There are many ways that mainstream feminism has not adequately addressed the concerns and needs of mothers. This is what maternal scholars have been challenging for some decades now. Part of a feminist interest in motherhood means an interest in how women experience birth. Birth is a feminist issue because the systems that women birth within are causing them (and their babies) harm.
The Maternity Consumer Network in Australia are doing amazing work in this area on uncovering the abuse, trauma, mistreatment, silencing, and violence that occurs in birth care settings. Ms Staines from the Maternity Consumer Network said that feminists have dropped the ball. This is because of the focus on abortion rights at the exclusion of women’s treatment during birth. Birth is of course the biggest example of an issue that ONLY impacts those who are female.
What is a Feminist Birth
Embedded within patriarchy is an inherent connection of females and femininity with weakness, vulnerability, and fragility. That women need rescuing. That we are plagued by a lack of confidence in ourselves and our bodies – this rippling out much further beyond the birthing realm.
Interlinked into these narratives of patriarchal passivity is the question of: okay well how do I DO birth as a feminist? As an empowered, strong, confident woman?
Would a feminist birth look like a highly medicalized one where we take advantage of the modern medicine and opt for the epidural straight away, and challenge the martyrdom of pain?
Or would a feminist birth look like rejecting all medical input in what is a normal physiological progress and opting for a freebirth?
You know what the answer is? Both, and neither.
Giving birth like a feminist does not mean birthing in a particular way – as Hill puts it: “just as doing anything else – career, relationships, parenting – ‘like a feminist’ doesn’t require a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Birth, Systems, and Choice
A feminist birth is about how YOU frame your birth and yourself as a woman in labour. But it is also about the way you understand the system that you birth within. It is the challenging of a system that perpetuates the expectation of laboring women to be vulnerable, complying, cooperative, powerless vessels who are under medical authority.
I am mindful here of highlighting the language of CHOICE. I think it would be easy for me to say that a feminist birth is about CHOOSING the way you’d like to give birth. That it’s all about CHOICE. But there are problems with choice feminism. There are problems when reducing our conversation of birth decisions and outcomes as boiling down to choice.
Hill highlights this through drawing our attention to this age old debate between highly medicalized birth versus completely natural and intervention free. As to which is more liberating and empowering. Or ultimately, which is ‘better’.
Once this argument has gone round the houses a few times, at some point you’re bound to hear the refrain ‘Of course, it’s all down to personal choice’, and everyone will nod with satisfaction as if the matter is settled. But personal choice is complicated. We all like to think we are making free choices but, of course, we are all a product of our culture, of the stories we have heard, the adverts and TV programmes we have seen, and of the expectations we have therefore built of any given event.Milli Hill, Give Birth Like a Feminist, from Chapter 2, page 23 of the e-book
I think that HAVING these discussions can be highly loaded and can also be received very tenderly by women who have given birth depending upon how their birth went. There are those who were prepared for their labours. Who made conscious decisions about care providers and had the resources and perhaps privilege to make certain decisions around care providers. And these women were able to birth in a supported, positive, and rewarding way. So they may highlight their experience to demonstrate what IS possible.
But this can be received as judgement and insensitivity for women who also made all of these same preparatory decisions and steps but faced complications or interventions.
Similarly, for women who faced challenges or trauma and did not have the knowledge, awareness, education, resources, or support to make informed choices, hearing these stories can accentuate the grief and pain for a loss of their experience that perhaps could have been.
Birth as Polarizing
Talking about birth therefore CAN be polarizing. Of course these polarizations are in and of themselves constructed. They are based on stereotypes. Individual women are more dynamic and complex than to fit into a prescribed boxes. Hill argues that these polarizations only act to be divisive and to distract us from the real issues. A focus on real issues would drive change of the SYSTEM to collectively improve birth experiences and outcomes for women in the future.
I think that this division in relation to birth reflects the polarizations and divisions cast over women and mothers in many other spheres. Take for example the supposed division between breast and bottle feeding mothers. The perpetuation – or idea of perpetuation of shame on formula feeding mothers AND shame on breastfeeding mothers. It also supposedly plays out between stay at home and working mothers. It can even go beyond this if we think about Wolf’s the beauty myth and the competition and comparison between younger and older women.
These polarizations serve only to disempower and disperse the collective wisdom and force that is women who are united.
Trying to turn us against each other only serves to distract us from looking outwards at the broader structures and systems that oppress us and try to strip us of our voice and autonomy.
I am a huge advocate of physiologically undisturbed birth and know the research on the risks of intervention rates to both mother and baby, and all of the benefits of a so-called ‘natural’ birth. I have an innate belief in a woman’s body to birth her baby. I am also grateful and fully supportive of medical intervention when consented and required. I am thankful that we are afforded medicalized and sometimes life-saving options when millions of other women and babies in the world are not.
But in saying this, and reaffirming my belief in the normal physiological process of labour, I also know that we cannot keep telling women to ‘trust their bodies’ without examining, critiquing, and changing the problems with institutionalized birth.