issues between me – strange, proactive feminist that I am – and others: male privilege and United States privilege. Let’s define privilege for clarity’s sake:
I find that privilege is something that is often unique to each individual, unless you’re talking about privileges granted a class or faction under the law. For instance: I am privileged to give $20 to this charity, while he is privileged to give only $15 because he makes less money than I do.
In the first case, I accused a blogger of “hating men.” She spammed me. Okay. It wasn’t good for me to stay there anyway. I had just learned I was pregnant and had simultaneously observed some very negative attitudes about motherhood in that arena. Additionally, the group of radical feminists who frequented that blog seemed convinced that transsexuals (male to female) are ruining feminism for ciswomen (born women). I found this hateful and counterproductive to the feminist cause. One particular argument back and forth consisted of a “you have more privilege than I have” war, which is ultimately futile because it’s simply impossible to prove which group (cis or non-cis) has more privilege than the other; it’s subjective. The transsexual women were arguing that to be cis is to be privileged, while the ciswomen were arguing that transsexual women wield leftover male privilege from before surgery. The ciswomen demanded that transwomen stay out of women’s public restrooms because they are a rape threat to women with original vaginas. And they also claimed that being a born woman comes with no privileges in and of itself, hence the constant use of the term male privilege. (I have decided that motherhood is the ultimate privilege of women; and even if one can’t physically give birth, serving as a mother – step-, caregiver, etc. – is a privilege of our sex because it is an endeared and exalted position amongst our class. I never felt more empowered as a woman than the day I took my first pre-natal yoga class with a group of mothers-to-be. We are goddesses!) I think that being a feminist and also hating being a woman cannot coexist in one body. Ergo, you either learn to love your womanhood, or you give up your claim to feminism. This is one reason I welcome transwomen into the fold: hey, you want to be a woman, more power to ya!
All of this warring over privilege read as completely absurd to me and I found myself crying several times because of the lack of tolerance being executed by the so-called radical feminists writing into that blog. Hate, hate, hate… When the moderator sent me an email and asked me to leave, I complied without hesitation, especially considering the contradiction: she had spammed me on a thread for accusing her of misandry, and yet her blog’s sub headline is “a nice cool sip of misandry, on a hot day” and she had confessed in one thread (emphasis supplied):
frankly, i think that if my partner and i ever broke up, that i would probably not be able to be with another man due to my increasingly “radical” feminist beliefs. we have both changed over the years and are still compatible for the most part, and he also hates men which is to his credit! he knows what i mean when i say that men, as a group, suck. he doesnt take it personally. he is also a first-generation american raised in abject poverty so has more compassion and didnt/doesnt have a lot of the privileges normally associated with white men. which works for me, as i dont think i could tolerate most “normal” (entitled) men anymore. but i am pretty much resolved to having him has my last male partner, no matter what happens to him, or to me, or to us as a couple in the future.
I fully respect this statement as something one ruminates about during a voyage of self discovery. I do that here in my space and am entitled to do so as she is in her space. What’s of particular interest to me about this revelation – aside from the fact that it proves I am right about this blogger hating men – is the use of the concept of privilege to justify worth. “Men, as a group, suck,” she claims, but she exempts her partner because he has the least amount of male privilege that men inherently come with because of his lowly economic status, and thus has greater human worth. Because this group believes that cis womanhood contains no privilege over manhood, to them, even a man suffering economically, physically, socially, mentally, etc. still has more inherent privilege than does any woman, even the most economically, physically, socially or mentally elite woman. And because women lack privilege, they have greater worth than men. It’s an interesting theory, but I reject its practical usage because it is just that: a theory. It makes assumptions about personal goodness based on wealth; and I’m sure we can all agree that poor people aren’t inadvertently good and giving to others without conscious intent just as wealthy people aren’t heartless by default. I believe that theories such as this keep healthy, happy women from helping women who are less fortunate. More than a few times, I witnessed radical feminists on this blog declaring that it is the job of men to fix the world for women because women have no real power/privilege (paraphrase). I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to wait for men to rescue me and other women from any place of abuse or subjugation. Men really don’t have as great an incentive to “rescue” women, as a class, as I do.
That’s the first banning from a feminist forum I endured. I’m intrigued by it and it’s good to vent now, but ultimately, this experience did not damage me. I’m no victim, but I have carried around a lot of anger about my second negative online experience in the feminist blogosphere (as follows), and that isn’t good for me – especially pregnant me.
In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that many disabled people don’t like the use of the term “healthy” because they think it is a judgment upon them: they can’t be healthy by certain standards because of their disabilities. So when I commented on a blog post on another site – a heavy traffic site to boot – about what’s wrong with skinny, and suggested that a healthy standard rather than a too skinny standard in Hollywood would benefit the whole of American, and perhaps international, womanhood, I was surprised to find myself accused of ableism. Another commenter and I tried to explain that “healthy” for our purposes simply meant not starving to fit the standard of beauty, but the damage was done. One writer even accused me of personally attacking her because she is very thin and cannot gain weight; and I must have responded at least three times that if she’s not starving herself she’s not perpetuating a negative standard for women. It got very hostile over there even though I had the best of intentions, as did others, I’m sure.
