Birth Strike

The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work

Jenny Brown looks at the declining birth rate in the US—alongside well-funded resistance to abortion and contraceptive access—and sees not a moral divide but an economic power struggle: amid some of the least family-friendly policies in the developed world, women are exercising an uncoordinated work slowdown, reducing their labor output until conditions (including health care, childcare, and paid parental leave) improve. At the same time, corporations are determined to avoid paying for motherhood or the expense of raising children, while simultaneously invested in population growth, in order to maintain an ever-growing supply of exploitable workers. Brown makes present what other analyses of the civil rights efforts—especially those related to immigration and race—have also uncovered: that the limitation of human rights nearly always has roots in economic power. In short, whenever one group has their freedom curtailed, you can be certain that a wealthy few are profiting from it.

Reading notes

Unpaid labor

In Birth Strike, Jenny Brown argues for an analysis of the politics of reproductive rights that is rooted not in religious or moral concerns, but in economics—specifically, the economic power of women’s unpaid labor.

The standard explanation for anti-abortion politics in the United States is that politicians are appealing to conservative “values voters.” It’s easier to argue that when abortion is at issue, but as birth control has come under increasing fire, the explanation that politicians are buckling to grassroots pressure has become less reliable. The U.S. may be a religious country, but 99 percent of sexually active U.S. women have used birth control. According to surveys, even among men and women who oppose abortion, 80 percent support access to contraception. Far from pandering to a religious base, in attacking birth control, politicians are taking a stand that is wildly unpopular.

Planned Parenthood, long under attack for providing abortions, calls this “the glaring contradiction at the heart of the anti-choice movement … The same forces who oppose abortion also vigorously oppose expanding access to the information and services that prevent unintended pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion.”

But it’s only a contradiction if the goal is to reduce abortions. If the goal is to increase childbearing, both abortion and contraception would be targets, along with accurate sex education.

Brown, Birth Strike, page 4

And why would the goal be to increase childbearing? Brown continues:

A higher birth rate does serve an economic goal: An ever-expanding workforce raised with a minimum of public spending and a maximum of women’s unpaid work. Why would employer’s pay for parental leave if they can push us into maternity leave for free? Why would corporations pay taxes for a national childcare system if families can be induced to take that burden upon themselves? But women are refusing—by some measures our birth rate is the lowest it has ever been—so they can only achieve that goal if they further deprive us of reproductive control.

Brown, Birth Strike, page 11

This is one of those analyses that seems so obvious as soon as you see it, and leaves you agog that you couldn’t see it before. Brown provides gobs of data to back up her case here (including many a conservative politician and thinker saying the quiet part loud), but it didn’t take much to convince me. I’ve long been certain that restrictions on reproductive rights were not really about faith, but about controlling women—but I never took the next step and asked why women needed to be controlled. Brown does, and the answer is clear: to wrest as much economic value from them as possible.

Most politicians portray themselves as “pro-family,” but none do it more vigorously than conservative Republicans. This might seem ironic, as it is the most loudly pro-family who try to block increases to the minimum wage, cut Head Start childcare and school lunch programs, slash welfare payments for parents and health care for children, oppose any kind of family leave (even unpaid), and generally make life less livable for children and families.

But it is not just hypocrisy, and it is worth decoding. What “pro-family” really means is families instead of government. Cut government, and put the work on families. And by “families,” they mean women, and women’s unpaid labor.

Brown, Birth Strike, page 34

It’s hard for me not to see my own choices in Brown’s critique. I do not have children; I never wanted to be a mother. As a close friend oft reminds me, at 40 years old, I am among the first generation of women for whom access to contraception and abortion has been a given my whole life. My choice was not an economic one. But I also grew up keenly aware of how hard it is to balance motherhood and work, and I entered the workforce at a time when paid maternity leave was even less generous than it is today. Brown argues that women have been participating in an uncoordinated work slowdown for years now, simply by electing to have fewer children, and that it’s past time to organize into a proper strike. I’ve thought about it, and I can seem to muster only one response to that calling: I’ll see you on the picket line.

Tend and befriend

Among the many things that Solinit’s A Paradise Built in Hell makes clear are the dozens of embedded myths about humanity’s bestiality and frailty which patriarchal capitalism must perpetuate in order to defend itself:

Three hundred and fifty years after [Thomas] Hobbes, the biobehavioral scientists Shelley E. Taylor and Laura Cousino Klein concluded that contrary to the longtime assumption about how human beings respond to danger, women in particular often gather together to share concerns and abilities. They conclude that “this ‘tend-and-befriend’ pattern is a sharp contrast to the ‘fight-or-flight’ behavior pattern that has long been considered the principal responses to stress by both men and women.…” In other words, crises and stress often strengthen social bonds rather than breed competition and isolation.

Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, page 92

The fight-or-flight metaphor is so insidious I’ve used it to describe my own behavior, without criticism. How many other stories are buried in my brain which work the same way?

The radical economists J.K. Gibson-Graham (two women writing under one name) portray our society as an iceberg, with competitive capitalist practices visible above the waterline and below all kinds of relations of aid and cooperation by families, friends, neighbors, churches, cooperatives, volunteers, and voluntary organizations from softball leagues to labor unions, along with activities outside the market, under the table, bartered labor and goods, and more, a bustling network of uncommercial enterprise.

Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, page 94

Also below the waterline: motherhood, without which capitalism would collapse but which is rarely rewarded or counted (even less so, these days).

Solnit notes here and elsewhere that the fight over a better world is as much about ideas and stories as it is about policy: policies are the consequences of beliefs, not creators of them. There is a story, today, of millions of people staying home, in solidarity for one another—tending and befriending from afar. What is the best way to tell it? And who will try to bury it under other, false, stories?