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Is motherhood a class privilege in America?
An interview with historian Rickie Solinger

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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.

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?

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