Does she mean it?

Can I just say how annoying it is that men self-servingly pick and choose which of women’s boundaries (stated explicitly or implied) they believe are real, based on what works out best for them.

To some extent all abusers do this, but it seems very much a gendered phenomenon, with women especially being treated as probably being “in a mood” if we say something is un-ok. And any subsequent failures on our part to repeat this declaration are treated as our real position.

In fact, women are reared since birth to be kind despite our issues with others, and to minimize the impact on third parties (and on political causes especially) of our problems with individuals. So on many occasions we won’t vocalise our own needs in order to let other matters and others’ needs take precedence, without this meaning that we have changed our position. In addition, the constant ‘testing’ that we face of our boundaries, by those socialised to believe that this is reasonable of them, is wearing to us. Of course, this is very much the point of testing our boundaries and ignoring what we say – to wear us down [1]. Else our stated position would be treated as our position until we explicitly rescind it, without weird conditions such as “she only means it if she reaffirms it on X schedule, which we won’t tell her about” being applied.

The general societal trend is to combine
(a) a constant pressure on women to drop our boundaries in order to be “nice”,
(b) treating us as though this ongoing external pressure is absent, and as though we periodically say unfair things we don’t mean because hormones and unstable women.

This testing of boundaries, and selectiveness about which of women’s actions will be considered ‘the real boundary’, are manifested along the spectrum of abuse, with even more progressive people often acting obliviously in response. Such as a former ‘comrade’ who ignored my stated wish to minimise my contact with him by taking opportunities to insert himself into very small groups of people I was with at informal gatherings, to gauge my reaction (and probably also hear what was being said). On one occasion he acted as though he had to repeatedly pass well within a metre of me on a quiet street with no crowds, rain or traffic, in order to get phone reception. No reaction from the others I was with, who mostly knew the situation. On the more serious end, we have women who are deemed by socialists or anarchists to be “not real rape victims”, because their twitter comments in the days following the event did not notify all and sundry of the rape and they really didn’t sound upset enough.

That is all.

[1] Sometimes boundary-testers are aiming more at finding out how much we will allow them to get away with, as this piece on a growing phenomenon of online sexual harassment draws out.

In defence of dragons

horacek dragon.PNG

With all due respect to feminist cartoonist Judy Horacek, I don’t think she has been paying attention. Knights or princes never proved themselves to young women by killing dragons, and nor have men solved problems for us – beyond those of their creation. Therefore, feminism does not consist of women now “solving our problems so men don’t have to”. And nor would young, wooed women do arse-witted things like slaying the dragons they had sent the men harassing them off to.

As those of us who paid attention to these fairy-tales know – those dragons were our friends. Lilith-sent. They could be relied upon to keep our stalkers occupied for a good ten years and, with any luck, eat them. (Sadly these creatures occasionally died when men slaughtered them unprovoked, using the claim they had ‘rescued’ us in order to claim us as their own. This rescue myth remains a reversal employed by predators, and women are still wise to beware men making these claims.)

Let’s not be distracted by liberal feminism and its diversions of quick “equality” fixes which involve our taking on what we’ve been told are men’s roles.

We end up killing our friends.



For Little Girls Inspired By Hillary Clinton — Transformative Spaces

As an Indigenous woman who organizes in the hopes that both Black and Brown people might know greater freedom, safety and self determination, I am no fan of electoral politics. I’m a street level organizer and a direct action trainer. I see voting as an act of harm reduction, and even within that spectrum, I am very selective about how and when I engage with it. That said, I will not be hassling anyone on the left about their choices with regard to the upcoming presidential election. It’s not my area of organizing and I understand that there are hard questions in play. Do I want a Trump presidency? Of course not. Do I loathe Hillary Clinton? More than words can say. Do I understand why people would vote for her to keep Trump out of office? Absolutely.

I likewise understand why a great many people will find themselves unable to co-sign her presidency, regardless of how frightening they may find Donald Trump. While many call such abstention an act of privilege, most of the people I know who have stated that they simply cannot cast their lot with Hillary, no matter what, are people living in the margins who are simply unwilling to feel complicit in their own destruction, and the destruction of other marginalized people.

But I really do understand all sides of the to-vote-for-her-or-not debate. I truly do.

What I couldn’t stomach was waking up the morning after Hillary’s coronation at the Democratic National Convention to a wave of posts about how, despite her flaws, Hillary’s ascension was a victory for women everywhere. When I would correct the people who had composed such comments, reminding them that a victory for rich white women is not a victory for all women, I was told several times to think of all the little girls who may now believe that they too could be president one day.

