Almost fifty years ago there was an influential woman who called pregnancy “barbaric,” described childhood as “hell,” and said giving birth was “like shitting a pumpkin.” Shulamith Firestone was a radical activist and remarkably prescient thinker who helped define feminism as we know it. Yet today she remains largely—and unfairly—unknown.
Through her relentless activism and acerbic writing, Firestone played a key role in developing the so-called “second-wave” feminism. As a socialist feminist, she reinterpreted Marx, Engels, and Freud in her widely influential work The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970). In her book (which you can purchase here, or read online here) she embraced technology in its liberating potential, becoming the world’s first cyberfeminist two decades before cyberfeminism was even "a thing." At the time of The Dialectic, something now as commonplace as IVF was still dismissed as futuristic dystopia, yet in her book, Firestone advocated for reproductive technologies that we'd deem "visionary" even today.
According to her, the biological family unit constitutes “an inherently unequal power distribution” (1970: 9). The reproductive functions determined by our biology have in turn determined power imbalances within the family, and until we make these reproductive functions irrelevant, women will not be truly free.
Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex mirrors Marx’s dialectical materialism. She sees the division of labor within the family—where one sex bears the burden of reproduction for both—as fundamentally unfair. In the division of labor typical of traditional families, one half of the species sacrifices itself to perpetuate the entire humanity, while the other half goes about the “business of the world” (p. 205). This leads to a conception of the female gender as connected to the natural, while man is seen as the creator of culture. So, just as Marx and Engels called for a radical revolution whereby the underclass of proletariat should regain control of the means of production, so too should women revolt and seize control of the means of reproduction. And what’s more, just as the socialist revolution aimed to abolish not just the privilege of the bourgeoisie, but also the class distinction altogether, so should feminism eliminate sex differences completely.
“The heart of woman’s oppression,” Firestone decrees, “is her childbearing and childrearing roles” (p. 72). The overused phrase “women and children” is symptomatic of a relationship of codependence and mutually reinforcing oppression. Women won’t be truly free until they are released from the biological shackles of pregnancy and childbirth, and children won’t develop into autonomous and happy individuals as long as they’re considered the property of their parents.
The class structure and underlying power struggles are therefore not solely characteristic of male-female relationships, but also of the relations between parents and children. Childhood plays a central role in Firestone’s theory, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say she wanted childhood abolished just as much as she did motherhood. Firestone sees children as being fundamentally oppressed. The period we commonly refer to as “childhood” is a myth, and is in fact an often humiliating experience that should be eradicated if we want children to be happy and develop into fully functioning individuals.
In the chapter titled “Down with Childhood,” she reminds us that in the Middle Ages children weren’t even perceived as different from adults, as they worked and slaved just like everybody else. Children didn’t have a vocabulary of their own, but “shared the vocabulary of feudal subordination” (p. 77). With the advent of empirical science and the bourgeoisie, childhood developed into a state of its own, adjacent to the concept of "family." By the 16th and 17th centuries, thinkers such as Rousseau helped develop an ideology around childhood.
This new way of thinking added a layer of glorified innocence to childhood, but it also brought with it segregation and oppression. The forming of the concept of childhood can be traced in the development of a special industry around it, including special toys, games, baby food, children’s book, children’s fashion, media programs, and advertising "specially" designed for children. Segregation is a sign of domination and oppression, and kids have separate kindergartens, separate schools, separate food, separate parks—all spaces and institutions it would be inappropriate for adults to frequent if they’re not the children’s parents or instructors. This takes away children’s freedom: “Gone are the days of Huckleberry Finn:” Firestone writes, “Today the malingerer or dropout has a full-time job just in warding off the swarm of specialists studying him, the proliferating government programs, the social workers on his tail” (p. 92).
Quite remarkably, Firestone thought this extreme institutionalization and segregation is responsible for our desire to procreate. The differences between adults and children have been exaggerated, and since adults are so brutally and artificially separated from children they choose to have offspring just because they miss their company! “An absence of contact with the reality of childhood makes every young adult ripe for the same sentimentalization of children that he himself probably despised as a child” (p. 94). The decision to have children of one’s own is made out of desperation, as an attempt to fill the void created by the premature and unnatural disconnection from children.
Not only are women tied down to children on a practical, biological level, but they’ve also shared the same stereotypes and have historically experienced the same kind of discrimination. Both women and children
were considered asexual and thus “purer” than man. Their inferior status was ill-concealed under an elaborate “respect.” One didn’t discuss serious matters nor did one curse in front of women and children; one didn’t openly degrade them, one did it behind their backs … A man is allowed to blaspheme the world because it belongs to him to damn—but the same curse out of the mouth of a woman or a minor, i. e., an incomplete “man” to whom the world does not yet belong, is considered presumptuous, and thus an impropriety or worse. Both were set apart by fancy and nonfunctional clothing and were given special tasks (housework and homework respectively); both were considered mentally deficient (“What can you expect from a woman?” “He’s too little to understand.”). The pedestal of adoration on which both were set made it hard for them to breathe … In sum, if members of the working class and minority groups "act like children," it is because children of every class are lower-class, just as women have always been (88-90).
