by Liza Featherstone
April 23rd, 2019
An interview with Jenny Brown
With meager public support for parents, US women are having fewer children than ever. Raising the next generation is work — and American women seem to be on strike.
In 2017, the birth rate in the United States reached an all-time low. In her new book Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work (PM Press), activist and author Jenny Brown argues that declining birth rates represent a work slowdown, or strike, in the face of the poor conditions for those who do the labor of bearing and raising children.
Like many of the classic texts of the Second Wave feminist movement, Brown’s book is her own, yet also a collective, intellectual endeavor, growing out of her organizing work with Redstockings and National Women’s Liberation, including those groups’ discussions and consciousness raising sessions.
Jacobin’s Liza Featherstone spoke with Jenny Brown about the book at New York City’s Strand bookstore earlier this month.
Feminists are always fighting for our reproductive rights, to defend access to abortion. What assumptions have feminists generally made about why this is a fight in the first place? What stories have feminists told about the ruling class’s interest in our reproduction?
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, feminists thought the reason that birth control and abortion had been outlawed was the need for cannon fodder; the government wanted more troops. And this was true and very explicit. Teddy Roosevelt was raging at women who didn’t have kids. Feminists were saying that the reason they want us to have so many kids was to supply this incipient empire that the US was becoming.
That is very different from the sixties, when we were hearing, at least from a portion of the establishment, that women were having too many babies. There was all this crime and overcrowding in the cities. Women were once again to blame.
So while some feminists still thought the ruling class wanted the birth rate up, for many feminists — and I count among these Linda Gordon, who wrote a history of birth control, and even some of the pioneers in the abortion movement like Lucinda Cisler — the US ruling class was cutting back on abortion and birth control not because they wanted more population but because of these other reasons: wanting the church to grow, religious objections. Punishing women for having sex is a big one.
That’s a standard one.
So it’s not about how many people are being produced. I think that’s where we stood early 2000s when we first started working on this project.
And you’ve found that these narratives aren’t quite right.
Our experience started, when Kathie Sarachild, one of the founders of Redstockings, basically said, it looks like women in the US are on strike. At the time it sounded right, but we weren’t sure.
We were trying to get the morning-after pill available over the counter. Dozens of countries already had that when we started. We expected the Bush Administration to be a big opponent, and they were. What we didn’t expect was that when the Obama administration came in, it was also opposed to making morning-after pill contraception available over the counter. In fact they overrode the FDA’s order to make it over the counter for all ages.
We were a little bit shocked. The Democratic Party hadn’t been all we wanted on reproductive rights, but here we were talking about contraception. Obama explicitly said he didn’t want his young daughters to get hold of this pill, which is sort of contradictory. [In 2011, when Obama said this, his daughters, Sasha and Malia, were respectively 10 and 13, ages at which, if pregnant, a person would certainly need an abortion.]
So we started to look at why opposition to birth control had become mainstream. Because with abortion at least you can say, okay, maybe it’s about politics, but since 80 percent of anti-abortion people are for birth control, you’re really taking a position that’s wildly at odds with your constituents, if you’re opposing birth control.
So we began to wonder if it was maybe a period more like 1913, in terms of what was going on with population politics.
In other words, you began to think, the ruling class wants us to make babies.
Yeah. And then at the same time, we were having this experience in our group of wanting to have kids and not being able to make it work.
We had a consciousness raising in 2015. We went around the room and many people had one child, wanted a second, felt that their family was not complete, had great relationships with their siblings, felt their family was not complete with only one, but could not make it work based on the double day that they were working, the expense of child care, unreliable health care, not having paid leave, all the things that we know go into making it possible to have kids.
Often those of us who hadn’t had kids also had similar reasons. This was certainly true for me: I went fifteen years without any health insurance at all, and when I got a policy, it ruled out anything that was a pre-existing condition — including my reproductive organs. It required that if I did get pregnant I had to already have bought in advance a pregnancy rider in order to cover the pregnancy.
You start to think, if I can’t even get healthcare, how am I going to cover this child? And I was not living a very well-paid life, so that definitely was a factor. And we found that was universally a factor for women in our group who wanted kids. Now, of course, there were some who never wanted kids, they wanted to do other things, and that’s fine. But for those who did want kids, their economic situation was really an obstacle.