Well, I have taken a moment to think about them, and I’d like to share what I might actually say to those little girls, if they were listening.

To all the little (white) girls who may now believe that they too could grow up to drone Brown people one day:

May you find better role models and aspirations.

Your country is anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and wages endless wars. A rich, cut throat woman who has committed countless crimes against marginalized people should not be the stuff your dreams are made of. You can be whatever you want to be, but my advice is to be kind and humane in your dealings with others, and to do all that you can to amplify the voices of those ground under by white supremacy — rather than trying to claw your way to the top of some electoral mountain.

Article continues at For Little Girls Inspired By Hillary Clinton — Transformative Spaces

Health Australia Party and petty bourgeois, victim-blaming politics

Ginny Brown

Health Australia Party is already getting decided criticism from several angles (see here and here), but my concern as a socialist health activist is that HAP’s policies on most matters are escaping criticism. And because they have superficially presented themselves in a manner that can appeal to some (see bottom of article for inspiring, buzzword-laden main page), understanding the places where their policies are anti-health, anti-woman, stunningly un-thought-out, selfishly constructed to benefit small interest groups, or just plain racist is important.

So here are some other necessary considerations – where I don’t comment on a policy point it doesn’t automatically mean either agreement, disagreement or unsureness, just that I’m trying not to comment on everything in order to get it done. I’m sure you all have useful comments too.

The kicker for me, and one which seems to be escaping scrutiny in favour of the vaxx issue (and I think this tells us a fair amount about Australian health politics) is that they have no mental health policy:

mental health.PNG
While there is nothing wrong with working on one’s policies, there are basic, glaring needs for mental health patients that could easily have been stated while the other aspects were being finalised. These include restoring funding to slashed rural mental health programs. And reinstating single-sex mental health wards for the safety of female patients, in order to turn around the abominable rate of female patients being sexually assaulted in hospital – 45% in Victoria, where it was found that “female patients in mixed-sex units were six times more at risk of assault than women treated in gender-segregated areas”.  Western Australia currently has only mixed-sex wards.

This leads me to my belief that when it comes to most of HAP’s policies, and especially when it comes to women’s safety and wellbeing, they are simply (and sorry for the crudeness, but it seems necessary) pulling it out of their arses:

domestic violence.PNG

So pharmacies, about which the HAP currently has no policy, are nonetheless so important to delivering domestic violence (DV) services that the bulk of their ‘policy’ (loose usage of the word, I know) should feature them. It’s worthwhile noting that pharmacy delivery of DV triage services is being pushed by elements within the pharmacy industry as a means of retaining their customer base, so this heavy emphasis on pharmacy involvement might explain them even claiming to have a policy on this area. (Noting also which HAP Advisory Board member authored that article.) Especially given their overall optimistic framing of current policy and direction on “family violence”, despite successive Coalition governments having gutted the provision of specialist services for women and children escaping male violence (with these cuts set to continue), and despite anti-DV services reporting that male violence is increasing.

Dana McCauley reported earlier this year that there are nearly 82 000 women who have wanted to leave their current partner but never have.  In this 2010-11 study on ‘People turned away from government-funded specialist homelessness accommodation’ (that is, research done before the last few years’ savage cuts), 64% of individuals with children who presented to homelessness services were turned away. 60% of those turned away in total were female, and 57% were under 20 years.  

For a party which claims to be all about human rights and a holistic approach to health, ignoring this major problem in funding which makes it impossible for many women and children to access the structural basics of health and/or escape violent situations suggests that the party is motivated more purely by small business interests.

Contrast the HAP’s utter absence of policy on crisis accommodation, homelessness and housing with the policy of the Australian Greens:


The Greens’ fuller policy on a broad array of anti-DV services, funded specialist Legal Services and paid leave for abused workers is available here.

The HAP does in fact have a policy on improving maternity care which will appeal to many women:


While it’s important to help bring kids safely into the world and reduce the stress and trauma experienced by mothers, it’s less impressive if their needs for a safe place to live after that point are ignored.

There is also nothing at all here on paediatric care.

You know what else is missing? Anything on abortion access. Or women’s rights to abortion, despite all the stated concern for individual freedoms. In Australia, the criminalisation of abortion results in 50% of women having difficulty accessing it, according to Caroline de Costa and Healther Douglas, and the financial cost may impede it for many more. Lack of access to abortion provided by legitimate medical practitioners is known to rapidly increase the incidence of suicide and unsafe abortions, which are responsible for 47 000 deaths worldwide each year.