In her characteristic bluntness, Firestone wrote that “childhood is hell” (p. 103). A nightmare made of repressions, prohibitions, and humiliation. Children are repressed at school and repressed in the family, made to be economically and physically dependent on their parents, and then humiliated and mocked for their dependence and childish gullibility. Children are also naturally sexual beings (and this is where Freud hit the mark) but they are forced to repress their sexuality from a very early age. (As an interesting side note, Firestone thinks Freud was right in capturing the crux of all of our modern-life problems: sexuality. However, he based his observations on patriarchal societies, and so the only way his theory makes sense is if we understand it in terms of power. Chapter 3 of The Dialectic reinterprets the Oedipus complex in such terms, and in chapter 6 she uses the Freudian theory to explain how differently men and women experience and perceive love).
To the exaggeration of children’s dependence on their parents and the idealization of the child-like state we have added the glorification of motherhood and childrearing. Our society has masked the pain of childbirth with narratives of divine miracles and the mystical experience of childbirth. The trivial toil of childrearing—with the myth of its creativity. But in reality, Firestone reminds us, pregnancy is a terribly painful and inconvenient experience. In fact, it’s “like shitting a pumpkin” (p. 199).
Childbearing is a “temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species” that “hurts and isn't good for you” (p. 198). As a result of the traumatic, “barbaric” experience of pregnancy, mothers educate their children in a way that is oppressive, possessive, and stifling. Displaying a type of psychological behavior that today we would call "effort justification," “a mother who undergoes a nine-month pregnancy is likely to feel that the product of all that pain and discomfort ‘belongs’ to her” (p. 232). Not only would breaking the ties between women and children liberate women, but they would also empower children and enable them to grow into freer and happier individuals.
The true liberation of women would mean being free from the tyranny of their own reproductive biology, and technology can help us do that. In 1970, Firestone wrote enthusiastically about artificial womb technology and how crucial it could be to the feminist revolution. More than four decades later, geneticists and ethicists have only begun to see ectogenesis (i.e., external wombs) and asexual reproduction as “great social equalizers.” Firestone believed the technology of external wombs would help diffuse the responsibility of childbearing to the society as a whole, making both men and women equally responsible for perpetuating the species. Ectogenesis would undermine the family unit as we know it, and help integrate women and children into all aspects of society. Ideally, this technology would make sex differences irrelevant. At the very least, it should enable us to have “an honest examination of the ancient value of motherhood” (p. 199).
Once the pressure of reproduction is lifted, women would be truly free to manifest their sexuality. As soon as we eradicate heteronormativity, Firestone believed we would revert to what Freud called “polymorphous perversity,” a free expression of our sexuality, which is, in her reading, pansexuality. Her post-revolutionary society includes single professions for women, people living together instead of being married, and polyamorous relationships and households that would also include children—although not necessarily biological ones. These children would be able to go in and out of these relationships as they please, sometimes benefiting from mediation by a court of law, in much the same way that divorces are settled.
Firestone seems to have written The Dialectic of Sex with an acute awareness of how "far-out" her ideas might seem. “Our revolutionary demands” she writes at the end of the book, “are likely to meet anything from mild balking ('utopian … unrealistic … farfetched … too far in the future … impossible …') to hysteria ('inhuman … unnatural … sick … perverted … communistic … 1984 … what? creative motherhood destroyed for babies in glass tubes, monsters made by scientists?, etc.')” (p. 209). But while it’s understandable to be afraid of technology and its radical implications, she says, our fear is also a sign that we’ve "hit a nerve," as these technologies can change our lives fundamentally.
Firestone’s post-revolutionary, technologically liberated society would make the division of labor obsolete (something she calls “cybernation”). Today, these ideas would fall under what we call transhumanism and its relative—cyberfeminism. While Firestone was aware of the dangers of transhumanist technologies, in The Dialectic of Sex she also predicted they would fundamentally change two things we tend to perceive as essentially human: the way we work and the way we reproduce.
Twenty-five years later, a baby goat was carried to term inside an artificial womb. Even more remarkably, only a few months ago a human embryo was developed inside an artificial womb for the legally allowed maximum of 14 days. While the name Shulamith Firestone may not be as famous as that of other feminists, in many ways our world is moving closer to the future that she imagined. We are closer to a postgender society than we’ve ever been, and further away from the “barbaric” realities of womanhood that she so candidly denounced.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu
Christopher Frederick says
I’m wondering what the point of all this is. Childbearing and birthing is “barbaric” as much as life on the whole is. It seems to me that the arguments here tend toward a future of not just being post gender or post human, but toward post-mammalian. While that may be the right choice for some sentient beings it seems to be a position that derides those who tend to embrace the biologically evolved way of reproduction as atavistic, uneducated, and perhaps delusional. So the question is how do we accommodate a spectrum of stances toward reproduction and other human rights without alienating individuals from both sides of the argument?
