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Is motherhood a class privilege in America?

An interview with historian Rickie Solinger, author of "Beggars and Choosers"

Interview and introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

October 2004

Over the last 25 years, the boundary between feminism— the conviction that all women have a right to full social, economic and political citizenship— and the individualistic ideology of choice— a belief in self-determination and the freedom of self-expression— has become exceptionally permeable. In fact, in today’s market-oriented culture, the popular definition of feminism (which the remarkable Katha Pollitt describes as “feminism lite”) is typically summarized as a woman’s right to choose. The trendy new mantra of “choice” still fits its original application— to establish and preserve women’s legal right to end an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy. But it’s also summoned to settle such disputes as whether or not “real” feminists wear lipstick and push-up bras, undergo cosmetic surgery, change their last names when they marry, or become stay-at-home moms. As Summer Woods writes for Bitch Magazine:

For many young feminists, “choice” has become the very definition of feminism itself— illustrated by the standard-bearing right to choose abortion and supported by the ever-advertised notion that they have choice in everything else in life as well. The cult of choice consumerism wills us to believe that women can get everything we want out of life, as long as we make the right choices along the way— from the cereal we eat in the morning to the moisturizer we use at night, and the universe of daily decisions, mundane and profound, that confront us in between.

The lure of “empowerment” through personal choice also resonates for those who are hesitant to self-identify as feminists— and recent opinion polls show that many egalitarian-minded women fall into this camp. Lately, affluent mothers have turned to the language of “choice” and “options” to justify their work-life arrangements— whether they are employed full-time, part-time or remain at home to care for their children. Yet the media’s recent focus on highly-educated, mostly white, professional women who “choose” to trade in their promising careers for full-time child-rearing tends to overlook workplace practices, social conditions and cultural forces that limit mothers’ occupational advancement and exacerbate their inequality. When it comes to work and family, the flimsy rationale of “choice” is most damaging when it obscures the legitimate needs and concerns of mothers who are essentially “choiceless” because they lack the resources that make family-friendly work “options”— and many other life opportunities taken for granted by more privileged women— possible.

Historian Rickie Solinger, author of several critically acclaimed books on reproductive politics in the United States, believes that the substitution of “choice” for the more substantial concept of “reproductive rights” has broad repercussions for American mothers. In an era when effective contraception and safe abortion are presumed to be universally available (although as Solinger explains in Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Abortion, Adoption and Welfare in the United States, federal and state laws now limit poor women’s access to both), the ideology of choice determines which mothers— and which children— are viewed as “worthy” in the eyes of society. Making “good choices” about whether or when to become a mother— a concept, Solinger notes, that “evokes women shoppers selecting among options in the marketplace”— is an opportunity reserved for women with the right combination of social and economic resources. Women without some or all of these assets— a degree of maturity, a good education and/or marketable job skills, work that pays a living wage, a husband or another dependable source of supplemental income— can only make “bad” choices by expressing their sexuality and fertility. “Bad” women who make “bad” choices—who may be poor, young, unmarried, women of color, or all of the above— have been savagely stigmatized by politicians and pundits as selfish, uncaring mothers whose illegitimate choices jeopardize the health and well-being of their children and society as a whole.

The sharp separation of mothers along race and class lines— a divide that determines which women are valorized for their motherhood and which ones are vilified for it— leads Solinger to pose a troubling question: “Do Americans want motherhood to be a class privilege? A life experience only available to middle class women?” The MMO interviews Solinger about her work and the perilous intersection of motherhood, race, class and choice.

MMO: You’ve worked with artists to create companion exhibitions for two of your recent books, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade and Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion and Welfare in the United States. Why did you decide to take this unique approach, and how have the traveling exhibits contributed to changing awareness about the intertwining issues of motherhood, race, and class?

R. Solinger: I found my career as a historian a little late in life. But once I finally discovered my life’s work, I became passionately devoted to combing the archives, reading old newspapers, scouring government documents. I was very moved, unearthing voices and other details that showed, for example, how laws that forbid females from controlling their own bodies had shaped the lives of girls and women in the United States. Right away, I knew it was important and meaningful to find— and write about— politicians and other authorities who claimed that some women produced “valuable” babies, but that the babies of other women had no value and cost taxpayers too much.