Moving on, we see older Australians being viewed as a potential source of support, and respect for their views being promoted in a way that remains detail-devoid:

older australians.PNG

So, nothing on specifics like access to bulk-billing doctors – but still, the elderly, with their known passion for ‘natural medicine’, might still be content with this. If I were them, I’d be concerned by the section on euthanasia following directly beneath this rather than being attached to policy about terminal illness care, though.  

Next up, in section
2.0 Healthy Economy, we are told that:

undistorted free enterprise.PNG
small business government grants.PNG

Despite this being a bit garbled, it seems from this that government should step in to provide services where there’s no money to be made, but that otherwise, business gets to do it. And that the government should intervene to change the natural balance of competition between businesses, to one where smaller businesses are helped despite inherently being less profitable. While we should perhaps admire the temerity of beginning this section with “Support the principles of undistorted free enterprise”, it’s worth noting that although small business may be the dream that capitalism encourages, it still tends towards worse outcomes for many employees, who are likely to be less unionised and have less say over their pay and conditions. There is nothing inherently ‘holistic’ or healthful about supporting small business.

HAP’s National and State Executive, and its Advisory Board, are however composed mainly of small-business people. People who seem to be orienting very narrowly to the  financial interests of their career fields.

Let’s also pause and observe that unionisation amongst workers has decreased dramatically over the last three decades, and that unions are the force primarily responsible not only for workers being able to afford healthy accommodation and food, but also for workplace health and safety. Which makes the absent mention of the need for greater unionisation, and instead the scare-tactic description of “big unions”, quite interesting.

Indigenous policy:


I don’t know about you, but this suggests to me that the HAP has very little idea of the ramifications of the Treaty versus Constitutional Recognition debate. It also suggests to me that the HAP is unacquainted with the major body of research on why Australian governments have not substantially improved Indigenous health outcomes. (Hint: it has to do with oppression and deprivation of the rights and conditions which other Australians experience being bad for one’s health.)

As Mr Tom Calma, ATSI Social Justice Commissioner, wrote in 2007, “Important determinants of Indigenous health inequality in Australia include the lack of equal access to primary health care and the lower standard of health infrastructure in Indigenous communities (healthy housing, food, sanitation etc) compared to other Australians”.

Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet (2008) further explains that

Housing has been identified as an important factor affecting the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders [9]. Substandard and badly maintained housing together with the lack of functioning infrastructure can create serious health risks. The impact of housing on health can be through direct and indirect ways [10]. Direct means are associated with the material condition of housing on physical health, for example, inadequate water supply, washing facilities, sanitation and overcrowding. This can in turn influence the mental health and wellbeing of households due to the many social issues which arise from inadequate material conditions.

[….] The physical environment has a strong influence on the health of many Indigenous people, particularly those living in remote or very remote parts of Australia.

Indigenous households are significantly larger in size than other Australian households. Overcrowding is common for many Indigenous households, and may increase risks to health. Indigenous people are more likely than other Australians to live in rented houses, resulting in relatively higher accommodation costs. Dwellings in many Indigenous communities are more likely to require repairs or replacements than are dwellings occupied by non-Indigenous people. Many Indigenous communities experience disruptions to their electricity and water supplies, mainly due to equipment failure. Rubbish disposal is organised widely, but inadequacies (such as a lack of fencing around the tips) increase risks to health. Flooding and ponding occur in a large number of Indigenous communities.

The provision of high quality housing and related infrastructure (to the standards experienced by other Australians) is essential to ensure more equitable health outcomes for Indigenous people

Would you not expect a “holistic” Health Party that values “a broad, integrative approach to health care” to know about this, and tie its comments on Indigenous health to infrastructure provision?



‘Infrastructure’ is sandwiched between the sections on banking and tourism. Repeating that earlier point about HAP’s utter absence of policy on crisis accommodation, homelessness and housing, this leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that HAP is doing the covertly racist thing of helplessly throwing one’s hands in the air as if to say “these people … we keep trying to help them…” If anyone disagrees with me on this, I’ll point out that while HAP claims they “will bring an holistic approach to this issue taking into account the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of indigenous Australians”, they show no signs of having a clue what those are, yet nonetheless commit to beneficently delivering them. Especially given the known ties between relationship to Land and Indigenous health being acknowledged nowhere in HAP’s land ownership policy:

land ownership

Yep, it’s those people overseas who are the problem. Not the European invasion and lasting occupation of Australian lands which began a few hundred years ago.

