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.