The 50th anniversary of The Pill coincided with Mother’s Day last week—a nice juxtaposition considering the dramatic effect that a reliable and convenient birth control method had on the mothers of the United States. No longer subject to the whims of happenstance, mothers were able to decide how many children they wanted and when they wanted to have them. This unprecedented control over their fertility changed everything for women.
And yet, little changed.
Along with The Pill, and perhaps related to its advent, social forces were dragging the population (much of it kicking and screaming every inch of the way) towards a new reality in which the promises and freedoms and opportunities that had historically been accorded to only some became available to and demanded by the rest. Gradually over the last 40 years the walls have come tumbling down. Indeed, the walls, blank, immense, and unmovable, that once stood on all sides of women, boxing them into their houses while their brothers and husbands roamed freely outside, are all but gone.
And yet, little has changed.
A discussion on OBL’s site led me to read Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Journalist Judith Warner uses her own experiences as a young mother, first in France and then in the U.S., as a jumping-off point for a treatise about the cultural imperatives that force mothers to make “choices” that aren’t really choices at all since each available option is more dismal than the last. The boxes are still there, you see, but we’re supposed to feel much better about them now because we’ve “chosen” to climb into them.
I can’t quite recommend the book. It is overly long and repetitive and unless you really have never thought about any of the issues surrounding motherhood/marriage/children/work at all, it is full of the obvious. But Warner does present one point I had not encountered or considered before.
The endless abortion debate killed feminism, and with it, the best chance women had to escape the boxes.
It went like this. The legalization of abortion offered women a way out of an unintended pregnancy. Regular readers already know my opinion on this. The right to a safe, legal abortion is a critically important part of full enfranchisement and self-determination for women. However, there are moral and ethical considerations that make the issue complex. Unlike relatively straightforward concepts like equal pay, abortion rights have never achieved mainstream acceptance.
In fact, abortion has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy that has lasted for decades, and the right to choose to have one has been attacked continuously and relentlessly in multiple spheres. As a result, after Roe v. Wade, the feminist movement became wholly absorbed by the need to constantly defend the hard-won reproductive freedom of women. So absorbed that everything else on the docket got dropped.
See, we knocked the walls down, but we didn’t finish the job. We opened everything up to women. Every school, every job, every ambition became fair game. Women could do anything, be anything, go anywhere. Right?
Except that they couldn’t, really.
We forgot about the children.
While the feminists were busy making sure that women didn’t have to have children they didn’t want, they neglected to consider who was going to raise the children that women wanted, and had.
The answer, in the absence of a strategy for change or parity: women would raise the children, and perform all the myriad tasks that go with raising children, as women have always done.
Hence, the non-choice: pursue whatever your ambition might be, full-speed ahead, while simultaneously shouldering most or all of the work of children and household. Or drop out of the workforce (or curtail your participation in it) to provide the best care for your children and hopefully maintain your sanity.
Note that the non-choice neatly maintains and perpetuates the patriarchal structure that engendered it, as once it is made the resulting economic power disparity is often impossible to overcome.
In all the years since the feminists stormed the country, family structures have been altered very little. The workplace has changed even less. Sure, big companies offer on-site daycare for sub-school-age children, and that’s nice, but it is available to only a fraction of women and it addresses only a sliver of the problem of working and raising kids at the same time. So by and large, women raise kids and men work.
In Perfect Madness, Warner quotes women discussing their lives in the pre-feminist era. The amazing thing about the quotes is that it is impossible to distinguish them from the stories of modern-day mothers talking about themselves. Because Pill or no Pill, as soon as you get married, have kids, and quit your job, just like that it’s 1950 again.