This racist note brings us to
5.2 Immigration:


“Difficult” is obviously a dogwhistle term designed to disguise the basic structural reasons for the existence of racist policies – to whit, that they aid the current social hierarchies, and basic capitalist functioning, rather than being because of any inherent administrative “difficulty” which causes us to imprison refugees in inhumane conditions. “Potentially divisive” also functions to signify “this issue is rather a nuisance, and we can’t agree on it, so let’s focus on nicer things”.

It’s important to note that capitalism has historically both supported immigration, where this has aided the supply of cheaper labour, and fostered racist attitudes and policies. As such, supporting immigration where it aids business is not an especially progressive position, as it is not formulated in regards to the needs of the migrants themselves. What’s also gutwrenching here is that this allegedly caring and spiritual party has no comment to make on asylum seekers whom Australia has detained offshore – many of whom have long had refugee status. No, it seems that treating them nicely is only to be considered once they have reached Australia. Given all the above, I would not count on HAP to do even that.


Next up, we have 5.3 Defence and 5.3.2 National Service. The problems here are chiefly:

(a) reinforcing the notion that the Australian armed forces have primarily existed for self-defence, and need to continue for that purpose, and

(b) reinforcing nationalist ideology and the furphy that this training even currently fulfils its promises to young Australians of improving their education and training, and thus employability. As is increasingly being revealed, many young people who were hoping their time in the armed forces would provide them with such training have been left without it, despite giving up years of their lives.


This nasty nationalism and mentions of “external aggression” and “the need for a Defence capability” disguise the reality that Australia acts as a predator nation, siphoning off resources and using its armed forces for the benefit of Australian businesses operating overseas. Far from “establishing the connection between our national water, food and agricultural policies and our national defence”, we need to be making clear the connections between our armed forces and others’ resources.

5.5 Same sex marriage
: no policy in support of it, just a “conscience vote”. While repeating the conservative line that “Marriage has always been a force for stability in families and communities – because it fosters responsibility as well as providing legal protection for children.” And here was me thinking that studies show that heterosexual relationships involving marriage see the men being less likely to share in household tasks.

HAP will promote praying (and in fairness, were it elected, we might want to):


But it should probably stay away from claims to be ethical. And from the subtle suggestions that atheists are oppressing people’s religious expression, especially in that its racist policies are more likely to target the religions of people who fail to fit into Christian or European pagan frameworks, than atheism is.

Concluding by getting back to my early point about why the structural failures of HAP’s policies have largely been ignored in favour of their positions on vaccinations: I believe this shows that governmental policies, and social consciousness, largely have the same failings as HAP, and that HAP was shaped by its broader context. A context in which we leap to blame individuals for their health problems (and indeed some may well be engaging in unhealthy practices), but ignore the basic lack of access by most to adequate healthcare and the social determinants for health. And enact policies which penalise poor parents and children despite the lack of evidence to suggest that will help overall vaccination rates, instead of better funding immunisation services. A context in which we might prioritise sounding cool by putting down “woo” (a concept which seems to draw together disparate paradigms, including both the herbal medicine that is scientifically demonstrated, and homeopathy and other unscientific fields), but ignore the larger and perhaps more boring problems of capitalist attacks on public medicine.

So long as this remains the case, small parties which mention real problems, such as inadequate birthing and maternal care, or an unmerited support for pharmaceutical products which often have little science behind them, will gain some traction. Even though what many of us need right now is increased access to the pharmaceuticals which do give us real benefit, but are losing their support by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Perhaps ironically, given this essay’s subject, I suggest not allowing ourselves to be distracted from the larger picture. 2016-06-30 19-36-10.png

HAP main page, as captured on 30.6.16


“Mother privilege”

I am delighted to be able to post this examination by three radical feminists, Jai Kalidasi, Penelope Riley and Delilah Smith.  As the authors point out, most women in the world are mothers, and so feminists’ clarity on the conditions of motherhood could not be more vital. This analysis has been much needed, and hopefully will encourage further discussion on this prescribed state for women.

“Mother Privilege” is a theory formulated and defended with great energy by a few self-identified Radical Feminists.  In short, they claim that mothers are rewarded with social and economic benefits for obeying patriarchy’s motherhood mandate.  Mothers, in their view, are granted an unfair advantage in the competition for scarce resources—resources denied to non-mothers specifically because they are not mothers.

