Us vs.Them

Yesterday I posted a link on the Mamafesto Facebook page to an interview with midwife and author Ina May Gaskin. The interview, part of the Feministing Five series, was a wonderful read, and showed how Ina May connects feminism with her passion for natural birth. In the interview, Ina May describes how her fervent belief in handing back power to women in relation to birth was quite revolutionary when she was getting started.

Ina May Gaskin

Another three or four years later, I was lecturing at Yale and I thought people would be excited about the midwifery portion because the women in my village found it so empowering that we didn’t have misogynistic obstetricians that were so prevalent back then jamming forceps into us and pulling our babies out. Instead, we could give birth ourselves. I was booed off the stage and I thought what are these young women reading? This doesn’t feel like feminism to me. What could be more feminist than taking back the power to give birth on your own terms and saying, “No, I don’t want a male obstetrician who is really misguided into thinking my body is some sort of defective design brewing around my legs and yanking my baby out with instruments before I give him a chance to show him what I can do?” There was no choice then. I guess we started a revolution in birth because I wrote a book with the help of a lot of community members and it became the first big selling midwifery book in the country and has been credited with helping nurse midwifery get off the ground. – Ina May Gaskin

Throughout the interview, Ina May talks about the various ways that feminism was both influential and essential throughout her life and career. She also brings up something that does often get overlooked:

You have to put mothers into feminism. I think second wave feminism found the motherhood question so difficult that it shied away from it and so the only part of reproductive rights had to do with abortion rights. Yes, we have to have that but we also have to have choice in how we give birth, with whom, where and how. – Ina May Gaskin

Ina May’s thoughts echo the same ones spoken by Ani DiFranco when I interviewed her last month:

 I think I understand more that feminism comes out of the experience of motherhood. That’s what feminism is. Which is not to say that you have to give birth, or even be female to embody it. It just means that the experience of being of feminine mind and body, and ultimately giving birth and being a mother, is at the center of feminism. – Ani DiFranco

My Body * My Baby * My Birth * My Business

For me, the idea of natural childbirth seamlessly meshes with the ideals of feminism. An important tenet of feminism rests on the promotion of reproductive rights. A lot of the focus surrounding reproductive rights lands on the side of birth control and abortion, and rightfully so, as attacks on access to those rights are never-ending. However, that doesn’t mean that we should dismiss how reproductive rights also extend to pregnancy and birth.

Unfortunately, what could have sparked a healthy discussion (or even debate) regarding reproductive rights, somehow devolved into an “us vs. them” argument within the comments at Feministing. The comments shared weren’t anything new. In fact, they continue to rehash arguments that seem to be age-old.

To be clear, there seems to be two paths these arguments end up taking:

1. Child-free vs. Child-bearing (or “breeders”)

2. “Natural” (and the variety of ways that is defined) vs. Medicalized birth.

So, I have to ask…Why? Why the hostility, anger, defensiveness, and accusatory tones that frequently follow articles/interviews/blog posts about birth? Why does there have to be such heated divisiveness with regards to this topic? One aspect that I hold firm to within my feminism is that it has allotted me the right to choose. While I will certainly share knowledge, information, and/or advice/suggestions with anyone who seeks it, or seems unsure, I also respect their right to choose.

The inherent judgement that oozes out from feminists surrounding birth can be rather ugly, and I can’t understand why it continues to be perpetuated. While some (or many) women may not make the same birth choices as I did, I have to hope that they did the research and came to their own conclusions that worked best for them.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think there are over-arching problems within our medical society (Anyone who has seen The Business of Being Born will get a pretty good grasp of what I’m referring to), but just like I have to have faith that a person who chooses abortion does so with a full understanding of that choice, I have to have faith with those that choose their birth options.

Would I like there to be more information available at every socio-economic level about those birth choices and their impact on both parents and babies? Yes! Would I like our society to look at birth less like a medical procedure (akin to surgery) and more like a natural aspect of life? Yes! Will I judge a woman who decides that giving birth in a hospital is where their comfort level lies after researching her options? No.

So, I really can’t understand those that take a 5 question interview with a woman who is both a pioneer and a legend within her field, and reduce it to another “us vs. them” argument. The judgement that is flung (on both sides) is nothing new, and sadly continues to be hurled (possibly harming innocent by standers attempting to form their own ideas on the subject).

With all of this in-fighting (and, at times, exclusivity, or notion of hierarchy based on personal choices) within feminism, it is only a matter of time before wider cracks begin to form within the base of the movement.

I hate when it becomes an “Us vs. Them” debate. As a feminist, I’m already an “Us” pitted against a majority “Them.” Why drag that mentality into the movement?