I was completely catalyzed, writing about how and why different groups of women had different reproductive experiences in the United States, and what race has had to do with these differences. I wrote about how and why these experiences changed over time. I wrote about how our recent past has clarified the fact that women’s legal capacity to manage their own bodies has always been key to their status as full citizens. I felt relatively useful and fulfilled writing books about the politics of fertility and the politics of motherhood.

But soon, as a fundamentally political person, I began to think about the limited audience I was reaching with my academic-style books. And then, at just about this same time, I got the chance to be an Associate of the Rocky Mountain Women’s Institute in Denver. Here was a chance that changed my life. (And it’s worth noting that I was about 43 years old at this time— a great example of how wonderful life-changing moments come along at many different and unexpected ages!) The group of Associates in my year— a photographer, an installation artist, a sculptor— decided to take up the inspired idea of one of the artists, Kay Obering: that we should make a collaborative piece of art, a room-sized installation based on my books — Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade (1992, 2000) and The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law (1994). This exhibition, “Wake Up Little Susie: Pregnancy and Power before Roe v. Wade” opened in 1992 on a university campus in Denver. Kay took up the job of keeping this exhibition on the road. Over the next decade, she booked the show into fifty-six college and university galleries, from Maine to New Mexico, from Oregon to Florida.

In 2001, just before my book, Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States was published, Kay and I began to curate a new exhibition, “Beggars and Choosers: Motherhood is Not a Class Privilege in America,” a photography show including the work of many of the leading documentary photographers in the United States. This show is meant to respond to the decades-long string of ugly images of women who occupy the reviled categories: women who we are meant to see as too young, too poor, too gay, too disabled, too non-white, too foreign, to be legitimate mothers in this country. These ugly images have been fed to media-consumers, making a strong case that certain women have no business becoming mothers. In the exhibition, women who appear to occupy the reviled categories are there in the photographs clearly engaged in being loving, attentive mothers— with strength, dignity, and determination. The show makes a strong political point. And it presents an absolutely stunning collection of photographs.

With this second show, I am achieving a new goal, one that the “Susie” show helped define: I am working with faculty and others on each campus to find ways to use the exhibition while it’s on campus as an occasion to “interrupt the curriculum.” “Beggars and Choosers” has provided opportunities for new courses, film series, symposia, lectures, and other events that press members of the campus community to rethink what they “know” about who makes a legitimate mother— and who decides. The exhibition becomes an occasion for offering social justice perspectives and good information about the experience of mothering in the United States in the early twenty-first century. “Beggars and Choosers” opened at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2002 and has been traveling to campuses since then. The show is booked for the next couple of years and will have a long traveling life.

Just recently, I have started designing a new exhibition, “Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States.” (This is the first time I will curate and travel a show on a subject that I haven’t first written a book about. I am working with a great team of experts— some of us will edit a book about incarcerated women.)

I am convinced that the curriculum must be interrupted by reconsiderations of the causes and consequences of incarceration policies in the United States. With the new show, just as with the others, I am expressing my hope (and intermittent faith) in democracy. I am using art together with scholarship to enrich opportunities for public and institutional education. I am contributing to the project of a well-educated citizenry.

MMO: In Beggars and Choosers, you discuss American women’s experience of motherhood as a “choice” in the context of abortion, adoption and welfare. Why is the language of “choice” drowning out the language of women’s rights and equality, and how does the “politics of choice” legitimize the maternal status of some women while erasing or invalidating that of others?

R. Solinger: I have thought a lot about the limitations of “choice” as women’s special guarantee. I worry about the consequences of this: the promise that women can decide for themselves whether and when to become mothers is expressed by the individualistic, market-place term, “choice.” How can users of such a term avoid distinguishing, in consumer-culture fashion, between a woman who can and a woman who can’t afford to make a choice? I worry about what aspects of “rights” are masked or lost when the language of choice replaces the language of rights at the heart of women’s special guarantee.

I use the term “rights” to refer to the privilege or benefits of being a human — and specifically a woman— in the United States. “Rights” usually refers to privileges and benefits that a person can exercise without access to any special resources, such as money. For example, women and minorities in the United States have struggled for and won “voting rights,” that is, the right of all citizens over a certain age to vote, even if they have no money and no property, and no other resources.

