Filed under: Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Starring Local Feminists, Women's Health
I was pregnant three weeks after I was married. It was unexpected, delaying my undergraduate graduation for longer than I care to admit and derailing my plans for graduate school until a later season in my life. I was just getting comfortable in my feminist skin, full of enthusiasm for equality and full agency for women in our society.
I still remember the day I called to let my internist know I was pregnant. I was coldly informed by the office staff that the internist would not need to see me again until after I had delivered the baby and had an internal medicine issue; they suggested that I call an obstetrician’s office. Just like that, I was severed from the only healthcare provider I had seen since moving to Virginia to attend college. Instinctively, intuitively, instead of calling an obstetrician, I asked a fellow student, who was expecting her third child, if she had ever heard of midwives in the area. It turned out that she delivered her children at home and could recommend her midwife.
Finding a midwife, in my mind, was an expression of my feminism. I felt fully empowered to birth on my own terms, with a caregiver who treated me like a friend—a neighbor, a sister—rather than a number shuffled from specialty office to specialty office in a cold and impartial way. It was a step that began, perhaps unconsciously, with my earlier reading of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. The way in which Naylor’s colorful character embodied feminine wisdom had not left my mind more than eight months after finishing the novel. In addition, just the year before, my aunt, a labor and delivery nurse, chose to deliver at home unassisted. The newly blossomed feminist in me was drawn to these strong women who were questioning the politics of birth and bucking against a patriarchal model of care. They both exemplified full agency in their womanhood.
Years later, when pregnant with my fourth daughter, I traveled to Richmond to lobby for the legalization of home birth midwives in Virginia. In my mind, it was a clear matter of Choice. Women deserved to make their own choices about where and with whom to birth. It seemed a logical feminist issue, but when I approached female Democratic General Assembly members, who typically supported pro-choice measures, I was shocked at their unwillingness to see home birth as anything but a throwback to the dark ages. Instead, I humbly found myself working with politicians on the other side of the aisle—often white-haired conservative men—and linking arms with religiously conservative women. It was a stark lesson in gender politics and the ways in which women can unite whether they identify with feminism or not.
Later I would write a paper that a professor nominated to a national communication organization for an award. It was a project that involved feminist narrative research and women’s stories about birth, in particular birth with a midwife. The professor was an academic feminist legend, a nationally known scholar who had devoted her career to feminist communication; she was shocked when the award committee didn’t take my project seriously. I was not. When researching, I have found very few scholarly books or papers on choice in childbirth. Most of feminism rests on issues around choice in pregnancy and sexual orientation and inequalities in pay and violence against women, still extremely important issues. But, what about the eighty-five million women who give birth in America? Isn’t full agency in childbirth an important issue to embrace in feminism?
Today maternal mortality is on the rise and our minority sisters are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth—no matter economic status or education level. There is feminist work to be done around childbirth. I’ve had the fortune to work, as a grassroots organizer, with women who are bringing awareness to the inequalities in childbirth, and the importance of a woman’s full agency in the birth experience. Women like Jennie Joseph, Ina May Gaskin, Juliana Fehr, and many nonprofit organizations like the International Cesarean Awareness Network, Every Mother Counts, Childbirth Connections, Midwives for Haiti, and the White Ribbon Alliance. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to come together over this issue—whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight—women advocating for better birth options is an issue that embodies what feminism is all about.
Would you like to contribute a birth story? We’d love to hear about your experiences in childbirth, in particular whether or not you experienced full agency throughout your maternity care.
Filed under: Music, Opinion, Politics, Starring Local Feminists
The following is a guest post by Sheryl Rivett, George Mason University MFA Fiction student and StS 2013-2014 Blog Editor.
During the second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies, my mother referred to herself as a “feminist.” She was a schoolteacher, a mother of three, and the daughter of an educated, single mother who had divorced her first husband in 1945, despite public shunning in the Catholic community where she was raised and despite the cultural expectation that women were to stay in their marriages. Feminism didn’t fall far from the tree. When Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” topped the charts in the seventies, my mother and her friends, all college-educated women who were juggling work and family and cultural chauvinism, would gather in their living rooms to dance and sing the Reddy lyrics at the top of their lungs.
