Feminism Beyond the Veil

by Courtroom Mama on April 4, 2010

The Hospital Veil

I used to be post-feminist.

I was a college student sporting a purple mohawk and taking classes with titles like Latina/Chicana Sexualities and thumbing my nose at the decidedly second-wave Sociology of Gender prof. Quoth she: those women who think it’s empowering to be strippers, if they really want to take on men, they should go to law school and go toe-to-toe with them in a courtroom! Puh-lease.

I was young and brash—and maybe sort of a bad-ass—and this feminism stuff just sounded out of touch and tinny to my ear (the “strippers vs. lawyers” bit still falls flat, but for a whole host of new reasons I won’t bore you with). “Stop telling me I’m being oppressed” I thought, “feminism has run out of dragons to slay. What’s left? The pay gap? Reproductive rights? Why is it about ‘women power’; why not people power?” Yeah, I definitely never said I was proud of my 19-year-old self.

Somehow, after years of telling myself that it would never be my fate, I decided I would go to law school—perhaps to spare myself the life of ill repute? I learned about gender discrimination and the long and painful fight for women’s recognition as people under the law, but it was always something for someone else. Not me. I wanted to work on something that mattered.

Then I found myself pregnant.

How many other women’s stories go the same way? How many women thought they “had it all” only to feel the cold wash of existential panic when the two fateful lines materialized? Or suddenly realized that grown-ass people in a medical office were calling them “mommy” and telling them what to do as though they themselves were children. And the fact is, for a number of women of relative privilege (cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, etc.), the journey into motherhood might very well be the first point of friction with patriarchy. Many of us lucky enough to not feel the weight of oppression can manage to skate by with just our carryon baggage, but add a pregnancy or a child to the mix, and suddenly you’re “actually” a woman, or rather “just” a woman.

Back to me and my bathroom: What the hell was I going to do with a kid? I wasn’t going to give up on the path I was on; how would I work out leave, and then child care? Could I even get hired with my burgeoning belly? How would I pay for someone else’s college when my own law degree was mortgaged to the hilt?!

There would be time to worry about that, but for the time being, my life was a stream of prenatal visits and childbirth classes, stacks of books and medical evidence, changing prenatal care providers to save myself from the unnecessary cesarean I was barreling towards, and finally snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: I got my cesarean after all. I was still itchy and groggy from the spinal, wondering what hell had just happened to me, when I wondered if I’d ever be able to have a vaginal birth and reclaim the sense of control that had been so abruptly taken from me. And so my journey began.

When describing the transformative experience of becoming a parent, many women reach for the metaphor of a veil: looking behind the veil, the veil falling from their eyes. It’s apt, particularly when it comes to issues affecting birthing women. Birth, like death, exists in a place as curtained off from the rest of daily life as it is in hospital wards. Is it any wonder that most people know nearly nothing about these rites of passage before they’re on their threshold?

Many pixels have been burned asking where the feminists all are, why the NARALs and the ACLUs haven’t come to the rescue of women seeking to exercise their right to informed consent and retain their full human rights during pregnancy. Considering that the very question erases the work of the many feminists who do work for healthy birth, the multiplicity of feminisms, and the women of color reproductive justice organizations who have always included the right to childbearing with dignity in their agendas, the question could more accurately be characterized as “where are the young, [often] white, college-educated, cis-gendered, heterosexual women that we acknowledge as the true voice of feminism?”  When that is the question, the answer is that they’re on the other side of the veil—those who have crossed over are no longer counted within the narrow definition of feminism that the question assumes. Now they’re “mommy-feminists,” not The Real Feminists (tongue in cheek).

I can’t fault people for what they don’t know, but what I can do is push people to expand their thinking about pregnancy and birth. My message is one that is addressed to feminists and non-feminists alike: birth matters, women matter, families matter. I hope that it serves as an opportunity for The Real Feminists to consider something outside of their experiences, just like queer women and sex workers and “other” women of all sorts have made me bust open the lid on my box and think about things outside of it.  Sometimes I find myself wondering why other people aren’t addressing issues that I care about, but I have to wonder why I’m not addressing issues that are of vital importance to other people. We can all only do so much, and I try to amplify the work of others striving for gender equality from other angles, but I know my place is here, in feminist motherhood.

