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
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.
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.
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
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?
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:
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.