An insult like “you’re an MRA” is easy enough to laugh at. It’s ridiculous. But, considering my professional status as a special needs writer, the accusation that I am ableist hit me pretty hard, especially since I didn’t know if it were true, entirely or in part. There are many schools of thought on this: all able-bodied people are ableist until they become disabled; all people, disabled or otherwise, should try to make healthy choices to maximize health whenever possible (don’t smoke, don’t eat fatty foods in excess, etc.); the idea of “health” is a judgment, and more. Somehow, even with the best of intentions, I had come across as prejudiced against the disabled…and I know that to be untrue even though I am still struggling to understand the various approaches to the concept of health. I did a lot of soul-searching to make sure I was earnest in my commenting. I researched heavily the “healthy” debate and brought my findings to my boss. This experience was one to learn from: not because the accusers were right and I was wrong, but because I was not making my points clearly and instead was causing offense.
I began to get angry in this second feminist space when the thin woman wrote:
I also made the mistake of reading part of your blog. Apparently you also believe women who get raped while drunk are at least partly responsible for getting raped. Quite nice. Not only are women responsible for having eating disorders, but we’re responsible for men committing sexual violence against us.
Alright, that fact that she claimed to have read “part of” my blog should have red flagged for me right there. But I got really angry at being misrepresented yet again by this same poster. I wrote in to defend myself:
You are totally wrong again about me with regard to rape. TOTALLY! And I’ll thank you to STOP misrepresenting me. I do not believe that a woman who gets raped is ever at fault for her rape. EVER. I do believe in telling young women to avoid becoming intoxicated in environments where they are with men they do not know. I do tell the young women I know to protect themselves. This is not equivalent to telling women it’s their fault. Getting drunk in an unsafe environment is a mistake I made many times in college. And I repeat for the last time: women are not to blame for their eating disorders, only for starving by choice to fit the rigid standard of beauty our planet upholds, as I have done (starve) as well. I am not some sanctimonious asshole who sits in front of a computer screen without experience and blames women for all of our woes. I am a real woman with real issues and real ideas. If you misunderstand them because I have been unable to express myself clearly, try asking me questions about them rather than condemning me.
However, this comment was never published. I wrote to the moderators asking them to publish it. I received no response. Again, I question the relevance of the “feminist” label if you are prone to silencing women in feminist forums.
In another thread, “Dear USians on the Internet,” one of the moderators banned me for making a tone argument. I think that means that I dared to infer tone from posted comments. (Shrug.) But this didn’t happen until the U.S. privilege debate began. The post was a complaint from an Australian feminist about how (some) Americans are rude to foreigners online – and “USian” is apparently the politically correct term per this writer because the U.S. has robbed other (North and South) American nations like Mexico and Canada of the “American” designation; personally, I didn’t realize Canadians for instance were desperate to be called American and I had always taken for granted that we call ourselves Americans in the U.S. because the word America actually appears in our country’s name (U.S. of A.). I’m sure some Americans are very rude online. But what shocked me about this, especially juxtaposed next to the skinny thread, was how offended the writer of the post was when comments came in complaining about how closed-minded this post was. Were we possibly just in the middle of a misunderstanding again, jumping to conclusions about people’s beliefs rather than asking them to clarify them?
ME: I just think this kind of negative posting leads to a mob/ganging up commenting spree. We all have valid perspectives. We all have good intentions, don’t we? Sometimes we misunderstand each other. But we shouldn’t be hateful in this forum, which, as I understood it when it was recommended to me, is a safe place to discuss women’s issues and concerns.
THIRD PARTY: Also, it’s amazing how people come out of the woodwork to complain about privileged folks being stereotyped/spoken down to/condescended to/etc. when there is never the same volume of reaction to nonprivileged folks being treated the same. It is an outrage for the privileged person to be given an ounce of the same treatment that they drench nonprivileged people with every single day.
ME: “people come out of the woodwork to complain about privileged folks being stereotyped/spoken down to/condescended to/etc. ” (Third Party), not all Americans are privileged folks and their ignorant declarations on the Internet may result from their lack of financial or educational privilege.
THIRD PARTY: Actually, yes, if you are from the US, you have a privilege. US privilege.