When I attended college in the late eighties, feminism was the last thing with which I wanted to identify. I wanted to be anything BUT like my mother. In fact, I remember raising my hand in Public Communication and asking my professor, “I don’t understand what the big deal is about words. I don’t care if we say MANkind, or “man” for woman.” By the end of that class, my eyes were open to the reality of the power of language, of the nuances of word choices, and the inherent misogyny in the cultural rhetoric. By the end of my undergraduate education, I would understand the importance of feminist theory, whether male or female, white or black, gay or straight.
A year ago, my oldest daughter started her freshman year of college at a private, all-girls school, known for its progressive academics and culture. Leaving the relative stability of a middle-class upbringing in a small town in Virginia, where most families looked like hers, she entered a new world on the college campus. Feminism was a word used proudly and liberally, it was the vogue ideal to ascribe to, and she saw freshman girls acting out their ideas of feminism in ways that didn’t match what her feminist mother had modeled during her childhood: working for equality in women’s healthcare, lobbying for choice in maternity care settings and providers, supporting and fighting for marginalized populations. She arrived home confused, uncomfortable and uneasy with feminism. I struggled in those moments, feeling as if generations of strong women who came before me were staring at me, waiting for the proper response, waiting for me to give voice to the importance of all their hard work, their sacrifices, their need to be heard.
As we talked, I reminded her that when a person has felt oppressed or silenced that it’s natural to feel anger, to strike out and act out, and that being a feminist was not about imitation and what was in vogue, but about being true to yourself and your sense of personal power. I explained that even among feminists, there can be divides. Radical feminism is the outgrowth of years of women, often lesbian women, feeling silenced and marginalized. Radical feminism was an enthusiastic, sometimes angry and sometimes joyful, expression of a marginalized population for which feminism was a necessary outlet—and they advocated for radical social upheaval as a necessary end. But, radical feminism is not what all feminism is about. It co-exists with liberal feminism, which is considered the more moderate feminist thought, a movement that advocates for political and social equality. What was happening on her campus was not necessarily political feminism, but actually typical teen and young adult behavior – a wide range of experimentation and a stretching of boundaries.
Over the weekend, we talked about feminism at length. Sitting on her bed, listening to her worries and concerns, I thought about my great-great-great grandmother who locked her husband, a physician, out of the birthing room, so that she could birth on her own terms with the African-American midwife; about my great-great-grandmother who stood up in a town meeting to give a speech about illegal moonshine and the effects of alcoholism on women and children; about my great-grandmother who was widowed at a young age and who sewed baseballs for a living so that she could send her daughters to college; about my grandmother who had a college education and economic independence and who divorced her first husband and embraced single motherhood for more than seven years in the 1940s and 1950s; about my mother who danced in the living room with her friends to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman, and I thought about the day that I told the vice president of a large corporation that there was no amount of money or title that she could give me to make up for the time that I wanted to have with my daughter when I chose to stay at home and leave my career. These were the stories that I wanted most to tell her about. This matrilineal line, these women who she came from, they were all feminists in their own way—facing life on their own terms and finding their voice. I told her finally, whatever choices you make, if you make them on your own terms and with full agency, then that is what feminism is about.
Filed under: Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sarah M, Women's Health
“Hey, the 1950s called, they want their stereotype back,” I said during a somewhat intense debate last night. I was asking a new friend, let’s call him Adam, what he thought of Garance Franke-Ruta’s recent article in The Atlantic called “Why Isn’t Better Education Giving Women More Power?”
If I’m being honest, I probably already knew his response; I just really wanted it to be different, because… I like him. The article is basically about how even though women are generally more successful in school, the same behaviors and tools that helped them to succeed in the academic arena, don’t necessarily translate into the workforce. The article gives statistics on the disparity between genders and points out that studies show women in the workplace are criticized more, make less money, and are generally judged more negatively. But, the most important piece of this essay, and the part that I am most interested in, deals with the root of the problem: “The university system aside, I suspect there is another, deeply ingrained set of behaviors that also undermine women: the habits they pick up—or don’t pick up—in the dating world. Men learn early that to woo women, they must risk rejection and be persistent. Straight women, for their part, learn from their earliest years that they must wait to be courted. The professional world does not reward the second approach. No one is going to ask someone out professionally if she just makes herself attractive enough. I suspect this is why people who put together discussion panels and solicit op‑eds always tell me the same thing: it’s harder to get women to say yes than men. Well, duh. To be female in our culture is to be trained from puberty in the art of rebuffing—rebuffing gazes, comments, touches, propositions, and proposals.”