Look at what other countries have, such as paid parental leave, where they’re essentially paying you to have a kid. You’re off your job but you’re getting a paycheck. The US is doing reproductive work entirely on the cheap. You get sixteen months in Sweden, you get almost two years in France. Here, apparently, employers could not even tolerate eight weeks of paid leave. We’ve had to struggle for that, and got it in a couple of states, but it’s a very small portion of your salary. We are the only country, really, that does not have paid parental leave.
Then there’s childcare. The expense of childcare is borne by families in the US whereas it’s largely borne by the state in many countries in Europe. Oh, and also, all these countries have national health care! Many of them have child allowances, basically a check for every kid you have. So once we started looking at that, we realized that the US strategy was to push all this expense and work onto the family.
One of the things that’s so intriguing about the story you tell in your book is how differently the US seems to be dealing with the challenge of low or stable birth rates than other countries.
Some of the benefits in other countries that you just described seem to have been instituted at least partly in response to elite concerns over the birth rate. Whereas our solution to that problem seems to be forced childbearing.
Yes. For example, in Sweden in the 1930s there was a lot of concern about women going out to work and the birth rate going down. And that’s basically the origin of the social welfare state in Sweden.
In France there has constantly been worry about the low birth rate because they were competing with Germany, which they had been at war with. There’s even a cartoon from the 1880s of three Germans against two French, bayonets drawn: the message is, have more kids. France tried everything, and finally they tried making it easier for women to have kids by instituting long paid leaves, lots of childcare, and they’ve really put a lot of resources into it. But before that, they were doing the same thing that we’re doing here: making abortion illegal, bad sex education.
In the US we’re still in that situation of coercive natalism: making it harder and harder to get abortions, making it harder to get birth control, sex education that doesn’t explain sex.
The concept of consciousness raising has come up a couple times already. Could you explain a bit for people who don’t know, what that is and where it came from, and how it’s been important in the process of creating this book?
Consciousness raising was the program of the 1960s women’s liberation movement. Basically, rather than study books about who women are and what we are, we talk among ourselves and really examining our experiences in an honest and deep way. And then form a conclusion: what is going on? Why are we experiencing these things in our lives?
So that was consciousness raising and it spread the movement like wildfire. It was responsible for really spreading women’s liberation across the country by 1970. I’m in National Women’s Liberation, and also Redstockings, which has been almost continually in operation since its founding in 1969. But I was also involved in a group called Gainesville Women’s Liberation which was founded in 1968 and was the first Southern women’s liberation group. So my group, National Women’s Liberation, comes out of those strains of the women’s liberation movement and we still use consciousness raising pretty much for everything we do.
We use it to figure out our oppression, figure out our organizational strategy, we use it to figure out organizational issues. We really sit down and examine our experience in all of those instances and I think it gives our politics a little more grounding in women’s experiences and lives. We have been doing neighborhood consciousness raising in New York, so you don’t have to go a long distance, you can go somewhere that’s close to your house, meet with other women and talk about these issues. There’s even a chapter in the book that is just consciousness-raising testimonies about having kids.
One of the assumptions that we as feminists have made about the politics of the birth rate is that governments want white women to reproduce more and women of color to reproduce less. You agree that there’s a lot of racism surrounding the discussion of birth rates and reproductive rights. But you argue that it hasn’t always played out in quite the way we assume.
The history of reproductive coercion in this country starts with slavery. Black women have always borne the brunt of this. The slave system claimed that children of slave women were owned by the slave-owner even if the father was free. So that meant that an enslaved woman’s reproduction was a source of wealth for the owner, not just in the form of workers but as wealth in itself.
So this created enormous pressure for slave women to reproduce, and of course they resisted. It turns out that chewing on cotton root is a fairly effective contraceptive, which they discovered. Enslaved women also did all the things women do when they’re trying to control their reproduction: concealed miscarriages, forms of abortion and whatnot.
And I should say that there was a lot of nervousness on the part of slave-owners during that period about the fact that in many states they were outnumbered by the people they were holding captive. And when the Haitian revolution starts in 1791, they really freak out. They don’t want to import any slaves from the Caribbean because they are afraid it will bring the flame of insurrection north. Then there’s even more pressure on enslaved women to be the reproducers and that takes on all kinds of horrifying forms.
But when slavery ends, they still have
to keep this workforce in place, and there’s a long period of making
laws against vagrancy: they’re trying to keep in place this black
workforce which is no longer in bondage, though these laws are trying to
force them back into bondage. However, repression in the South being
what it is, and the economic situation in the South being miserable for
black people, they eventually leave: the great migration. There are even
stories about southern landowners trying to prevent black people from
leaving, tearing up their tickets.