What I make of this privilege argument is the same as what I make of the other: all men of all levels in the socioeconomic structure in which they live have more inherent privilege than all women, and likewise all Americans of all levels in the American socioeconomic structure have more inherent privilege than all or most other countries on Earth. This reeks of ignorance and prejudice in both cases. While I can somewhat wrap my mind around and even agree with the male vs. female assessment of privilege because it is universal and historically true that men have ruled the world – even though, as I’ve written, I think this argument is problematic and useless beyond academia; I need to make a very important distinction between classifying men and women as distinct collectives versus classifying Americans as a collective: there is way too much diversity involved amongst designated “USians” to simply blanket us with possessing a U.S. privilege. For starters, the statistic that 25 – 40,000 people die in the U.S. every year simply from lack of health insurance, which was thrown about during the healthcare reform debates of 2009, already divides us into strikingly different levels of privilege: the insured (read: privileged to receive medical care as needed and desired) and the uninsured (read: not privileged to receive medical care as needed). So when we’re talking about health and the right to live one’s life, already we’ve come to a point where we can clearly state that not all Americans possess “U.S. privilege.” Another example: if you’re a fisherman working in the Gulf of Mexico, your livelihood has just been wiped out for perhaps years by the recent oil spill. Where’s your U.S. privilege now? (Probably, in the same place as that of the Katrina victims still residing in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers: up the asses of our wealthiest one percent!)
Speaking of healthcare, you might be surprised to know that American expectant mothers such as myself also find themselves disadvantaged below other countries when it comes to our motherhood privilege. According to Save the Children, the U.S. ranks as only the 28th best place on Earth in which to be a mother:
Why doesn’t the United States do better in the rankings?
The United States ranked 28th this year based on several factors:
•• One of the key indicators used to calculate well-being for mothers is lifetime risk of maternal death. The United States’ rate for maternal mortality is 1 in 4,800 – one of the highest in the developed world. Thirty-five out of 43 developed countries performed better than the United States on this indicator, including all the Western, Northern and Southern European countries (except Estonia and Albania) as well as Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. A woman in the Unites States is more than five times as likely as a woman in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece or Italy to die from pregnancy-related causes in her lifetime and her risk of maternal death is nearly 10-fold that of a woman in Ireland.
•• Similarly, the United States does not do as well as many other countries with regard to under-5 mortality. The U.S. under-5 mortality rate is 8 per 1,000 births. This is on par with rates in Slovakia and Montenegro. Thirty-eight countries performed better than the U.S. on this indicator. At this rate, a child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a child in Finland, Iceland, Sweden or Singapore to die before his or her fifth birthday.
•• Only 61 percent of children in the United States are enrolled in preschool – making it the seventh lowest country in the developed world on this indicator.
•• The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy – both in terms of duration and percent of wages paid – of any wealthy nation.
•• The United States is also lagging behind with regard to the political status of women. Only 17 percent of seats in the House of Representatives are held by women, compared to 46 percent of seats in Sweden and 43 percent in Iceland.
Now, I’ll admit that perhaps the only reason Save the Children bothered to explain why the U.S. came in as low as it did is because we have a great public relations machine at work: the U.S. and yes! certain “USians” claim that the U.S. is a superpower, militarily, socioeconomically, etc. This is a bit of a fraud: image conquering truth for all the world to witness. As an American mother-to-be, I confess that I am hiring birthing help (a doula) outside of the health insurance network (to the tune of $1,400) to help avoid many of the surgical impositions placed on women during childbirth automatically by the Western medical establishment; I am not receiving any maternity leave pay during my “disability” leave from work, though I am entitled to collect disability insurance for up to six weeks; and my job is not protected by federal law, which means that my company can choose to downsize me during my absence, putting me in the position of having to find a new job and raise a newborn baby simultaneously.
Now, before you send me hate mail about what a big, whiny baby I am – a white “USian” with truckloads of socioeconomic privilege, know this: I know I’m privileged. I don’t claim to be less privileged than Afghan or African women, etc. I don’t spend much time making the comparison because I think it’s a useless comparison to make. I had a great education – apart from an appalling lack of herstory, always enough food and a roof over my head, loving support from family and friends, opportunities to work and earn my living as well as give some of it away to charities I am compassionate toward, and access to medical care at every stage of my life. I’m not complaining about labels of privilege being forced upon me; I am complaining that some people would try and force the assumption of my privilege onto others. Just because I am a privileged American doesn’t mean that ALL Americans are privileged. I am perhaps one of the last of a dying breed: the American middle class. So, when Save the Children, decides that Norway is the best place on Earth to be a mother, I don’t immediately assume that all Norwegian mothers have Norway privilege… I just strongly consider moving there. (Hey, I’m no patriot! I too think the U.S. at large is full of itself.) That doesn’t mean, however, that hating the U.S. or any of its ill-mannered online representatives is what should pass for feminism in the blogosphere.
It is undeniably safe to use the term privilege when you are speaking about yourself; but beyond that you run the risk of making a lot of assumptions and those assumptions can often lead to prejudicial treatment of others. I wonder if you’ll agree with me that the greatest privilege that a person can ever experience is knowing the value of him- or herself to be equal to that of others. And the real value of feminism is that it can ensure that every woman knows her worth and her right to a happy life – that she is entitled to human egalitarian privilege, which is greater than the rights known by other forms of life; not by begrudgingly taking away the rights of others – of men and transsexuals or members of other races or dwellers of other countries, etc. – but by raising up the wonderful aspects of her self and her femaleness, those aspects that make her a valuable member of collective society: her motherhood, her sisterhood and her ability to love and care for others.