If you were looking for a philosophy
that linked together the disparate players in the anti-choice movement–from
the wild-eyed misogynists to the sanctimonious hymnal singers–you
could do worse than "gender determinism." Specifically, that’s
the belief that women’s main purpose in life, to which all else should be secondary, is making babies. And not just that — proper motherhood, gender determinists believe, should be a feminine, passive enterprise. Babies
should wash over you, installed by the decisions of man and deity, not by your own active choice to be a mother. Contraception and
abortion aren’t just wrong because they can be used to prevent birth altogether, but also because they’re used to create an immoral motherhood
of active choice instead of passive acceptance.
It’s this line of thinking
that creates the enthusiasm for belief in "post-abortion syndrome,"
which anti-choicers believe in totally undeterred by reality and scientific
evidence not withstanding. The belief is not only that women are destined
for a life of motherhood, but that only by fulfilling this
role as submissive ciphers will they achieve peace and happiness.
It’s insulting for all women, and not just the childless, because it deprives women
who are mothers of their agency and their dignity of owning their choices.
Unfortunately, the view that unplanned motherhood is some sort of woman-taming
tool isn’t limited to religious fanatics. Witness the tabloid
fascination with Nicole Richie’s (presumably) unplanned stumble into
motherhood, culminating in widespread coverage of her statements about
how she owes the baby her life.
Why? Because her daughter Harlow magically transformed Richie
from a drug-using, drunk-driving, food-refusing emotional mess into
a paragon of domestic bliss. Submissive acceptance of motherhood
turned Richie, in other words, from a woman out of control to a woman
firmly under control. The article even
goes so far as to rhapsodize about how the pregnancy linked her to a
with the implication being that this is necessary for real feminine
While I don’t want to begrudge
Richie the pleasures of having to keep it together to meet your responsibilities–something
that people quietly do all the time for work, family, or even hobbies–the
coverage of this story made me cringe, because it feeds the narrative
that women’s misbehavior is the result of women’s independence,
and only by submitting to a strict formula for life that absolutely
centers around motherhood can women really be happy. And to boot,
it emboldens the anti-choice narrative about how women need to have our
rights taken away for our own good.
It’s a dangerous game, of
course, because even if Richie has reformed herself, there are lots
of women (and men) who don’t find themselves compelled to pull their
lives together just because they have children. All you need to
do is sit in your local Al-Anon meeting to discover this fact.
I hope that women out there with drug addictions don’t get the message
that having a baby will be your ticket out.
It’s bad enough coming from
the religious elements and the tabloids, but from the woman who is famous for coining the term "third wave feminism," gender determinism
feels like an open betrayal of women. Rebecca Walker, in a move
notable mostly for being the least classy thing you can do with your
clothes on, published an anti-feminist rant picking on her mother Alice
Walker in conservative UK
rag The Daily Mail.
The article is shot through with poor reasoning and hyperbole, and is
generally poorly written, which gives the reader reasons to wonder
if Walker resents her mother more for her weak parenting skills or her great
But Walker is clever. She
knows what her anti-feminist audience wants to hear: that women are happier when they submit, and that motherhood
is an example of submission. She uses passive language when talking
about motherhood, as if it’s something that just happens to women.
She contrasts motherhood with independence, as if the two are mutually
exclusive. She decries her mother’s belief that motherhood is
"enslaving," but doesn’t explain why, if Alice Walker was so anti-motherhood,
she had children herself. She idolizes her father’s second wife
for being a housewife. And she bashes women who divorce, even
though she hasn’t exactly gotten around to marrying the father of
I don’t mean to say that I disbelieve Rebecca Walker’s observations about her mother, but it’s fishy that she blames her mother’s drift from a predetermined
destiny for women instead of the more obvious causes–that Alice Walker
has a massive personality flaw. Would Alice Walker really have morphed
into the perfect June Cleaver if she renounced feminism?
Even though Walker claims
that she had a mother not cut out for motherhood, she can’t help but
sing the praises of a bundle in every woman’s basket.
Then there is the issue
of not having children. Even now, I meet women in their 30s who are
ambivalent about having a family. They say things like: ‘I’d like a
child. If it happens, it happens.’ I tell them: ‘Go home and get on
with it because your window of opportunity is very small.’ As I know
only too well.
Perhaps instead of honoring
gender determinism, Walker should listen to her friends and honor their
ambivalence. It’s not feminine stupidity to want to be sure
before you have children. The word I’d use for it is "love."
The love for potential children and the love you have for yourself is
what causes many women to want to be very sure before they take the
big step into having children. Because while regretting the children
you didn’t have is a sad thing, so is regretting the children you
did have, especially if they grow up to be as consumed with bitterness
towards their mothers as Rebecca Walker has.