I used to be post-feminist. Then I became a mother and realized that, for my children’s sake, I had to find my feminist voice.

This post was written for the Eleventh Carnival of Feminist Parenting, hosted by Mothers for Women’s Lib.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

@OmnicronCeti April 5, 2010 at 1:56 am

Yes. This. But minus the law degree :)

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Jill--Unnecesarean April 5, 2010 at 5:56 am

Part 1 of comment:

The veil wasn’t just lifted– it was ripped off, torn up, used as a toilet paper and tossed into a vat of acid. Pregnancy and birth were not the first points of friction with patriarchal values in my life, however. I don’t know how any woman could make it through to adulthood without ever noticing disparities, glass ceilings and disdainful attitudes toward female sexuality and reproduction.

For me, it was one of the first times I had ever felt the despair of being up against an institution at a vulnerable period without an advocate and without time on my side. Somehow a combination of nature, privilege, a freight train of baby, my doula and Supernurse sent from heaven, my top-notch negotiating skills (/sarcasm), happenstance and whatever else allowed me to avoid a cesarean with my refusal more or less respected.
My recent post New Jersey Cesarean Rates by Hospital, 2009

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Jill--Unnecesarean April 5, 2010 at 5:56 am

Part 2 of comment:

Ultimately, I walked away with more understanding than I had ever had before of what it really feels like to be not listened to, lied to, not trusted, considered a liability and interfered with solely because of what I was physically in that relatively short period in my life. It was like concentrated institutional violence and discrimination and, with the exception of my personal and familial emotional aftermath, it was short-lived. Once I was discharged from the hospital, I was back to Privilegeville. The discrimination inherent in the maternal-fetal conflict was—POOF!—gone once I returned to my home as a patient “cured” of her pregnancy.

While it wasn’t the first time I had felt friction with the patriarchy, experiencing prenatal care and birth in an institution was like a crash course in the philosophies held by much of the dominant culture in the United States.

My recent post New Jersey Cesarean Rates by Hospital, 2009

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Courtroom Mama April 5, 2010 at 6:26 am

Haha, I've actually been sort of surprised at the way that a lot of young women manage to get through life without *really* feeling the effects of gender subordination. I think that for some women, certainly not all, it plays itself out in subtle ways. Certainly, there had been indignities in my life. Rebecca (@PushforMidwives) described saying that she wanted to be a priest and being told that "girls can't," and I definitely had those sorts of experiences. But, like you said, it was far from the soul-crushing weight of being guilty until proven innocent simply by dint of having a uterus that pregnancy brought with it. My pregnancy also involved race and class issues that made me really confront how people think about young women of color having babies; let me tell ya, it ain't pretty.

Isn't it funny, though, how once it's over, it's like all your privilege is back intact? I've personally heard of women who are professional academics or medical professionals being totally written off when they try to present medical evidence in support of their choices. But once they're done being pregnant, it's all collegiality and respect. (Well, sort of, I guess… they get to go back to being someone's inconvenient employee, and now they're going to need ALL THAT TIME OFF when their kids get sick… but that's a whole other post)
My recent post Feminism Beyond the Veil

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Noble Savage April 5, 2010 at 9:42 am

You're absolutely right, it is like a veil or a window into another world that until you've looked through it or past it yourself, you're not convinced even exists. I'm glad I got to see past that veil because, like you, even though I live a relatively privileged life, I now have a new understanding of and passion for addressing and working to eliminate (or at least minimise) the oppression of women through various dominant cultures. This feels like my life's calling and I am almost desperate to make the most of my drive and make a difference while I can. Writing doesn't even feel like enough any more, I want to get IN there an MAKE things change. Gosh, maybe I should go into law myself? ;-)

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Courtroom Mama April 6, 2010 at 3:22 am

"This feels like my life's calling and I am almost desperate to make the most of my drive and make a difference while I can."