Because the notion of mother-privilege has engendered a virulent form of horizontal hostility within radical feminism, we address it here to lay this argument to rest.  The work of liberating women and Earth from patriarchy is daunting enough without furious infighting that divides us when we so deeply need unity.  Since a number of blog entries are posted around the internet promoting mother privilege theory, we have created this response as a blog-post as well.  We hope it will save women the time and potential trauma of repeatedly explaining how mothers, contrary to being privileged, instead contend with forms of oppression specific to motherhood on top of their general oppression as females under patriarchy.

Here, we’ll provide a realistic view of the oppression faced by mothers.  We’ll share working definitions of privilege and oppression, as well as discussing motherhood as a choice for women.  We’ll unpack some of the assumptions made by proponents of mythological Mother Privilege, providing links to information about global mothering in a context of class analysis.  We’ll show that the real issues of motherhood under patriarchy are about oppression, not about what some perceive–based on their personal observations– as individual benefits awarded only to mothers, at the expense of non-mothers.  Finally, we’ll address how motherhood can be as much a feminist undertaking as anything women do, for themselves, their children and our societies.

What is privilege?

Privilege is a sociological concept that describes the way certain groups, or classes, of people benefit from the structural and material oppression of other groups or classes identified within a culture.  To say privilege and oppression are ‘structural’ refers to the fact that they are built into a culture’s laws and economics as well as its social customs and norms.  ‘Material oppression’ means that oppressed groups face structural obstacles to gaining the same access as the privileged to such things as education, wealth, health care, housing and sufficiently well-paid work as well as social status, personal independence and freedom from violence.  Further, to grant privilege to some groups always entails the oppression of others.  This is due, in essence, to giving the privileged more than a fair share of available social, legal and economic resources while actively denying quite a bit less than a fair share of those same resources to the oppressed.  Men have male privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of women. White people have white privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of people of colour; these are just two primary examples among several other common privileged/oppressed class pairs under patriarchy.

But it’s important to remember that the foundation of patriarchy is that men as a class oppress women as a class, and this cuts across race, social class, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and all other kinds of groups.  While some individual womyn may achieve as much as any man, all women must contend with some elements of oppression by a male-dominated culture.  The wealthiest female CEO still has no access to truly safe, freely available birth control, for instance; she must still face health risks of birth control within a culture that expects women to bear those risks while allowing men to avoid birth control risks.  She is still subject both to laws constraining her choices as a woman (abortion access, e.g.) and policies of the same sort (company policies prohibiting work-linked health insurance from paying for birth control).  That is all about women’s oppression and the male privilege that can be received *only through women’s oppression.  Becoming a mother does not change a women’s oppressed status under patriarchy; no amount of compliance with patriarchy’s institutions and expectations changes that.

So, to understand the privilege and oppression referred to in this discussion, we need to see first that concept of “mother privilege” is based on the notion that mothers—members of the single most oppressed class worldwide—benefit from the oppression of childless women.  It’s based on a belief that patriarchal structures of law, economics and social custom—structures designed to oppress all women—actually provide benefits granted specifically to mothers themselves (somehow separately from their children), and only do so by denying the same benefits to non-mothers.  Let’s examine this claim.

Is motherhood a choice? Implicit in the claim that motherhood confers privilege upon mothers is the idea that pregnancy, childbirth, and the rearing of children are endeavours freely embarked upon by women who seek to enjoy the supposed social and material benefits of motherhood. But is motherhood truly a choice?  We need to examine this from two different yet intertwined perspectives: female biology and radical feminism.

Biologically speaking, women generally experience a powerful drive to bear children.  While as humans we are capable of a degree of foresight and choice that most animals don’t apparently possess, we are still creatures with bodies having particular biological needs, drives, desires.  And while we can’t compare the drive to have children with basic survival drives like breathing and eating—for which we would do anything, in order to go on living—still, we can’t underestimate the potency of women’s biological drive to have children.  Women seem to know in our bones—even against much evidence of our own lives and all around us—that having a child makes possible forms of emotional bonding, pleasure and creative satisfaction as well as social belonging that are unique to mothering.  All humans are biologically created to seek greatest pleasure and least pain; as a social species our pleasures and pain are only naturally (biologically, biochemically) linked greatly to social feedback as much as to personal experience.