Ana Sandoiu says
Fredbo, thanks for your comment, I think you capture perfectly one of the (if not *the*) most fundamental tension(s) in this argument. I actually had to deal with this tension personally when I said at a party (to a fellow strong-minded feminist) that I thought the act of giving birth ‘the natural way’ was cruel and–yes, I used the infamous word– primitive. I unleashed unexpected demons, and to me it was fascinating at the time that without judging or condemning any woman in particular, but by merely expressing my own choices and viewpoints and supporting them with arguments, I came under such flames of outrage.
I personally think each person should be able to choose whatever they want to do with their own body. Imagining ectogenesis is already a possibility, I don’t see any reason why I would shame a person for what they choose to do with their own body, for the same reason that I thankfully didn’t/hopefully won’t catch myself shaming a sex worker for choosing to use their body in that way (the Marxist-feminist argument that society is an oppressive construct and sex work only ‘appears’ to be a choice is, I think, a separate discussion).
So now upon reflection (and thanks to your observation), perhaps I should not have said at that party that I think the *act* of giving birth naturally was barbaric, but rather that forcing women to do so, or not allowing our minds to explore the possibilities of a future that is pain-free for women–is barbaric and cruel. So for me (and I think we might benefit if we read Firestone in this spirit, too) the focus is not on denigrating those who choose to go down the traveled, traditional path, as atavistic and uneducated, as you very well say, but on creating the conditions that allow the rest of us to dream and implement new possibilities. It’s more of a way of (re)claiming our bodily autonomy, together with the different autonomies that flow from it.
So hopefully that nuances things more in way of the argument and the intellectual side of things. I think where it gets trickier (at least speaking strictly of things like ectogenesis) is at the level of the policies we implement. Which of the two options does the government support? Can it support both? Where do the funds go? Given we have limited time and resources, we often need to prioritize. Again, is it fair for ectogenesis to take priority over other issues that cause pain to millions of women across the globe e.g. domestic violence and extreme poverty? Or is it we have such deep prejudice in favor of childbirth that we just cannot adapt cognitively to the reality of its harmfulness? I couldn’t find statistics reported in the same way for domestic violence so as to get a clear comparison, but according to WHO in 2015, 303 000 women will have died in childbirth http://www.who.int/features/qa/12/en/ So… the list of questions and issues with the ideas proposed by Firestone is very long.. 🙂 Thank you for bringing your own thoughts to this.
Christopher Frederick says
Ana, thank you for your clarifying response!
I absolutely agree with you on your basic point that a person, that is a sentient being, should have the right to decide for themself which path to take by way of reproduction (and myriad other decisions). For many women “natural” childbirth will probably be a desire for millennia, because of eons of biological evolution that have made us what “we” generally are: a gendered species of animal where one gender gives live birth. There is an obvious asymmetry in this reality that places the onus predominantly and overwhelmingly on women, but it is also true that many woman (I’d say most) want to experience the “joy” of carrying a child to term and giving birth despite any risks or temporary discomfort/pains that may result.
I would also like to make it clear that I believe that what we are as a species is not near (nor at the zenith of) some teleological ideal. I believe that, if we can survive, our technology will make numerous life-paths viable for future individuals, leading us to a branching out of our one species into many, perhaps even to the point where an individual becomes a species of “one.”
Three more points:
1. I personally think it awful for women to be pressured or shamed or forced into pregnancy simply because they were born with that anatomy and in a particular (patriarchal) society.
2. I think we should certainly explore any methods that would help individuals control their reproductive rights, whether it be artificial wombs or new forms of prophylaxis for that matter.
3. Lastly, I believe there will be a lot of consternation and friction as we transition into whatever it is we, as a species (or ultimately many species), are to become.
Hopefully, as individuals and as a species, we can hammer out these issues reasonably and learn from one another. As your party experience shows, none of this will be easy! Hopefully essays like yours, and back-and-forths like this, help this process inch forward.
Evan Hadkins says
These ideas are far out and I find it difficult to come up with a sensible, practical response.
Childhood isn’t hell for all children – though for far too many it is.
I’m wondering if her notion of freedom isn’t a ‘patriarchal’ one: participation is public life is validated against the domestic. What of the reverse proposal of freeing men from employment to enjoy their children and domesticity? (There is a recent book by an Australian journalist that deals with this to some extent. Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought – a wife is the spouse who allows their partner to have a career, in her usage it isn’t confined to one sex. It doesn’t have the breadth, penetration or passion of Shulamith’s work.)