I really feel you there! Honestly, law from a "legal practice" perspective can be a little limiting because the law is inherently backward-looking, so change is slow at best. I personally want to see more good, organized legislative advocacy — it's something moms are great at (see MADD and lots of consumer protection stuff…).

Seriously, though, if you ever do want to go into law, I'm happy to give whatever words of wisdom I might have to give. :)

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Luschka April 5, 2010 at 11:50 am

I will hold my hand up and say 'I am not a feminist', but to be perfectly honest, I don't know what I am, although I'm pretty certain that there is a word or a 'category' for people who think as I do. I just don't know what it is yet. That aside though, here are my thoughts – I am sure that I've been touched by the ''women can't do that'' brush, but I must admit that I can't think of an occasion. I tend not to think of myself as a 'woman doing x' I just think of myself as 'doing x'. Same with other women. I don't look at a woman doing a job and think, 'ooh, a woman is doing that job', I just think 'the job is being done', if that makes sense?

There's this GREAT scene in The West Wing where the (very pretty) Ainsley Hayes says: "Because it’s humiliating! A new amendment that we vote on, declaring that I am equal
under the law to a man. I am mortified to discover there’s reason to believe I wasn’t
before. I am a citizen of this country. I am not a special subset in need of your
protection. I do not have to have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old,
white men. The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me. And I went to law school
just to make sure."

I've always loved that, perhaps because I feel the same. I just assume I have the same rights, the same protections and the same opportunities, becuase I don't wait for anyone to tell me I dont.

But saying that, I've not tried to go back to work since having my child yet. My opinion might still change.
My recent post Letter to a Six Month Old

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Luschka April 5, 2010 at 11:53 am

I will hold my hand up and say 'I am not a feminist', but to be perfectly honest, I don't know what I am, although I'm pretty certain that there is a word or a 'category' for people who think as I do. I just don't know what it is yet. That aside though, here are my thoughts – I am sure that I've been touched by the ''women can't do that'' brush, but I must admit that I can't think of an occasion. I tend not to think of myself as a 'woman doing x' I just think of myself as 'doing x'. Same with other women. I don't look at a woman doing a job and think, 'ooh, a woman is doing that job', I just think 'the job is being done', if that makes sense?
My recent post Letter to a Six Month Old

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Rebecca S April 5, 2010 at 4:48 pm

CM, this is a really though-provoking post. Thank you for writing it.

I'm the one who described being told as a young person that I couldn't live out my dream of being a leader in my (former) Church on the same footing with my brothers. It was indeed soul-crushing for me, as I felt at the time deeply called to ministry and leadership. Women’s subordination in the Church tuned me in to the fact that individuals are routinely denied the opportunity to live out their passions simply because of uterus possession, race, class, etc. I began to look for such subordination, and found plenty, in other places too. I decided to become a lawyer because, at least theoretically, where we see subordination in a democratic institution we have the power to change it.

But, because of privilege of lots of sorts (white, educated, gender conforming, heterosexual), I haven’t personally heard that final, resounding NO again. I've never been pregnant, so I haven't come to understand the physical embodiment of oppression in the way that you describe.

I'm not sure what law school Lushka’s pretty TV character went to, but she probably didn't learn that the 14th amendment doesn't –actually-, in practice, protect pregnant women the same way it protects men and non-pregnant women (just ask Samatha Burton, court-ordered to remain in a hospital on bed rest, or Laura Pemberton, dragged from her home by the sheriff and operated on against her will by reason of pregnancy). Constitution aside, listen to Courtroom Mama, and Jill, and the dozens of others who have spoken out saying that they’ve felt this. I’m glad that some women personally have never had anyone tell them that the law, or commonly accepted principles of medical ethics, apply differently to them. I’m one of those women too- nevertheless, it matters most deeply to me that this sort of thing happens.

I’d suggest that we don’t wait and that we don’t assume.

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Courtroom Mama April 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Thank you for such a thoughtful response! Wow, I apologize if I minimized the gravity of you experience of being told that women can't be priests. Our 140-character conversation didn't make it clear to me that this was profoundly moving experience for you. I try to be mindful of the value people place on religion because, as a cultural Catholic doing social justice work, I sometimes find myself defending that church and sometimes admonishing it, regardless of whether or not I adhere to doctrine. It's complicated, right, and I should know that, but I nevertheless sometimes fail in gauging other people's values, and I'm sorry if I did here.