I’m not advocating for a kumbaya-let’s-all-hold-hands-and-hug-it-out solution. I think debate is healthy, important, and crucial to keeping the movement alive, vibrant, and progressive. However, that doesn’t mean we need to continue down a path that promotes judgement and condescension.

Let’s try and find a way to discuss birth in a context that supports, educates, and informs women. Let’s try to find a way to infuse birth into the larger scope of reproductive rights. Let’s try and escape this “Us vs. Them” mentality and try to find a way towards continuing to give back the power surrounding birth to women (in whatever form an individual chooses).

16 thoughts on “Us vs.Them

  1. I think the judgement comes along with the territory of parenthood. You feel judged immediately if you can’t/won’t tolerate pain of natural childbirth, or if you feel that someone is telling you it’s “healthier” to skip the drugs. You also might judge someone if you believe they are possibly putting their baby in danger by choosing home birth. (The “danger” part is not my opinion because I have a number of friends who have experienced successful, beautiful home birth – just looking at what the other side might think.)

    I had a midwife for both of my births. I had my son naturally and did my hard labor in the tub (in the hospital). My second birth with my daughter, I chose an epidural even though my birth plan was a water birth! My midwife supported me and sat by my side the entire time. Both ways had its ups and downs and highs and lows.

    Great post by the way, and I think you’ve inspired me to write something about it on my blog as well. Because I agree with you – the judging just has to stop.

    • Thanks Haley! (definitely come back and link to your post once it’s up!)

      I guess I should be clear that, in general, I certainly understand why there is judgement/anger/fear/etc… surrounding birth. My confusion (or inability to quite grasp the divide) is more about how – within the feminist sphere – there can be such judgment/heated divisiveness. Wouldn’t it benefit it us more, as a movement, to find ways to work with the differences (or at least in tones/voices that are more inclusive/educational rather than confrontational/condescending) than to continue to allow for this in-fighting that only serves to weaken us as a whole?

  2. glad you are writing about this, avi. this reminds me of my experience at smith. as a woman’s studies major focusing on the politics of women’s biology and birth, I felt very unsupported. to talk about birth was akin to putting women back in the kitchen without the vote. it was decidedly un-feminist. i had to go outside my department, to philosophy and anthropology, to find any support from professors and peers. it was infuriating! i was a feminist at a women’s college and i was made to feel that my interest in birth had no place in the current feminist debate (which seemed consumed with queer theory at the time). frankly, i stopped calling myself a feminist because of my experience at smith, because i felt so alienated from the movement.

    this is an important discussion. i firmly believe that birth practices reflect cultural ideology. looking at the current state of things, we are in pretty deep. birth is important! it’s not just a women’s issue (though it should be a core concern of feminism), it’s a human issue, it’s beyond identity politics! who among us has not been born?

    for the record: i graduated from smith in 2003. there is a pretty vibrant “aspiring birth professional” scene at smith now. hopefully, the women’s studies dept has become more inclusive and made these women feel supported and heard.

    • Katie, thanks so much for your comment. It sometimes feels like anything related to domesticity (marriage, birth, parenting) can easily be looked over or pushed to the side within the feminist sphere. Yes, there are a host of important topics/fights to discuss, but birth isn’t any less important. Like you said, this is something that everyone should have some sort of investment in, as we all relate back to it in someway (not just by giving birth).

      Hopefully those of us who understand this can help continue the dialogue and continue to frame it in a way that better helps people understand why feminism and birth can and should go hand in hand.

      Again, I really appreciate you chiming in with your story! xo

  3. Once again, awesome post! I completely agree with you, I just wish that people could leave the big ol bag of judgement at the door. It’s really hard to talk with a lot of people about birth options due to two main factors that I see. One being fear; fear of being judged, of being wrong or making the wrong choice. The second being ego, the “I’m right and you’re wrong and there is no area of grey” mentality. I try really hard to play on both sides of any discussion, whether it’s birthing options or politics.

    • Thanks, Crystal! For sure fear and ego play into this, and if people were just able to check them at the door, then maybe we’d be able to have an actual discussion on this topic, and be able to more forward in regards to both reproductive rights *and* birth choice.

  4. The whole thing reminds me a lot of the breastfeeding/formula issue actually, not because the issues are that similar, but in the sense that women who choose the “mainstream/unnatural” option for whatever reason are judged and even shamed.

    I had a SCHEDULED C-SECTION for my second birth. I had pushed # 1 for four solid hours. She was wedged in my pelvic outlet and came out (by c-section) with a blister on her head from where she was stuck. And even though my OB/GYN (yes, a doctor) was willing to try a VBAC, I just decided that the odds were so great that I would need a c-section, and I so desperately needed my mother to be there to care for #1 if I did need surgery, that I would plan the c-section if I hadn’t gone into labor by my due date.