As to childhood. Laws did apply to people of different ages. In medieval church reflection there was much discussion of the duties owed by children to parents and parents to children. We might think they got it completely wrong (to be anachronistic they though the right of the parents prevailed) but the discussion presumes they saw some kind of difference. Even if they didn’t see childhood in quite the same way as we do. Eg in Elizabethan England children of both sexes were dressed the same for the first few years – but this was different to how adults dressed.)
Currently attachment seems a big issue for children. I guess we can’t know if this would be so with a child raised in an artificial womb. And we may soon know. But, from the current importance of attachment, some scepticism seems justifiable.
She is surely right that she hit a nerve. And it seems that people ever since have flinched away from the hit.
Ana Sandoiu says
Yeah, so Evan, I think it comes down to the positive vs. negative definition of freedom. I personally don’t think women should be free to do something in particular, and I also think men should be able to pursue domesticity if that’s something that pleases them.
I think you may be right in your point about a patriarchal notion of freedom. But I also believe it’s a common argumentative trap to start defining freedom as the ability to do x as soon as you see someone’s not allowed to do x, when in fact freedom is the absence of restrictions to do whatever.
I wasn’t aware of medieval church reflections & how differently they perceived children, thanks for sharing that.
Re: attachment, I wonder what studies, if any, you have read that show a causation or even correlation between intrauterine life and attachment needs in early childhood? I don’t dispute that attachment is essential in a child’s at least early development, I’m just wondering if you think there’s a link between that and pregnancy.
Otherwise I think you did a great job coming up with a sensible, practical response 🙂 I wonder if that means her ideas weren’t that far out 🙂
Wayne Schroeder says
Regarding attachment and intrauterine life, the literature is replete with the process of attachment which even precedes pregnancy and can be found in most any attachment literature such as https://www.amazon.com/dp/0393707822/ref=rdr_ext_tmb The “body,” infant or parent, is a significant determiner of our reality as any other aspect. A mechanical womb would have mechanical outcomes.
Evan Hadkins says
Thanks for the link Wayne
Ana Sandoiu says
Right, so Wayne I’m aware of a vast number of studies that have attempted to establish a definitive connection between the intrauterine genetic environment and emotional behavior, but as far as I know this hasn’t been achieved. Perhaps I’ll find it in the book you mentioned? I’ve done an overview of existing research at the time that I wrote this http://www.onasaturdaymorning.com/becoming-independent-artificial-wombs-and-what-they-mean-for-women/ and at that time this was the most recent study and the closest to establishing such a connection: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v6/n5/full/nn1038.html However the research looked at pre-natal environment in conjunction with the post-natal one, so it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. Otherwise, there is a solid body of research that suggests attachment only starts within the first few minutes after a child is born and continues for a few weeks or a couple of months into the child’s life. If there are any elements in the intrauterine life that build attachment it’s important to see what they are and if they can be replicated, e.g. talking to the foetus can still be done in an artificial womb, the mother’s heartbeat can be simulated, etc.
Wayne Schroeder says
Here is a listing of 32 thousand studies of intrauterine and attachment: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=intrauterine+attachment&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=
More significant would be studies listed in neuroscience textbooks pertaining to intrauterine attachment, like the one I already indicated.
However, i doubt that the complete or even near relevant needed bonding will be obvious due to the brute originary physical conditions which limit “bonding” to be measured, as it is so nonverbal. It would thus be equally necessary to approach the question through the lens of an expert in attachment theory as applied to the human condition, which is what John Bowlby became vis a vis orphanage advice in England as he became the pioneer of attachment theory, (and resided in England.) So rather than being in a position of being able to prove “good enough conditions” to be true, it would be more likely that one would have to assess what might not be good enough conditions.
If you think about it, one level down from mother carrying the child to term, would be a human surrogate, which people have opted for already. Just looking at that process itself (and studies) creates hypotheses of how the pregnancies affect the mother-infant relationship. First, the bearer of the infant becomes very attached to the child, and has to deal with those feelings. The mother is psychologically aware of being left out of the prenatal attachment, affecting feelings for the child-to-be. My point is that even with the best research, the quality of mother child attachment will be significantly affected in ways that have already been identified in part in the literature, and i general via the theory and understanding of what attachment truly is. Making an informed extra-uterine delivery decision seems monumental and with vulnerability for a high degree of error regarding the best interests of the mother and child.
Wayne Schroeder says
This statement would not be affirmed by any valid attachment theorist (as opposed to mere literature/research): “there is a solid body of research that suggests attachment only starts within the first few minutes after a child is born and continues for a few weeks or a couple of months into the child’s life.”