So what happens in the 1960s? There’s enormous ferment during the Second World War around equal rights. Then almost a million black GIs come home and southern landowners get really nervous about this. So they hurry up the farm mechanization that had started during the war when there was a shortage of workers. And basically within fifteen years, cotton is mechanized in the South.
That means that suddenly they have a lot of very militant black workers who are unemployed — and they freak out and start to do forced sterilization. Fannie Lou Hamer, the legendary leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was sterilized in 1961 when she went into the local hospital to get a cyst removed. She estimated that 60 percent of women in her county had experienced this when they went to the hospitals. And there’s a lot of other evidence of forced sterilization going on. So it’s very clear that they wanted black people as long as they could control their work, and then as soon this population becomes restive, that’s when they come in with the forced sterilization.
And you can also see that in Puerto Rico. Big US owners come in and take over most of the land and suddenly there’s an “overpopulation crisis,” because everyone is being kicked off the land. Then they come in with both sterilization and an untested birth control pill, which they distribute lavishly.
So the issues are, is there a land grab? Is this population costing the elites money? Are they demanding things? Is the population in revolt or revolution? And do the elites need their work?
These are the considerations when the ruling class tries to figure out what the population policy is going to be.
And how about now?
It’s very clear why African-American women are always on the forefront of fighting for reproductive justice. The principles of reproductive justice are, to be able to not have kids when you don’t want to have kids, to be able to have kids when you do want to have them, and to have decent conditions in which to raise them.
Rather than just talking about “choice” or abortion rights, really talking about the whole range of things. And that comes from this horrifying experience of sterilization being forced on African-American women.
You talk in your book about some other times in history when the phrase birth strike has been used. Can you talk about the roots of the idea?
Emma Goldman when she toured around talking about birth control, called it her “birth strike” lecture. That would have been 1913-1914. It’s a term that, in that period, meant women controlling their reproduction. It doesn’t mean a coordinated, concerted effort; it means, we’re doing a slowdown because life is so hard.
We tend as feminists to talk about women’s reproduction as a site of oppression: women are oppressed because we’re the ones who can biologically have babies and this is used against us in all kinds of ways.
Obviously that’s not wrong. But in the book, you wonderfully reframe this, arguing that our reproduction is also a kind of power. We have something that the elites want. And throughout history, they’ve often wanted it. That society needs this reproductive labor in the same way that it needs people to keep the factories making things, people to keep the trains and trains running.
This seems much more exciting and hopeful. We control the means of reproduction, in the same way that Marx observed that workers in a factory control the means of production. When workers go on strike, they try to get better pay and better working conditions. So, what should we try to win in this birth strike?
A national health care system (guaranteed health care for everyone). Paid leave, lots of it, sixteen months like they have in Sweden for example. A national childcare system, free like the public schools, with unionized teachers who have decent benefits and good funding.
And again, the fight is over our time so shorter working hours for everybody. In the post-war period there was this idea that the family wage, the male breadwinner wage, would cover the family. It would cover the breadwinner and his spouse and children. So it was a sexist way of arranging things because women were dependent on a guy, but it also had a progressive element, which was that the employer was at least putting something in toward the family.
Well, we don’t want to go back to a sexist family wage system, but what we want to do is go forward to the social wage, like in Europe, where there are things you get just because you live in the country. So, national health care. In the family wage system, the health care is through the job, so you get it through your husband’s job. That makes you even more dependent on your spouse and you’re also dependent on his employer. In a social wage system, everybody gets health care, married or not, it’s doesn’t depend on your marital status at all; it’s not dependent on your relationship to a guy at all.
I think people often don’t fully realize how feminist that is and how impossible women’s liberation is without that.
Also, paid leave. In some countries in Europe you don’t even have to have a job to get paid leave; you just get it when you have the kid — so, really replacing some of these things that were done by the family wage with the social wage.
You also notice that with both spouses were now going out to work, now employers are getting eighty hours where they used to get forty hours, and the family care is crammed into the remainder of the day. Well, one feminist way to recapture that time is for everyone to work twenty hours for the same pay that they’re getting for 40 hours.
One thing I should add: we have not called for a birth strike. We’re simply reporting that there is one. Since the birth rate has dropped, if we’d called for a birth strike ten years ago we’d now feel fabulously successful.