As to the 14th Amendment issue — it's interesting, you know, we've seated just about everything having to do with reproduction in the right to privacy rather than the right to equal protection, and I think that, wholly apart from the whittling away at Roe, this is coming back to bite us in the ass. This applies a thousandfold when you talk about pregnant women. Like the first post at Fertile Feminism noted, women's bodies become public property in a way that is otherwise considered outrageous. As a society, I don't think we really believe that pregnant women have a right to privacy cum bodily autonomy, which makes the privacy right rocky soil indeed. I agree that it seems offensive, and on some level legitimizing the idea that women aren't equal, to need an ERA for example. But like you, I don't want to wait or assume that I actually have equal rights, I want to make damned good and sure I have them, because history hasn't been kind to the women who assumed that they'd be treated like human beings.

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Rebecca S April 5, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I didn't feel like you minimized, and I didn't mean to be a hijacker. : )

I guess my point was that the post is about something that I can't identify personally with, but I agree should be important to people who haven't been there. By making connections between various forms of oppression, birth would necessarily be part of the agenda for social justice. I'm so happy to hear your message and love the way that you deliver it.

Here's my book topic: how would we design maternity care from behind the Veil of Ignorance? Abstract: A whole lot differently from how it is now.

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Courtroom Mama April 6, 2010 at 2:09 am

Can I preorder a copy of that on Amazon? :)

I'm always really, really happy to find allies in people who either don't yet have children or don't want to have children (understood of course that you rank among those!). I shouldn't be so surprised that people are out there, but I guess I am sometimes.
My recent post Feminism Beyond the Veil

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Janel BabyKeeper April 28, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Hi, Rebecca and Courtroommama,

great topic and conversation. Would like to invite you to listen to podcasts of my last two shows on KOPN 89.5. My guest was Maggie McCarey, Methodist Minister, author of the upcoming book, "Wise Woman's Children: Birthing the New Age". It is about her experience of being accused of being witch, with her women's group, for doing healing circles, in Schenectady, NY in 2000. Maggie also loves the Goddess and did channelings. The accusations were public, meetings were held, and it divided the church. She and her teenage daughter experienced death threats. Ten years later, letters to new churches informing them of her as a witch arrive before she does. The story is woven with early church history about women, and on the air we talk about the monk-written book, Malleus, that was adopted by the Catholic church that sanctioned witch hunts. She was to be on the week before but the phone lines were down at the station, so I and my co-host talked about misogyny and the book Malleus written in 1400. The hunts spread throughout Europe and the next week when we do have Maggie talks about celibacy of priests. She tells us that within two years of this massive woman killing that the church declared celibacy for all priests. We talked about the impact of the Church controlling reproduction of both men and women. The first show is about this and the second one is about matriarchal and the balancing of the masculine and feminine, or healing, as I like to say. I am doing a film called, "The Other Side of the Glass", a film for and about men in birth, and it has grown into an exploration of the experience of the male child from his birth through birth of his children, looking at the way the masculine has harmed the feminine and how the feminine, women, now harm men and other women, because of their wounding.

Here are direct links to the podcasts to the radio show:
April 26 -http://www.math.missouri.edu/~rich/janel/TCR10042…
April 19 -http://www.math.missouri.edu/~rich/janel/TCR10041…
April 12 was the show with the phones down at the last minute. Not a great show but some of the discussion about the Malleus book.

These shows are also on the blog for our show is athttp://www.thoughtcrimeradio.blogspot.com in the podcast archives. My film is athttp://www.TheOtherSideoftheGlass.com.

I'm starting a new show on Saturdays at 5 pm central, called Mama Rap. My co-host is a spiritual hip hop artist and we'll be rapping about motherhood, reproduction, feminism, birth, etc …. would love to have you both on sometime. Do you have July 10 or 17th open?

Thanks!
Janel
janel underscore miranda at yahoo dot com

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