Bingo. This makes total sense to me. I am a woman. I have all too well mastered the art of rebuffing. It’s March: Women’s History Month. There are signs in stores that are supposed to be “celebrating” women. They read: 60% of our employees are women! But, it’s a party trick. “Hey, look over here!” Because when you look at upper management, it’s only 4% female. Now, Adam’s initial response to this article was to also look at the numbers. He’s very logical. He’s very smart. I like him. He would like to see the holistic ratio of employees in business. He’s had a 50/50 ratio of male to female bosses. Then, he gives me a word problem: If there are 100 employees in the office and 10 are women, and there are 10 spots to move up from that 100, then 1/9 women should be promoted and 9/90 men should be, too. His point being that no one thinks about the actual numbers, they only look straight to the top and see that there are 9 male bosses and 1 female boss. I acknowledge that he is speaking from a place of privilege, and in my mind, this isn’t the problem either. The problem is much deeper; it’s much bigger. The problem is that there are only 10 women who are employees going after that promotion in the first place. The problem is that we (women) have been taught all of our lives to accept our position, to be submissive, and to self-objectify. These behaviors and states of being are so deeply ingrained that sometimes I’m not even aware that I’m participating in this dynamic. From a very early age, we lose belief in our own political and social efficacy. We learn to see ourselves and value ourselves how the media and the collective consciousness see us.
BUT… still, the real problem is even more insidious and subtly woven into our social makeup. The REAL problem is that we still exist in a time and place that perpetuates an accepted culture of violence against women. At some point in our debate, Adam says that men and women ARE different, right? He brings up the obvious difference: our physical traits. This is the in. Yes, I think, herein lies the issue at the core of our patriarchal power dynamic. Our physical traits have been held against us and kept us repressed since the beginning of time. This is usually where I lose my male readers. They hear sexual assault/domestic violence and distance themselves, because they would never do that, so this part doesn’t apply to them. This is where we’re all wrong. Let me give you a scenario that most of the women in my life can relate to:
The following is a guest post by StS poetry reader and GMU MFA poetry candidate, Luke Huffman.
In Andrew Cuomo‘s recent State of the State speech, the New York Governor broke with his past routine and what has been the routine for much of the national rhetoric for the last half a decade. Instead of focusing almost solely on the state of the U.S. economy and the health of our financial institutions, Cuomo spoke largely to what many consider “social issues.” He proposed serious measures on a variety of topics–gun control, marijuana legalization, carbon caps, campaign finance reform. And perhaps most interestingly was a forceful and focused tirade against women’s discrimination, proposing a 10-point plan to fight against it (at least structurally). The plan is wide-reaching, addressing everything from human trafficking to pay equity.
Last year, the Governor mentioned a reproductive rights bill in passing during his State of the State. This year, however, “Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to be an unapologetic feminist,” says National Organization for Women-NYC President Sonia Ossorio. “The Governor has set forth a bold plan that puts women’s equality front and center.” It is a marked change in tone.
It seems that while the vast majority of televised political discourse (remember the Presidential debates?) seems to revolve around how best to use fracking to create jobs, part of what helped Obama and Democrats in general take the lead on election day was the background commentary on rape from Republican Senate candidates. Politicians who spoke as though women were not an active, organized, equal voting block lost their races, and Cuomo seems to have picked up on the fact that somewhere in the Zeitgeist of today’s political climate, this sub-narrative of the 2012 election cycle holds a lot of political power.
The potentially opportunistic aspect of Governor Cuomo’s speech and legislative proposal is not meant to discount him. Though it seems that in years past Cuomo was less interested in focusing the conversation on women’s rights, whatever it took to get him to where he is today–speaking boldly and creating meaningful legislation for women–is irrelevant. What is most interesting to me is that the Governor received a standing ovation after shouting, “It’s her body it’s her choice! It’s her body, it’s her choice! It’s her body, it’s her choice!” That is to say, it is (possibly) becoming strategically advantageous to be seen barefaced and brazenly fighting for women’s rights.
And that is a very nice thing to see indeed.
Contribute your links and quotes from politicians standing up for women’s rights and equality in the comment box below.