The three stages of attachment occur during the first year and a half. This is why there is now a 1 in 5 likelihood of a child being born now needing treatment for a psychological diagnosis. Mothers are being forced to return to the work force after only a few weeks, and our culture is significantly suffering since the ’70s when the first studies were done. Pre-natal attachment theory is in its infancy and absence of findings is not indicative of absence of attachment processes.
s. wallerstein says
Wayne Schroeder and others,
Everyone in this discussion seems to assume that optimizing the child’s well-being is the only factor here. What about the mother’s well-being?
It well may be that a child carried to term in the womb instead of by some artificial process gains an extra point in terms of psychological health, but what about the woman’s psychological health? Doesn’t that count? For some women their career or their artistic project or whatever is so essential to their flourishing that dedicating a few months to carrying a child, with all the drawbacks of pregnancy, means that their psychological well-being is greatly diminished.
You’d have to show that carrying a baby in the womb instead of by some artificial process greatly diminishes the child’s well-being, and so far you’ve only shown that it may diminish it to some unknown degree.
Evan Hadkins says
S Wallerstein, that point is well made. Probably one assumption is that with readily available contraception the woman has a good deal of choice about getting pregnant.
Evan Hadkins says
I was thinking of attachment outside the womb. If a child grown in an artificial womb was immediately introduced to a caretaker, perhaps attachment would happen. I don’t know of any studies on pre-birth and attachment. It is certainly interesting.
Ana Sandoiu says
Wayne, I personally don’t see the difference between the research & literature available, on the one hand, and what a ‘valid attachment theorist’ would say. In fact I would believe them to be one and the same 🙂
But just for the record, the body of research I was referring to (and which I’ve quoted in my article that I linked above) is this:
Klaus, M. H. and Kennell, J. H. Maternal-Infant Bonding, Saint Louis:
C. V. Mosby, 1976. [the early research in the 70s that you were talking about]
Feldman, S. Choices In Childbirth, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978
Klaus, M. H. and Kennell, J. H. (1982). Parent-Infant Bonding (2nd
ed.). St. Louis: C. V. Mosby.
Leckman et al, 1999, Early parental preoccupations and behaviors and their possible relationship to the symptoms of obsessive–compulsive disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand Suppl. 1999;396:1–26.
These psychologists were among the first ones to research and test attachment in a scientific way. And they acknowledged a so-called ‘sensitive period’ that was roughly around the early post partum period, not until 2 years after giving birth as Bowlby believed.
Granted, these ‘grandparents’ of mother-child bond research provide pretty old research, but there are also many recent ones that have discussed bonding only in terms of the first post-partum week., as can be seen here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3838467/ (this is a nice overview of available research btw)
You seem to suggest that the 1 year and a half attachment theory has proven to be valid once and for all, which I doubt, and also you seem to suggest that mothers that have to go back to work are responsible for children needing psychological treatment. I don’t know what your source for the “1 in 5” statistics is, and I also think the causation you draw is far-fetched. Not to mention that paternal attachment surely plays a role as well 🙂
Anyways, the attachment I’m mainly concerned with is the *pre*-natal one; the reason for this and why I asked about a relevant study in the first place, one that shows a clear link between the pre-natal environment and attachment — is that as soon as they hear of artificial wombs, many people immediately throw in the mystical mother-bond argument. “But there are things happening in there…. There’s the attachment…. The bond….” And I just wish we would demystify these “things” and then soberly decide what can be done to accommodate both the mother and the baby, rather than have the knee-jerk reaction of prejudice and half-baked truths and myths about the sanctity/mystery of motherhood.
I do agree with you on one thing: absence of findings in favor of X is not indicative of absence of X. We might discover there is some biologically predetermined form of mother-child bond, or we might discover that it’s more like a biological war that is too often at the expense of the mother’s happiness and wellbeing https://aeon.co/essays/why-pregnancy-is-a-biological-war-between-mother-and-baby
p.s. @s. wallerstein, I wholeheartedly agree.
Wayne Schroeder says
Ana: Your references helps to explain your conclusions. First, the study by Kinsey, 2013 which summarizes your position that denigrates attachment (maternal-infant bonding) as having much validity was published in ‘Midwifery’ by a nurse.
More importantly, none of the research includes what is considered the standard of attachment theory which even wikipedia gets right: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory
The field is highly researched by scientific studies which were initially developed by Mary Main. I therefore remain skeptical of why the main researchers in the claimed area of attachment would be discounted in favor of a summary article written by a nurse.
The quote of 1 in 5 children likely to suffer from a psychiatric diagnosis born today was given by Allan Schore at a recent Attachment seminar at UCLA, quoted here I think: Plenary Address, Australian Childhood Foundation Conference Childhood Trauma: Understanding the Basis of Change and Recovery
Early right brain regulation and the relational origins of emotional well-being. Children Australia, 2015, doi: 10.1017/cha.2015.13.