Thus, if mothering was simply a rational choice without a fierce element of biological imperative that expresses in us physically, psychologically and socially, then it scarcely seems possible that human population would be now so vast.   There would be fewer failures of birth control—whether those be ‘operator errors’ (“I forgot to take my pill/renew my patch”) or of method failures (getting pregnant while on The Pill or patch as directed, or even years following a successful tubal ligation).  But even while it is possible for individual women to successfully choose against having children, in fact women generally do experience a powerful drive toward mothering that is at least as biologically as culturally engendered.  To claim for any reason that mothering is strictly a rational choice for women is to deny a central aspect of our reality as female animals—not just socially constructed beings existing in the intellectual, rational realm.

Secondly, it is those of our own sex that we are fighting for.  It is our very biology as females, our reproductive capacity, on which men’s oppression of women rests— this defines our struggle as no other single issue does.   And from the class analysis we call radical feminism, we know that the sociological and political concept of “choice” is a slippery beast, often used to rationalize the exploitation of women in porn and prostitution.  It’s used as well to claim that personal choices in matters of sex and performance of femininity trump structural analysis of the ways in which women are coerced to conform to gendered expectations. Our socialization as girls and women under patriarchy makes problematic any claim of personal agency, failing to place women’s choices into the context of our structural oppression. In many communities, child marriage is still common, with young girls denied any opportunity for education or independence and forced into marriages with much older men. In war zones, rape is often deployed as a tool of domination, where men seek to demoralize other men, and rupture people’s sense of themselves as members of a distinct culture, through the violent abuse and impregnation of women by outsiders. Women who live in countries where they have less access to education and economic independence are more likely to have a greater number of children, and to have them at younger ages.  Yet even among more affluent and well-educated women around the world, women face tremendous social pressure to have at least one child regardless of a heartfelt desire to do so; it’s what women do to ‘fulfill their female destiny’, to provide heirs to their husbands and grandchildren to their parents.

In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, one in four callers reported that they had experienced reproductive coercion, defined as threats or acts of violence by a male partner, including rape, pressure to become pregnant, and interference with birth control. This form of male violence in intimate relationships is rarely discussed, but can often lead to unplanned pregnancy for victims of male violence in the home. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40% of abused women reported that their pregnancy was unintended compared to 8% of non-abused women.

Further complicating this matter of choice, mothers are economically disadvantaged, with single mothers being the most disadvantaged, receiving 60 percent of the male wage. Men are not disadvantaged economically for being fathers.

lone parent households below nat poverty line

We can see that solo mothers are significantly disadvantaged compared to solo fathers as well as non-mothers.  Mothers face interruption to employment caused by pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, as well as often caring for infants and toddlers. This, coupled with the already existing gender pay gap and other forms of work discrimination faced by mothers, means that both men and non-mothers are far likelier than mothers to earn enough to live, and likelier to receive promotions, pay raises and other work-related benefits than are mothers.

It is clear that for many women around the world, motherhood is not a choice. Even for those women who are not forced or coerced into pregnancy, the effects of female socialization problematize any claim that women who choose to become pregnant do so freely and with full agency. Cultural pressure, heteronormativity, and other factors may lead to the desirability or even inevitability of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood for many women. And women who desire children are generally unaware of and unprepared for the extreme disadvantages they will face as mothers, from economic instability and employment discrimination to state scrutiny and abusive legal and family court systems.  In the context of patriarchy, it hardly matters whether or not most womyn *would choose to have children, as part of their natural creative and emotional birthright.  The freest possible of choices to bear a child are still burdened with patriarchal mandates, taboos and institutional biases.  The fact is that even apart from our biological urge to bear children, no woman is truly free to make fully rational and independent choices about children, under patriarchy.
Most women in the world are mothers

The fact is that most women are mothers. Not all women choose to become mothers, and even if they did choose to become mothers, they did not choose the oppression that comes with unpaid labour/drudgery in the home, greater risk of male violence, and little or no legal rights to the child that the woman gestated/birthed/breastfed and nurtured, and tried to protect from harm. Mothers did not choose to be paid less and to miss out on employment opportunities. Mothers did not choose to contend with legally mandated constraints upon their birthing choices, nor to experience birth trauma via obstetrical violence.

Taking all this into account, we see that while certain mothers may enjoy a veneer of respectability and/or cultural approval under patriarchal rule, such crumbs are tenuous and easily lost, or may not exist at all for some women (for example, depending upon geographical and cultural location, through gynaecological fistula resulting from childbirth, the birth of children who are disabled and/or female, rape, divorce, adultery, loss of familial socioeconomic status, etc.). Mothers who have children under circumstances that fall outside of culturally-defined acceptability—unwed mothers, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, etc.—may never enjoy these crumbs at all.