But “choice” has come to be associated with possessing resources. Many Americans believe that women who exercise choice are supposed to be legitimate consumers, women with money. This is true even when the choices they exercise, such as the choice to be a mother or the choice to end a pregnancy, might be considered a very fundamental issue of rights.

Distinctions between women of color and white women, between poor and middle-class women, have been underscored in the “era of choice” partly by defining some women (rich and middle class) as good choice-makers and other women (the ones in the reviled categories) as bad choice-makers. During a time when babies— and pregnancy itself— have become ever more commodified, only “good” choice-makers have a “legitimate” relationship to babies and motherhood. The other woman are “illegitimate” mothers because without resources, they are illegitimate consumers.

The use of the concept “choice”— focusing on what a given, individual woman decides to do, reproductively— encourages us to ignore the social and economic context in which women are fertile. We look at the individual woman and her choices while we ignore the content and the consequences of public policies, and the impacts of racism and very low minimum wage rates on the lives of women who may become mothers. These factors arguably have a lot more to do with the quality of any given woman’s mothering than her own “choices.”

We say that women who can’t give their children all the advantages and have babies anyway are selfish, and they are bad choice-makers. We say that motherhood should be a privilege reserved for middle-class women, the ones who can afford to be proper mothers. And suddenly we have backed ourselves into a corner. Suddenly we are supporting an economic test for motherhood in America. Is this appropriate in a democracy? How many of us come from families in which a poor woman was our grandmother or great grandmother, or our mother? A woman who, despite her lack of middle class resources, was a wholly legitimate mother and one whose fertility we would not have wanted to see degraded or reviled.

MMO: You’ve suggested that the political intersection between motherhood and “choice” positions women as consumers and defines women’s fertility as a commodity which is either desirable or undesirable depending on a woman’s marital and economic status. What happens to mothers themselves when motherhood is conceptualized as a privilege reserved for those who can afford to enter the market? How does this contribute to the popular opinion that middle-class mothers care more deeply for their children than poor mothers do?

R. Solinger: I’ll respond to this question with an example. In working on this issue— who is a legitimate mother in the United States, and who decides?— I learned some things I didn’t expect to learn. For one thing, I came to understand a lot about how adoption works. This wasn’t a subject I’d set out to learn about. But in studying how a woman’s economic class— her access to resources, and her race— structure her “right” to be a mother, I stumbled into the domain of adoption.

I learned that ever since adoption became a mainstream practice in the United States, in the mid-to-late 1940s, the girls and women most likely to surrender their children (in this country and around the world) have always been among the most profoundly resourceless females wherever they live— because of their non-marital sexual shame, because of their poverty, or for some other reason.

In the 1970s, some women in the United States were more able than those in earlier eras to achieve degrees of economic self-sufficiency. And with legal contraception and legal abortion, many women could make a greater number of reproductive decisions in their own interests. For these reasons among others, white women who got pregnant without having husbands stopped giving up their babies for adoption, even when their parents and clergymen and teachers said they should. Girls who would have been sharply pressed to give up their “illegitimate” babies just a few years earlier (“Without a husband, you are not a mother!”), drew on their new economic and reproductive autonomy and rejected that pressure. They kept their babies and inaugurated the new status: single mother.

By the early 1970s, there were hardly any more white babies available for adoption in the United States. So potential adopters turned to other resourceless populations of women: Colombian, Peruvian, Chinese, Korean, Indian. The poorest women from the poorest countries in the world. North Americans and Europeans looking for children to adopt typically defined their project as part the search for a child to “complete” a family, and partly as a way to rescue a child from destitution. Generally however, potential adopters did not and do not speak about the woman who gave birth to the child. The birthmother is usually effaced in discussion about adoption.

Adopters experience their own intense desire for a child and their own intense attachment to the child they select for adoption. But they rarely imagine— or publicly discuss— the birthmother’s capacity for intense attachment to the same child, even though she is the one whose body delivered the child.

I have become convinced that many (most?) middle class Americans have a hard time imaging that a poor mother loves and wants her children as much as a middle class woman does. Middle class adopters most typically believe that they have the (morally upright) choice to adopt. They are able to believe in this “choice” in part because they make themselves blind to the fact that their “choice” depends completely on the choicelessness of anothe  woman.

