We are not gestators, birthers, breeders or feeders. We are mothers.
A guest post by Victoria Smith
Here is an amazing fact: not everyone who gets pregnant wants to be called a woman. I know, people wanting to be called different stuff! Positively mind-blowing.
Each to their own, you could say, only this actually quite mundane fact is now dictating the way campaign groups and charities talk about anything relating to the female body and female reproduction. Those of us who menstruate or get pregnant or breastfeed aren’t women, or even female. We’re menstruators, or gestators, or chest feeders. We might be women, but then again, we might not.
Anyone who questions the broader implications of this development is placed into one of three camps: 1) the ignorant, who do not yet know about people wanting to be called different stuff; 2) the unkind, who know about people who want to be called different stuff but just don’t care; 3) the full-on menstrual blood-swilling, moon goddess worshipping female body fetishists, who insist on policing the gates of True Womanhood. If you’re lucky, you might be classed as belonging to all three camps. Once that happens, people can call you anything they like.
A recent example of this involves the stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands, who tweeted about the way in which loss affects not only the “birthing parent”. Many women who’d experienced stillbirth felt hurt by this terminology, and it’s not difficult to see why. Baby loss is not just a birthing incident, any more than a foetus is just an unborn child. To be called a mother – to have that specific, intimate relationship recognised – matters. There is a long history of stigma and shame surrounding miscarriage and stillbirth. Women whose babies do not survive deserve to be classed as mothers, too.
That, at least, is how I would see it. Sands seem to have understood this, too, issuing an apology for their failure to include the word “mother” in their original tweet. That could have been an end to it but alas, was not. Grieving mothers were immediately accused of “bullying” the charity. To those intent on ensuring language describing female embodied experience be completely removed from any broader social context, these women were being ignorant, unkind or fetishistic. Might as well throw in “essentialist”, too.
Journalist Elle Hunt declared it “disgraceful” that Sands had been “bullied into apologising”. “Please stand up to these bullies,” tweeted Freddy McConnell, who lost a court case over the right to be recorded as the father of their own healthy child. “'Birthing parent' includes everyone – mothers, trans fathers and nonbinary parents”. The Times’ Alice Thomson demanded we focus on “the real threats women face today” and “worry a little less about tweets”.
The implication is that when women seek to maintain the link between motherhood and female biology, they are being conservative, petty and mean, whereas when those such as McConnell seek to sever it, they are being inclusive. That a request to have one’s status as a mother respected may be rooted, not in spite, but the desire to have a meaningful social relationship acknowledged, is completely overlooked. It is as though women -- gestators, incubators, vessels, whatever one wishes to call them next – do not have needs of their own. Their suffering is but a simulation, their grief a weapon to be used against those whose feelings matter more.
The degree of callousness is remarkable, if not necessarily surprising. Traumatised women being told to get over themselves – that the very expression of their pain is offensive – is par for the course. A few years ago, a friend of mine wrote about how her experience of rape made her appreciate female-only spaces; she was told in response that in connecting womanhood and biology, she was “thinking like a rapist”. Now McConnell and Hunt suggest that bereaved women are merely transphobes, as though they cannot possibly be claiming space for their own lives and losses. To lose an infant is to lose a lifelong relationship, a future, a story. It is ludicrously narcissistic to suggest that none of this matters so much as having a pop at someone whose identity isn’t half as shocking and boundary-breaking as they think it is. But it is the logical conclusion of ignoring the ways in which our identities are formed in relation to others.
Why should pure self-perception trump the recognition of how our relationships define us? It’s a question which gets to the heart of the current conflict between gender identity proponents and feminists. Feminists, as we keep explaining (again and again), do not identify with the gender stereotypes imposed on us as a result of being born female. We recognise “womanhood“ as something which describes our social position in relation to others and the world at large. As Beauvoir put it, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine“. It is dishonest to suggest feminists believe female people possess some innate womanly identity, or that those who bear children have some magic mummy essence. Womanhood and motherhood are neither innate sentiments nor off-the-shelf identities; they are formed within the context of human connections.
And these human connections matter. In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes the way in which the arrival of images of babies in the womb inadvertently bolstered an individualistic politics that denies mutual dependency:
“The baby floats, an independent astronaut, with only an umbilical cord connecting it to the world around. The mother doesn’t exist. [...] The foetus is alone. The mother is eradicated. The pictures don’t show any relationship between mother and child: we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals.“
The gestator becomes birther and then she is gone. Yet as Marçal points out, this Tory-esque fantasy isn’t real: “being human is experienced precisely through a gender, a body, a social position, and the backgrounds and experiences that we have. There is no other way“. Deny the relationships, and you end up denying the humanity.
The political implications of this cannot be downplayed. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go, there are two sets of people: ordinary men and women, and their clones, who exist solely to provide donor organs. The former are considered capable of love, compassion, suffering, grief, while the latter are completely dehumanised, all the better to exploit them. Once you reduce female people to a series of parts and services – gestators, chest feeders, menstruators, birthers, cervix havers – you render them less than human. MRAs knew this when they complained that feminists risked “reducing men to sperm donors”. They feared that what men do to women might one day be done to them.
If you insist on a world in which biologically male people can be men or women, while those who gestate, give birth, lactate etc. are identified by their biological function, you haven’t smashed the patriarchy at all. You’ve maintained the same two tiers, only now, rather than existing as a distinct class, female people have the status of Ishiguro’s clones, or the invisible mother in the scan of the womb. It’s okay to use us because that’s what we’re there for. The clue’s in the name: gestator, birther, breeder, feeder. We’re simulacra of men and women, with fully exploitable parts. Take whatever you need.
It is not ignorant, or cruel, or fetishistic, to value a unifying terminology which describes the social status of the female sex class. Neither is it bullying to request that grieving women be granted recognition as mothers. We are not just a series of disconnected biological experiences. A truly inclusive, humane politics would reject such individualism and prioritise language which values community, a heart and a soul.