labor day

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for the Old Mole, September 1, 2008

Today is Labor Day. Most nations celebrate Labor day on May first, to commemorate the eight hour work day and the Haymarket riot, while we in the US celebrate instead the less radical date associated with outdoor barbecue and the end of white shoe season.

But this Labor Day, I’m thinking about Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a future American theocracy in which declining fertility has led to assigning still-fertile women the role of designated breeders, or handmaids. Along with dystopian controls on women’s roles and bodies, the novel’s regime features the rewriting of history. “Yesterday was July the Fourth,” the narrator recalls at one point, “which used to be Independence day, before they abolished it. September the first will be Labor Day, they still have that. Though it didn’t used to have anything to do with mothers.”

Of course it’s true that mothering is work even if it isn’t waged, and parenting is labor even if one doesn’t give birth.

But still. It is, after all, only one of the many forms of human labor.

I’m thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale in part because on August 22, the department of Health and Human Services proposed a regulation that would allow health care providers not only to refuse to provide abortion – as they are already permitted to do under existing federal employment law—but would further allow those health care providers not to refer a patient to another provider but simply to withhold information about available options. Moreover, because the regulation leaves the definition of “abortion” to providers, it is vulnerable to the mislabelling that has allowed some anti-choice activists to describe IUDs, Plan B Emergency contraception, and even birth control pills as forms of “abortion.”

HHS is accepting public comment on the regulation through September 25, and the Planned Parenthood website has a link that makes it easy to submit your responses.

Two years ago in Salon dot com, Priya Jain reported on the growing anti-contraception movement. She quotes Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood, who notes, "When you peel back the layers of the anti-choice motivation, it always comes back to two things: What is the nature and purpose of human sexuality? And second, what is the role of women in the world?" Sex and the role of women are inextricably linked, because "if you can separate sex from procreation, you have given women the ability to participate in society on an equal basis with men."

Cristina Page, vice president of the Institute for Reproductive Health Access at NARAL Pro-Choice New York, notes that the anti-choice movement has succeeded in pushing legislation that, though seemingly unrelated to contraception, helps support its cause. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures , at least 19 states have fetal homicide laws that apply to "'any state of gestation,' 'conception,' 'fertilization' or post-fertilization" -- meaning that one can be convicted of manslaughter or murder for destroying a fertilized egg, even if it hasn't implanted itself in a woman's uterus.

Page says she has noticed, too, that some anti-choice groups tend not only to oppose birth control, they also oppose child care. In her book, "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics, and the War on Sex," she points to some troubling statistics and anecdotes: “Ninety percent of senators who opposed the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act are anti-choice; in the 2004 Children's Defense Fund ranking of the legislators best and worst for children, the 113 worst senators and Congress members are all anti-choice; Web sites like Lifesite and that of the Illinois Right to Life Committee post reports linking child care and aggression; Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America stress the damage that day care can have on a child. (Most of their information comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Early Child Care Report, which has been debunked again and again and again.) "The trifecta is ban contraception, ban abortion, make child care impossible," says Page.”

Frances Kissling, of Catholics for Free Choice, agrees that the ultimate message is that "mommy should stay home and take care of the kiddies. This is bound up in this notion of men at the head of a family, of women's identity as linked to their biological capacity, that men and women are complementary and different, that a woman's primary function is motherhood."

Keeping women at home as caretakers fits with the neoliberal elimination of public sector social supports for families, as the authors of the Beyond Marriage statement have observed: “the Right has mounted a long-term strategic battle to dismantle all public service and benefit programs and civic values that were established beginning in the 1930s, initially as a response to widening poverty and the Great Depression. The push to privatize Social Security and many other human needs benefits, programs, and resources that serve as lifelines for many . . . is at the center of this attack. In fact, all but the most privileged households and families are in jeopardy as a result of a wholesale right-wing assault on funding for human needs, including Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, HIV-AIDS research and treatment, public education, affordable housing, and more.”

In fairness, not all anti-choice groups seem to oppose child care. Feminists for Life, a group that has gotten some public attention since one of its members became the Republican nominee for Vice President, claims that young women should have the right to bear a child and have access to high-quality, affordable child care. While no feminist would be likely to disagree with that point, Ruth Rosen reports that Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, is “vague and evasive” about what excatly the group does to promote access to child care. Rosen notes that Foster speaks “as though she had invented the idea of child care and describes pioneer feminists of the 1960s and 1970s as selfish, diabolical creatures who never wanted women to have the choice to bear a child.” But—Rosen points out-- she's wrong. “The three demands made at the first national march in New York City in 1970 included child care, equal pay for equal work and the legal right to have an abortion. Many feminists, moreover, spent years trying to persuade the institutions where they worked that real equality for women required family-friendly policies, including child care.”

Rather than follow the path of Serrin Foster or The Handmaid’s Tale, we should remember our history. Making contraception and abortion illegal will not mean the end of abortion, any more than abstinence education actually results in abstinence.

Earlier this summer, a retired ob-gyn wrote in the New York Times about his experience, in the days before Roe versus Wade, of treating women who had had illegal abortions or tried to self abort. He concludes, “it is important to remember that Roe v. Wade did not mean that abortions could be performed. They have always been done, dating from ancient Greek days. What Roe said was that ending a pregnancy could be carried out by medical personnel, in a medically accepted setting, thus conferring on women, finally, the full rights of first-class citizens — and freeing their doctors to treat them as such.”

Comments

Good subject matter, I need to comment!

I really enjoyed this piece, but I wanted to point out a few things.