MMO: By situating child-rearing and care-giving as honorable, socially productive work, welfare rights activists in the 1970s claimed a right to public assistance based on their maternal status. This logic is strikingly similar to that used by the mostly white, mostly middle-class supporters of the emerging mothers’ movement to frame their demands for public policy reform. Yet some of the top action items of the new mothers’ advocates— such as eliminating the tax penalty on secondary earners and part-time parity— may have a limited effect on relieving the hardships of low-income single mothers (others issues on the movement’s agenda, such as enforcing equal pay regulations, flexible workplace policies, paid parental leave and paid sick leave for all workers may have greater impact). How can the emerging mothers’ movement cross the lines of race and class to formulate an agenda that supports the “reproductive dignity” of all women and mothers? What are the predictable conflicts that lie ahead?

R. Solinger: To reiterate and expand: my work in this area has shown me that, typically, middle class women have a very hard time believing that poor women (1) should be mothers; (2) have the same problems— e.g. time-allocation problems, day care issues, sick children, difficult bosses and husbands or partners— as middle class mothers have; (3) love their children in the same way that middle class mothers do. So we approach the project of crossing class and race lines with a huge chasm between middle class mothers and poor mothers. Maybe more properly put— we begin with middle class women feeling quite alienated from and different from poor woman, as mothers.

Then, poverty policy in the United States has always set poor women and destitute women against each other as well. A women who earns just a little “too much,” even though she can barely make ends meet, and is definitely financially unprepared for emergencies, is disqualified from housing subsidies, day care assistance, health insurance for her children, and other benefits available to the poorest of the poor.

In other rich countries, the government realizes that all mothers (and families) have day care and health care needs for their children. Here we use means-tested assistance for the poor, and a shrinking percentage of middle class persons have some basic needs like health insurance subsidized by employers. For a number of reasons, then, our arrangement pits groups of mothers against each other. The biggest challenge is to figure out how to build cross-class coalitions that support, as you say, the reproductive dignity of all women and mothers.

And by the way, “reproductive dignity” means the right to decide whether or not and when to be a mother— as well as the right to decide whether or not to raise one’s child. And for “reproductive dignity” to make sense, fundamentally, it must enfold this: the right to raise one’s child with access to the basic elements of a dignified life, such as decent food, shelter, physical safety, health care, and education. Absent this guarantee, neither reproductive rights nor reproductive dignity is attainable. Absent this guarantee, some women will have easy access to reproductive dignity and rights. Others will be left out in the cold.

MMO: In Beggars and Choosers, you conclude that “reproductive autonomy— the right to decide whether or when to become a mother and the right to decide whether or not to raise one’s child— requires more than the class-and-race inflected guarantee of choice.” Do women have a right to motherhood, and if so, what could that mean and how might we protect it?

R. Solinger: By now it’s utterly obvious that I believe that women must have the right to reproduce in order to be full persons accorded full rights of self-determination. Women must have the right to reproduce in order to be full citizens in our society. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts (author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, and other important work), drawing in part on the ways that slavery (in the U.S. in the past, and elsewhere today) denies women control over their bodies and their reproductive capacity, has asked us to think about this: that “denying someone the right to bear children deprives her of a basic right to her humanity.” Also, she argues that “respecting Black women’s decisions [and the decisions of other occupants of the reviled categories] to bear children is a is a necessary ingredient of a community that affirms the personhood of all of its members.

Achieving reproductive dignity, reproductive rights, reproductive justice for all women is, apparently, one of the most complicated and protracted projects that social justice activists face. The most important part of this project, as with all such projects, is to swell the number of people who understand how important it is for women to have the right to their bodies and share this understanding with others. It is simply crucial to increase the number of people who vote for reproductive justice and the number who join with others to advocate for public policies that guarantee the reproductive dignity and full personhood of women— all women— in the United States.

I am a historian. I always insist that I like to hang out in the past. I usually claim that I can’t assess the present or predict the future. But these claims aren’t really true. Lately I’ve learned to say that I’m devoted to the past because I care so much about the future. The book I’ve just finished writing, a history of reproductive politics in the United States from 1776 to 2005, will be published next year. I hope this book helps readers see more clearly how women could not be the equals of men as long as they could not control their fertility or achieve reproductive dignity. Nor could women of color and poor women be the equals of white, middle class women as long as their reproductive capacity was reviled and constrained while the reproductive capacity of white, middle class women was prized and their children valued. These are profound insights into the importance of these matters.

mmo : october 2004

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