Some Western feminists seem myopic when it comes to understanding compulsory or coerced motherhood under patriarchy. The UN World Fertility Report 2012 lists stats on fertility rates (number of children per mother). Page six of the report states: “A number of high-fertility countries in the earlier period maintained very high levels of fertility (5.1 children per woman or more) through the 2000s and almost all were in Africa, including Burundi, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau.”

These countries are also some of the most economically disadvantaged in the world. Clearly being a mother does not have any inherent privilege.  The reality is quite the opposite in fact, as we will expand upon in the next section.

In terms of the relative number of childfree women in the world, the statistics range from low levels such as 1.8% in Angola to relatively higher levels of women who remain childfree in their mid- to late-forties (14.4% in Australia, 16% in Ireland, and around 20% in the US). Most of the world’s women, however, live in countries where more than 90% of women are mothers by this age. [1]

In spite of the harsh realities of motherhood worldwide, mother-privilege theorists describe 90% or more of the world’s women as privileged by their motherhood, while denying women’s collective stories of oppression across all realms of their lives. They are also falling into the patriarchal trap of mother-blaming. In fact it is men who are to blame for women’s lack of resources (whether they are mothers or not), it is male rule that constrains our rights and freedoms.  It is patriarchy which constructs femininity as an inferior but highly enforced role, and makes motherhood a compulsory part of femininity.  But because father rule is so entrenched and supported by our judicial system and associated organisations, women are essentially powerless to oppose this; some instead blame the easy victim, the mother.  If we were living in a matriarchy, we wouldn’t be arguing over whether mothers are privileged over childfree women.  All women would be valued, and supported in their choices regarding motherhood.  But currently we live in patriarchy, where women do not enjoy privilege based upon our reproductive status—where no woman is privileged by her sex, mother or not.

The fact that men, and the women who support male rule, entice women into a subordinate role with lies, and by shaming those who don’t comply, belies the idea that there is any real status conferred upon the women essentially held captive to motherhood. This is a pattern across society, as evidenced by the institution of marriage, with the sexual slavery industry being on the other end of the spectrum.  But even sexual slavery is glamourised through porn culture, cast as a necessary class of women who help maintain the Madonna/Whore dichotomy and prevent the possibility of women as fully realised, independent human beings.

Men must control female reproduction in order for patriarchy to continue. In order to be able to have any power, women must be given control over our reproductive rights, and that includes our rights as mothers.

The Big Picture

Below is a table showing statistics on fertility and violence against women in nine countries. The countries were selected for completeness of data available on a national level. It is important to note that violence against women is often underreported, and though all statistics were compiled by the UN, they came from different sources, including the WHO, the CDC, the DHS, and national statistics and surveys, making direct comparisons difficult. We are looking for general trends.

country Percentage of childless women age 45-49* Percentage of women with three or more children, age 45-49* Lifetime physical or sexual violence (IPV**) Lifetime physical or sexual violence (any perpetrator)
Australia 14.4 35.8 27.0 57.0
Bangladesh 3.4 84.9 53.3 59.2
India 3.3 76.0 37.2 35.4
Samoa 5.2 82.2 46.1 75.8
Switzerland 15.6 21.9 10.0 39.0
Uganda 3.2 91.7 59.1 70.4
USA 18.8 29.4 24.8 55
Zimbabwe 2.2 84.8 38.2 46.7

*Stats for USA are for ages 40-44, as stats for ages 45-49 were unavailable

**IPV = intimate partner violence

Sources: all stats compiled by UN

The graph below compares lifetime incidence of IPV among women with the percentage of childfree women in these nine countries. Note the trend line: the fewer childless women in a given country, the greater the likelihood that a woman will be the victim of intimate partner violence.

IPV and fertility graph

One of the most important ways that control is maintained over women under patriarchy is through the control of women’s reproductive capacity. Child marriage and forced marriage, rape, abusive reproductive coercion, and prevention of access to contraception and abortion are all methods men use to control women’s reproduction, and so, our lives. Maternal mortality is one of the largest killers of women worldwide: each year, half a million women die as a result of a pregnancy, and another 50 million women will suffer long-term disability or illness as a direct result of pregnancy or childbirth (Seager 2009). As Shulamith Firestone pointed out in The Dialectic of Sex, the basic facts of human reproduction leave women dependent upon males for survival, and the reproductive differences between the sexes are the basis of male exploitation of women as a class. As such, the claim that women who acquiesce to male demands for children, whether through “choice” or through coercion or force, gain privilege from this acquiescence can be compared to a claim that wage laborers gain privilege through capitulation to the oppressive control of capitalists. In other words, it’s patently absurd. Women with children face discrimination in employment, economic hardship, a greater risk of male violence, a greater risk of scrutiny and criminalization by the state, abusive legal and family court systems, loss of personhood and essential human rights during pregnancy, and many other barriers and hardships that are specific to mothers under the patriarchy.