Wayne Schroeder says
Ana–you have done well to present such basic human life concerns, from the way birth occurs (shitting a pumpkin) to how it develops (childhood, motherhood) and gives definition to our sense of self, sexuality, social status and human and transhuman values in general, via Firestone’s “Dialectic of Sex.”
The three most painful events of my life have all been as witness to childbirth, so “shitting a pumpkin” only approaches what is at stake in giving birth. It would be considered barbaric today to undergo surgery without an anesthetic, and that physiological pain is the tip of the iceberg that Firestone is addressing, actually advocating the freedom of all women from the physiology and social roles of bearing and raising a child, in order for not only women to be free, but extending that freedom to children. She extends her advocacy for children and adults to be free from socially restricted sexuality in favor of polymorphous perversity (pansexuality). Home would be a free melting pot of unmarried, polyamarous among adults and children, biological or not, as desired.
Of course these ideas are neither new, nor uncontroversial, but point out crucial areas of concern. While I highly value freedom, I think Firestone mixes up the freedom from (remove limits) with the freedom to (live well). She advocates first removing the physiological need for women to give birth to a child in order to stop the pain, and to free up a woman to not have to have the social role of childbearing which would include breast feeding. Get rid of the physical markers to provide gender role freedom.
Maybe this gives us the primary focus needed to address our human limits to freedom raised by Firestone. We live in an increasingly brave new world with technological advances providing infinite transhuman hopes. Because we can transcend our human limitations, are there any limits to transgressing our human limitations? The world of bioethics says yes, and the issue of childbirth as optional is even more profound than the concept of eugenics.
As Maurice Merleau-Ponty has said, “The body is our general medium for having a world.” (Phenomenology of Perception). While our bodies are our human limits, they are also the definers and determiners of the meaning of our world, as human, male and female. We have pain markers for helping us survive our dangerous worlds, bad experiences, but intended to be messages about how to live.
While the most painful experiences in my life have been to witness birth (two daughters, one grandchild), these pains have resulted in the most meaning of my life. Physical limitations and pain are not our primary problems. The ability (freedom) to find meaning in the pain and pleasure of our life as it is given to us in the human condition (in our bodies and the thrownness of our existence) is our true freedom (to, not from).
Ana Sandoiu says
Thank you, Wayne 🙂
And thank you for writing about your experience as a dad and granddad (and congratulations! it must be a wonderful feeling 🙂 )
I completely agree with your point about mixing up freedom “to” with freedom “from” (see my reply above).
However, I think sometimes the two are intertwined. If you’re not free from physical constraints you’re not free to move (a bit tautological). If you’re not free from social expectations perhaps you’re not to free to be who you want to be.
Sometimes the obstacles can be overcome (e.g. people’s perceptions are something you can decide to worry about or ignore) but when they’re hard facts, realities and policies it’s a bit more difficult. I’m afraid I’m 100% with Firestone when it comes to the biological shackles that women have to put up with, although of course, you could say, à la Sartre, you always have a choice– so a woman can always choose to not have a child at all if she finds the pain and all of the limitations of freedom that come with a child intolerable. And she can also accept that men simply do not have to make the same difficult choices (at least in this respect) and just live with that.
However, I think from the moment we stepped outside of nature and into culture we made an irreversible leap and whether we like it or not it’s something we’re committed to. Indeed we show our commitment every time we invent another gadget or make another scientific/medical discovery. I find it strange that we should stop precisely when it comes to the excruciatingly painful experience that is childbirth, or the massive inconvenience that is pregnancy.
What Merleau Ponty said is wonderful, and I agree with you that our bodies are definers and determiners of the meaning of our world, and that we have pain markers to help us survive. However, the way pain usually helps us survive is that it tells us what to avoid, and judging by that, no woman should ever have children 😀 or if she does, she would do so at the expense of her own survival (which is sadly the case too many times, see my first reply with the statistics).
Finally, I find your view as you expressed it in the last lines of your comment–delightfully poetic 🙂 But just a teensy tiny thing I need to say is–apart from being beautiful, for your view to be coherent as well we’d have to ask your wife and daughter/daughter-in-law whether for them the most painful moments of their lives also happened to be the most meaningful 🙂
Wayne Schroeder says
Thanks for your response, Ana: I’m a foundational believer in freedom, and especially appreciate Simon De Beauvoir’s contributions here (as opposed to Sartre’s)–see PEL’s great podcast on her concept of freedom. To elaborate, unless we have the freedom to say no, there is no freedom to say yes (of course there is no black and white here but shades of grey, which becomes freeing to the degree that we are aware of our dilemma).
We need not limit childbirth to the shackles/body confines we have been given, male and female, animal and creature. Our freedom to be individuals is limited by the fact that our reality is constructed of others, and thus individual as a concept is not real and thus an illusion, IMHO, although it may be hell, depending on the other.In our natural finite state we are limited by what we can choose to opt out of.
