One of my students has generously agreed to let me post her paper on classical feminism, patriarchy and birth. Read on!
Women as well as men have been discussing the various ramifications of patriarchy and sexism for quite awhile now. A lot of thought has gone into strategy on how to best fight it. However, the root cause often goes unquestioned by those discussing the effects. Some prominent thinkers have attempted to discover the root. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, states that the fundamental reason for women's oppression is her enslavement to the reproductive function. I agree. The female identity is formed not only in a reproductive body but in largely unexamined preconceived notions about that body. As Mary O’Brien, a political theorist and midwife, clearly puts it: the unexamined reproductive process is the sturdiest plank in the platform of male supremacy.
So where did these preconceived notions come from? Both Beauvoir and O’Brien believe that there was a historical moment that catalyzed patriarchy.They explain that in realizing the reality of paternity and the male contribution to the reproductive process, men created systems in which they could control the process of reproduction. In patriarchy, female reproductive processes are defined by men.These processes, including menstruation, gestation and birth, have been deemed not only scientifically uninteresting, but have also been mystified as the unknown, the strange, and even the grotesque.
This patriarchal view has clearly permeated the female view of her own body’s function. Even Simone de Beauvoir writes that the mother “is the prey of the species, which imposes its mysterious laws upon her, and as a rule this subjection to strange outer forces frightens her, her fright being manifested in morning sickness and nausea” .To Beauvoir, nursing is “the species gnawing at their vitals.”
Beauvoir, despite her great strides for feminism at her time, does not rethink the significance of the motherhood holistically and outside of male formed systems. Therefore, she, like the rest of patriarchal thinkers, denies the possibility of motherhood as a meaningful and authentic factor of a woman’s identity. Once we acknowledge that commonly held views on motherhood are not universal truths, we can begin to accept the idea that the female reproductive process gives women a unique connection to the body, cyclic nature, and continuity.
The concept of being pregnant, and experiencing the evolution of having another identity within your body can be an enlightening experience, in which the concept of inner and outer, self and other, become blurred and questioned. In gestation and birth, women engage with the mind-body dualism in a way that is uniquely female.
The poet Adrienne Rich asserts that “patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications.... in order to live a fully human life we require not only control of our bodies; we must touch the unity and resonance of our physicality, our bond with the natural order, the corporeal ground of our intelligence.” The intelligence and transcendence experienced by mothers that Beauvoir calls an illusion, Rich believes to be a consciousness outside of the narrow specifications of patriarchal thought.
Beauvoir along with other intellectual 20th century feminists are quick to acknowledge the disempowering, enslaving, and unpleasant elements of motherhood in contrast to the stereotypically male roles. Motherhood can be boring. It can be tedious and exhausting. Enslavement to any one role without choice or agency should be fought against, but motherhood is not intrinsically this, despite how patriarchal norms have defined it. There is the real possibility for a powerful female identity that has gone overlooked.
If the process of reproduction from conception to gestation to birth is understood, women can form for themselves an identity that experiences authentic creation in reproduction. The identity is formed by accepting the lack of control and the inevitability of repetition in life, by connecting to and understanding the body, and by engaging in the complex history of female subjugation by men, rooted in reproduction.
It is time to open our eyes to the norms we accept in our hospitals regarding birth. We must open our ears to the patriarchal stories we tell each other that put fear and disgust in the birth process. Most importantly, all people, men and women, must open their arms to all the strong women who both struggle within and celebrate the experience of living in a menstruating, ovulating, pregnant, birthing, nursing, or menopausal female body. Whether it be ignored, mystified, worshipped, or objectified, it is woman’s to dwell within and create.