This makes it clear that the lip service paid to motherhood in patriarchal culture is akin to the glorification of rugged individualism under neoliberalism; it is a simply a trick designed to elicit complacence from oppressed groups and obscure the source of oppression. Rather than lifting impoverished people up, the myth of meritocracy ensures the continuation of their exploitation, and similarly, the glorification of the idea of motherhood does not benefit mothers but rather lulls them into complacence and acceptance of their oppression. The rhetorical value given to motherhood is belied by the lack of material value awarded for the unpaid work of motherhood, without which the entire system would collapse. The occasional Hallmark card or adulatory fluff piece awarded to mothers is nothing more than a sleight of hand, intended to distract our attention from the oppressive reality under which mothers live and labour.

Motherhood as Capitulation?

Finally, some mother-privilege theorists claim that choosing motherhood is capitulation to patriarchy, a surrender of feminist values.  A ‘real feminist’, the theory goes, will forgo motherhood—in resistance to patriarchy, and to have more energy available for other women and for the work of dismantling patriarchy.

First, this notion overlooks the fact that patriarchy underlies the entirety of our lives—our work, telecommunications, hospitals, industries, education… it all springs from patriarchy and is built to support its continuance.  Resisting patriarchy by forgoing motherhood is not more or less significant than withdrawing from other aspects of patriarchal life, in resistance; none of the possibilities, however, have much political significance. There is certainly some value in acts of personal resistance; refusal to perform mandated femininity (potentially including childfree status) is the walking of our talk that reaches others, potentially inspiring consciousness-raising in people around us.  Still—it is only by people acting in concert that political energy is generated and can lead to the political power necessary to make structural changes.

Second, it presumes we can resist patriarchy by denying one of the fundamental elements of our female existence— and should do so in martyrdom to the feminist cause—which are propositions rather more anti-woman than anti-patriarchy.  Doubtless, motherhood was appropriated by patriarchy and re-constructed as form of slavery, but our female capacity to create life exists outside of patriarchy.  We feminists needn’t deny ourselves the creative female work and love of mothering.  We can resist patriarchy through our mothering, the same as feminists involved in all other ordinary aspects of patriarchy resist through their work, play, communication/relationships, etc.  Feminist mothers bring the same consciousness to being mothers, and raising children, as any feminist brings to her chosen endeavors and relationships within the overall context of patriarchy.  Indeed, feminist mothers are in a unique position to help change culture by passing on feminist consciousness to our children.  We definitely don’t claim that mothers are powerful enough to counteract the entirety of patriarchy—the ‘village’ has enormous influence on children—but still, our feminist consciousness does help shape our children’s awareness and future lives.  To suggest otherwise is to come dangerously close to affirming the patriarchal notion that motherhood renders women too emotional to think straight or maintain her integrity and values without guidance from outside authorities.  Is this what the mother-theorists would have us believe—and that they are the authorities women should obey?

We think not.  We have shown here the mistaken assumptions made by mother-privilege theorists, with the evidence of the special oppression faced by women once they become mothers.  The small acts of approval shown to new mothers—baby showers!—are not the same thing as privilege because they don’t come at the expense of non-mothers and they don’t appreciably improve mothers’ lives on the whole.  The social programs available to mothers are provided (in decreasing amount all the time now) on behalf of children, not for the mothers themselves—who, if they lost their children by natural or legal causes, would be no more eligible than non-mothers for those programs though they be mothers still.  We have demonstrated that it’s not motherhood itself that earns even the small signifiers of approval from patriarchy, those go only to those mothers who meet the requirements of age, race, socio-economic and marital status—and only so long as those mothers go on meeting those requirements, which is rarely within mothers’ control.  As radical feminism has known for quite some time now—which the mother-privilege theorists seem to have forgotten—motherhood is not a privileged position under patriarchy; it is the very foundation of women’s oppression.


[1]  United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). World Fertility Report 2012 (United Nations publication).