With technology our choices grow, but then what does that mean? Because we can opt out of our human givens, have prosthetic devices, corneal lens implants with google glass capabilities, etc, should we? Perhaps more importantly, who should tell us wether we can? Just the fact that we care what other people think, whether we get attacked at a party for expressing an opinion indicates that we are in a world of people, not just me as an individual. The implication is that life has an inescapable reciprocity and that we can opt out of that without consequences. Do we want or not want those consequences.
So freedom has its limits, whether we regard them or not. I resist to my greatest ability telling someone else what they should or should not do, and do not believe that even with children that obedience is more important than cooperation, unless obedience means not causing harm. So the “other” concept that I have in mind is generally a team (I do not believe that the majority condition should dictate to the minority, however): the mom, the dad, the child, siblings, society, countries, world.
As member of my family team, I am indebted to my wife giving childbirth, my male identity uniting with her female identity resulting in passion, sexuality, childbirth, and love. Without her femaleness, I would not be able to enjoy my maleness (as I know it, although not limiting options to just what is possible) and we might not have had children, and not been able to enjoy having children, and our children enjoy having supportive parents.
To me, this team necessity is the limit of my/our individual freedom to enjoy the benefits of a family–not something I dictate as my or my wife or my children’s obligations, but their condition which requires mutual respect for true valuation. Again I am not trying to be normative here, but descriptive of the factors which contribute to my freedom, though caught in the identities developed by my sex and gender roles, and those of my wife, and freedom to participate in a family.
I see these as freedoms within the physical limitations of our human givens. Certainly Firestone or anyone else is free to not choose to participate in the physical limitations of our human givens, but I do not see that as necessarily true freedom in general, if we look at the trade-offs between our givens, and our benefits from accepting those limitations.
I could ask my wife and daughter whether the most painful moments of their lives also happened to be the most meaningful, but I think to directly respond to you implication here is that I agree with you, that if they, or anyone does not agree that the pain is worth the gain, it is not my place to impose that. In fact my daughter is currently on the horns of that dilemma, considering if the pain and sacrifice of being a mom is worth it for the second time. My wife just said that she continues to wonder at times if it was worth it.
s. wallerstein says
From what I recall, Firestone’s proposals of reproductive technology stem from her project of transcending what you refer to as “male” and “female identity” and freeing people to develop an androgynous identity beyond male and female.
I don’t see why those who want to transcend traditional identities and develop an androgynous one should not be free to do so (and use reproductive technologies to facilitate the process) just as I don’t see why those who prefer to follow more traditional gender identities should also not be free to do so.
Neither path is the “right” one or the “moral” one and neither path seems “wrong” or “immoral” to me.
Wayne Schroeder says
fully agree. here’s my disclaimer “Again I am not trying to be normative here, but descriptive of the factors which contribute to my freedom, though caught in the identities developed by my sex and gender roles, and those of my wife, and freedom to participate in a family.”
i think firestone is not just presenting a private message.
Ana Sandoiu says
Thanks for your very thoughtful and candid response, Wayne 🙂
Fritz D. says
re: shitting pumpkins. Well depends on the size of the “hole” and the “pumpkin”, not that that is everything! We don’t want to scare young women, IMO. Being a woman is an amazing gift and wonderful! Being a mother is deeply meaningful for many women, more meaningful than a career or anything else. And I’ve heard women say that for them giving birth wasn’t bad at all. Some have sworn it wasn’t so bad even without anesthetics! 🙂 I’ve known men that have had to pass kidney stones (saw my father in agony because of it) and recall hearing that can be worse, but who is to say.
Transhumanism – fascinating subject! In the future perhaps what comes after we’ve shed our humanity will be a kind of androgynous creature, which it seems is what many involved in working towards social justice and equality desire. Indeed many brave activists on campuses today seem quite ready for this in their styles of dress, the hairstyles and so on (And the media seemingly supports them. See the latest “Covergirl”). I’ve heard much discussion of the artificial womb, but mainly from men discussing how they can have a child without having to deal with women, LOL (as well as the tragically high probability of divorce if they got married only to subsequently have their children taken from them). Technology will end many of humanity’s problems, perhaps ultimately by ending “humanity” itself.
Ana Sandoiu says
Thanks for your comment, Fritz. I’m glad you find transhumanism fascinating, and that you admire the ‘brave activists’, as do I 🙂
As for the kidney stones, I suppose whoever made that comparison should’ve at least had to experience both pregnancy *and* kidney stones to have a valid opinion 😀
But yes, the pains of childbirth definitely vary in intensity and it would be interesting to look at some studies in this regard.
