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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

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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.

Why is the language of “choice” drowning out
the language of women’s rights and equality?

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