    I don’t regret my choice. And yet, I always feel like I have to explain, apologize, rationalize, and still walk away judged when talking about my birth experience amongst the pc-mommy community (that is to say, my community.)

    • I wish people could get over the judgmental hump and see that, clearly, you made an informed decision (and I think, for me at least, the informed part is crucial. It’s not like you were all willy nilly deciding to have a c-section b/c you wanted to schedule your daughter’s b-day on a specific day, or b/c you were afraid of tearing up your “lady bits” or whatever…and even then – for some, those may be valid choices. As long as they weight the actual risks/benefits…who am I to judge? It’s tricky).

      And it sucks that you feel you can’t talk about your birth without apology or explanation😦 I think that’s why events like “Red Tents” are so important. They help normalize all different sorts of births, allow for a (ideally) judgement-free space to discuss them, and provide support for mothers who are in need.

      I think thats one reason I’m passionate about keeping birth in the discussion about reproductive rights – if we can remember how important this one right is in terms of a choice (just like the choice to prevent or terminate pregnancy), it might make the discussion go a bit smoother…one can hope?

  5. I recently finished a project that involved reading an entire college-level U.S. history textbook and was interested to be reminded how far back the divisions in the women’s movement go, at least in the United States. When the fight was for suffrage, the split happened right after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Has the movement ever been unified since? And do the binaries at work today — child-free vs. breeders, natural birth vs. medicalized birth — line up at all with the oppositions that manifested in the past? Or is the movement far more fractured than that? I suspect the latter. For example, the perspective of women of color on the child-free vs. breeder issue tends to be very different from that of white women.

    Anyway, I had the privilege of reviewing Gaskin’s book this fall. Reading your post, I realize that I should have wrote (and thought) more about exactly what I meant by misogyny-free birth. Because I think that the real issue should be less about natural birth vs. medicalized birth and more about whether women are respected as subjects while giving birth, rather than as baby-birthing objects.

    • Just read your review of Gaskin’s book, Rachael! And yes, I think your last sentence above really nails it on the head. While I’d love every woman to at least consider a “natural” birth, it’s more important for me (from a feminist perspective) to ensure that women are not treated as objects but as a huge part of the birthing process, and to be given the power/confidence/support related to that.

  6. I think the Feministe comments devolved so quickly because of the comment from Dr. Amy. She was incredibly accusatory, and anyone who is subjected to the wrath of her disapproval would feel (hell, *I* feel it, and I delivered a baby in the hospital with pitocin and an epidural) defensive.

    But I also think that the language we use to discuss birth is inflammatory. Even when it seems benign. (I think Ani talked about this in the your interview, too. Not specific to birth – maybe pro-life vs. anti-choice?) The term “natural childbirth” creates a mindset that a birth for which a woman chose an epidural, or a planned c-section is not natural. And since we commonly accept natural to mean “good”, it would follow that anything that is not natural is therefore bad. No one wants to get the feeling that their choice is bad.

    And I think supporting women who choose epidurals, or c-sections as long as those women did their research implies that other women, who did NOT do their research aren’t worthy of our support. It makes me feel like we wade into paternalistic water.

    But fundamentally, I think division is a tool of the kyriarchy. If the world can create discord in the populations that it oppresses, those in charge can conveniently step back and claim innocence because “they can’t agree on anything, how are we supposed to help them?” And women are taught to police other women from birth, practically. There’s a lot of unlearning, and trusting that need to occur, and that’s damn scary.

    • “And I think supporting women who choose epidurals, or c-sections as long as those women did their research implies that other women, who did NOT do their research aren’t worthy of our support. It makes me feel like we wade into paternalistic water.” <–I agree, and I struggled with how to word that section of my response. For me, my fight is to get better access to education and information out there. That way, there's less of the paternalistic "well, did you *know* about c-sec rates" (or whatever) if access to info is more wide spread and available.

      and yes yes yes to your last paragraph!

  7. I agree with Tmae’s assertion that one comment, especially if it’s from someone polarizing but well-spoken, can throw a potential discussion in to a ping-pong match of insults. I can’t add more than that to the wonderful comments that are already here. But I can share that one of the ways the defensiveness builds up is sometimes through more subtle measures. I had a friend who used “Home birth – the thinking woman’s choice” as her signature on email. Still recovering from a less-than-stellar birth myself, and still blaming myself for the trauma, seeing that told me that the experience I had wasn’t something to discuss with her.

    Separations like that are inevitable if we want people to have different opinions and express them, I suppose. But it’s heartening to hear the comments like the one above pointing out that there should be support for women who have gone through all births – thinking or not, and advocacy from those who have the time, desire, and wherewithal to work for it. ie: Ricki Lake’s film et al.

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