My only objection would be to the idea that we should try not to discourage women from pregnancy… There are many reasons why I disagree, off the top of my head: 1. “we” is usually men, as you yourself noticed in the discussions on artificial wombs (men are by no means the enemy, it’s just that there’s no biological or social expectation of them to bear children, so it’s not fair for them to decide what women should be encouraged to or discouraged from doing) and 2., connected with 1, I guess that’s Firestone’s essential point, that we ‘encourage’ women to carry the burden of the whole species and that’s unfair, and finally 3. I personally (and this is purely personal, many women might disagree with me) but I don’t care much for the ‘miracle of being a woman’ argument, as I think it’s unfounded and mystifies/glorifies what is in many ways a disadvantaged/oppressed condition due to society’s still backward views on women.
As for ‘being a mother is better than having a career’, well, here I’m pretty sure I’m backed up by most feminist literature when I say that’s deeply sexist 😀 I realize you’re saying it from a place of intellectual honesty and kindness, but I’d just like to *strongly* emphasize that this same argument has been used innumerable times to discredit women’s professional aspirations and achievements. I don’t deny there are some women out there who think this way, I just think it’s dangerous to speak in a generalizing fashion “in the name of many women” when these many women are clearly not present in this conversation 😀 That being said, I do not discredit men’s opinions on feminist issues, on the contrary, I value them deeply. I do hope you see my point.
Fritz Deplorable says
I scanned this. I’ll look at it later more carefully. TBH I was kind of trolling you. I find this feminist crap triggering. I am a sexist, apparently, which is fine by me. I think feminism is evil and insane and anti-Western civilization. Not all of it, but enough.
Growing kids outside the uterus (or whatever) seems like a nice idea, but I’m kind of thinking there’d be no ethical way to test it out. There was a Radiolab episode that got into the science of early development, and some of the observations in it suggest that the growing zygote needs to hook into the mother in ways that are kind of mysterious and hard to study: http://www.radiolab.org/story/primitive-streak/. I’m thinking that trying to replicate that process outside a human body would be really hard and prone to error. In the trial and error stage, you’d probably end up with a lot of not-quite-right folks — making the testing highly unethical. To be sure, I’m happy to say the idea is good as a sort of Platonic thought experiment, and it points in the direction of making child-bearing less of a burden for mothers. But I think the focus should be on how to go about making child-bearing less onerous, not hoping for some sort of technological deus ex machina that will fix the problem.
Ana Sandoiu says
Thanks for the link Dan, I love Radiolab, I’ll make sure to give it a listen.
I found this to be a great article on the technical nitty-gritty involved in an external womb http://io9.gizmodo.com/how-to-build-an-artificial-womb-476464703
Otherwise, a baby goat was exclusively and successfully grown inside an external womb as early as the mid-nineties http://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/29/magazine/the-artificial-womb-is-born.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm&_r=0
And yes, I agree with the problem posed by ethical testing… It’s by far the most serious hurdle in the way of making external wombs a reality….
Singer & Wells, in this (awesome) book https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ectogenesis-Artificial-Technology-Reproduction-Inquiry-ebook/dp/B00FM0NMPI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1477264571&sr=8-1&keywords=ectogenesis (which btw gives a comprehensive overview of the ethical considerations around artificial wombs) Singer and Wells recommend a sort of ‘gradual’ experimenting. We have already started to save premature babies by incubating them at a gradually earlier stage. We need to back this up, they say, with mental and psychological testing of the prematurely born babies at a relevant age – perhaps 6 years. If these tests turn out fine, we can move the incubating time even earlier in the pregnancy, and so on. This way we avoid unethical experimentation and we might have achieved full ectogenesis in a few decades.
Interesting and sort of plausible sounding.
Mary Ricci says
I wonder if Firestone’s ideas would help quell the annoying personality traits of the offspring raised by helicopter parents.
Ana Sandoiu says
Haha, Mary, in her characteristic style, Firestone literally says our traditional views on motherhood and childhood result in “the insecure and therefore aggressive/ defensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child” 😀
s. wallerstein says
I read the book when it first came out (I’m 70 and male), and I don’t remember all the details, but one thing stuck in my mind, her suggestion that women carry out a “smile boycott” against men. Until then I never realized how many women feel obligated to smile at men and at the world in general, that we males have a “right” to frown and to look grouchy that women lack. In any case, thanks for blogging on this book.
Ana Sandoiu says
Yes!! The smile boycott!! I loved that! It’s only been surprisingly recently that this notion of women smiling to please men has reached mainstream media http://beautyisinside.com/2015/04/smile/ I’m so happy to hear you’d read the book and that it caused a mental shift, that’s beautiful 🙂
s. wallerstein says
Realizing that women were not “born” to smile at men was part of a long process of becoming aware that the women are subjects with as wide and as varied a range of projects, characters and personalities as males have.
For me, it’s a question of my own personal dignity, not to go through life being unaware of the range and variety of ways that women see themselves, see society and see men. In that sense the book contributed to my awareness of women and hence, to my own sense of dignity.
Chris Harman says
I will link some appropriate media to this particular conversation. In the form of a funny video 🙂