The intro to your piece explains that your piece is about the right to engage in, and the right to not engage in caretaking. However, I didn't see anything dedicated to the right to engage in caretaking. Although I think this was a great piece and I can only support you for writing about what you're passionate about, I think this piece was really about abortion rights. No big deal there, it's just that I think this should've been reflected in the title.

Raising children is not just another form of labor. It's the labor force which creates all other labor forces. It's fundamentally different in this way, and in many other ways. Another important major differences is that most other jobs are capitalistic in some way, whereas caretaking is the only truly non-exploitative job there is, making mothers the greatest force against capitalism and exploitation in the world. Caretaking is not comparable to other forms of work.

The right to caretake is absolutely not legally recognized. This is scary! It's not even partially legal in some states. The right to caretake, which keeps us all alive--and well--existed long before capitalism---and crosses all species---is a very serious issue and affects us all more than anything else I can think of!

Most women I know who care for their children full-time are the centers of their households. They are the CEO's of the household, and really, the men work for them. Women are responsible for 83% of the financial decisions in the US, and this is why, because we're at the center of society. I don't know of anyone who works "for" their husbands. I've asked housewives of the 50's if they felt oppressed, or if they got the idea that most women of that time felt oppressed, and they said they were happy.

Many mothers who work outside the home say they do it only because they have to. They don't really want to. How many more are there who are in denial, who convince themselves that they like the workload and double standard of having two-exhausting jobs---just because they can't take the pain of admitting how terrible and powerless they feel on top of their exhausting life because it would exhaust them further than they already are?

There's something fundamentally wrong with trying to assimulate women and mothers into society and "the mainstream." For one, it's fascist as hell, and for another, you can never assimulate a mother into society......because she is the creator of society!!! It's really about assimulating women into capitalism. Capitalism is bad for women and children, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the elderly, people with disabilities, etc. But, considering that control of the means of "production"---such as how society is produced (the hand that rocks the cradle...)---is SO important, then, the fact that capitalism is bad for women and children alone is reason to outlaw it. If we can't even get a hold of this "sphere," then we have fascism of the WORST kind! The NOW mission statement states that they want to bring women "to the mainstream." That can't work, we ARE the mainstream, and we must support ourselves "as is."

Gloria Steinem's "America needs more father and less mother" ideology was funded by the CIA in order to exploit and disempower us all. Which is exactly what's happened since the second wave. The whole nation has been disempowered.

"if you can separate sex from procreation, you have given women the ability to participate in society on an equal basis with men." I think this is a great statement! In am troubled by the situation where a man and a woman make a baby, yet the man can disappear when it comes to his responsibility for the child, yet the woman cannot. Is this not monumental---the man leaves a defenseless human bein which he created to die---his own flesh and blood----and the woman takes on the weight of the world to save the world! Volumes can be written about this alone. Maybe we shouldn't ignore this situation, and decide that, since we're a nation of "laws" that we should make better laws to deal with this. After all, if the mother truly is supported, then she can effectively change the culture which produced this tragedy by what she is able to teach the child, and by what she does in her political/volunteer "stay home mom" activities. And with such a cultural change that a mother can engender, we won't need laws as much. I just wanted to make the point that the quote is a powerful and true statement--I truly love it--but we could also think about that issue differently.

To unnecessarily complicate things, I wanted to say something about abortion! I think that human life probably does begin at conception--it just seems that way at first glance, and after thinking more deeply. But I think that abortion rights have nothing to do with whether this is true or not-------I think abortion rights are really about autonomy and state control. I think that abortion rights should be re-"conceptualized" and re-written as purely the right to autonomy! Or at least that if there were campaigns to change public opinion about this, I think it could be very powerful. The "where does human life begin" discussion is circular---it sucks light from issue of what our rights are.

Maybe my unnecessary abortion comment is redeeming....I am "pro-choice," but being pro-choice is very relevant to mothers' rights. Whereas I do support caretaking with my soul.....I say to the world that caretaking should at minimum be a "pro-choice" issue. Every woman should be able to make meaningful and (relatively) easy choices in the work she does.

Anyway, that's it---I just wanted to say a few things about this. I sometimes produce for KBOO, and have been wanting to do a few shows on this, but as a mother and a mother's rights advocate, I've been too busy to do these shows. I've even too busy to go to the pdxmediacamp this weekend which is supposed to serve those who are otherwise excluded from the media! So, even if a lot of people don't exactly describe feminism in my terms, please weigh my points on their merits. The mother's movement is building, and everyone I know in the movement supports my positions. Mothers aren't just roughly half of society, since they represent the kids, they're much more than half of society. I've been invited to write articles, too (but I haven't done that yet).

I had to make these points because this is my life's work. Otherwise, I wanted to say once again that I really enjoyed this article---you do quality work. I think we're in times of transition where we're negotiating our path as a society, and I support you and your work.

In solidarity,
Yvette

Wow, thank you so much for

Wow, thank you so much for the thoughtful comment!

You’re right, the description on the podcast page doesn’t really match this piece. I’ll try to take care of that.

You’re also right that my description of parenting as “only one of the many forms of human labor” does it an injustice—I was trying to force a transition, and left out a lot of things I wanted to say.

I hope I didn’t convey a mainstream of single-issue focus on abortion; reproductive justice has to include access to safe abortion and birth control, and healthcare, and the resources to support a child, and more. Indeed, many if not most of the women who have abortions are mothers, and are choosing to take the best care they can of the children they have.

Thank you again for your comments; and your support is much appreciated!

In solidarity,

Frann

 

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