Book Reviews by Robin Bromley
The notion of motherhood, never simple or particularly stable, is again under pressure — this time on several fronts. While advances in reproductive technology and changes in family structures stir debate about where, when and why women want children, the sharp increase in working mothers heightens the tension between self-fulfillment and the demands of family, and provokes anxiety about who takes care of the children.
Two recent books: Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World, by the novelist and columnist Anne Roiphe, and Reproducing Persons: Issues in Feminist Bioethics, by philosophy professor Laura M. Purdy, reveal just how urgent these questions have become. In widely different contexts and from different points of view, these two books define the major issues in the current debate about reproductive choices and their political ramifications. They also reveal how divisive the debate can be.
Fruitful, Anne Roiphe’s 11th book, is a personal reflection on her experience as a mother, as well as feminism’s impact on her and the culture — at least the middle-class part of it. It was prompted by The Morning After, her daughter Kate Roiphe’s critique of feminism’s focus on date rape and sexual harassment. Proud of her daughter’s work and also aware of the irony of having “a critic of the revolution in which I was a foot soldier and she a beneficiary,” Roiphe says, “I am a mother feminist. I ask myself is that a contradiction, and this book begins.” It’s Roiphe’s chance to address her own doubts about the women’s movement, as well as its goals and achievements.
The chief contradiction Roiphe addresses is the personal conflict between the goal of feminism, which to her “was always to give women fuller, better lives, a chance for equality with men, and an opportunity to use all of their human potential” and the needs of children, which in our culture has limited such personal growth. For Roiphe, this includes the agony of wrenching herself away from a crying child to pursue her own ambitions, as well as ambivalence about the movement itself. Images of Roiphe herself going into labor alone in a snow bank; of her mother sipping Scotch in a bathtub, longing for divorce; and of being encouraged to leave her playwright husband and find her own voice, make it clear how grateful the author is for the fuller, better life feminism gave her. But she is also angry at the way feminists have belittled motherhood, abandoned the demand for child care and, more recently, attacked women’s motives for having children in the first place. In fact, the book’s title was inspired by one of the movement’s early swipes at mothers: Betty Rollin’s 1970 command in an issue of Life magazine, “If God were speaking to us today in a voice we could understand,” she said, “even he would say ‘Be fruitful! Don’t multiply.’ “
Roiphe is out to prove how wrong Rollin was; real mothers can do both, she argues.The book is also a plea for a more realistic assessment of what mothering is: “It’s all very well in the abstract to speak of the virtues of motherhood… but up close, in the thick of it, we have to consider, is it worth it, what does it do to us, how exactly does it make us feel. Because the emotions, good and bad, of the common mother are the building blocks of our next political direction.” Roiphe takes a significant step toward redefining motherhood in the second section of her book, “Guilt.” A veteran of consciousness-raising, Roiphe knows that stories can effect change, and she uses them persuasively. Her anecdotes about outstanding mistakes go a long way to dispel the notion of the available mother who heals all with a hug. They also help assuage the working mother’s guilt over neglecting her children. (I, for one, gained tremendous latitude for error from the stories of her inadvertently leaving her 10-year-old home alone when rushing to a hospital, and sending her toddler to a birthday party without underpants.)
The book is less convincing, however, when it turns from anecdotes to an analysis of sexism and prescribes new directions for the future. For instance, relying heavily on the work of psychologists Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein, Roiphe traces the chief cause of misogyny back to women themselves, to “mother-dominated childhoods,” in which children fear regression and the loss of self. The idea is that people hate women because they hate their repressive mothers. So if things are bad for women in general, they are worse for moms. Quoting Chodorow, Roiphe writes, “We are all prone to mother hating because we live in a society that says that mothers can and should do all for their children.”
The failures of feminism can also be blamed on women, particularly the rage against men that became a defining theme in radical feminist politics and scholarship. Roiphe writes that “Instead of establishing equality between the sexes, all the banging of the consciousness-raising drum had somehow managed to reverse the polarity. Good was now female and bad was male.” Pronatalism, which Roiphe defines as “the idea that the culture is rife with evidence of a conspiracy to make women bear children,” comes in for even stiffer attack. While Roiphe forgives the early expression of pronatalism as “a kind of politics-cum-paranoia” of early feminism, “today’s anti-baby posturing,” she says, “is something else again. It repels most women. It makes it possible for us to avoid serious questions and issues about child care.” Worse, she contends, it plays into the hands of anti-abortionists who use it to position the women’s movement as antifamily. Oddly enough, although women are the problem, Roiphe believes the solution rests in men. If men would share half the responsibility for raising children, they would attract half the wrath. This would not only diffuse misogyny but also give women the time they need to pursue their aims and children the attention they so sorely need.
Women must lead the way: “If we could make a revolution about what women did, we can make a revolution about what men do, what families should be. It is just that we stopped halfway. ” This will free us to attend to the next generation of feminist goals: putting child care back on the agenda, helping women make informed choices about reproduction, and finding solutions to infertility.
Roiphe’s call to bring fathers home doesn’t mean she excludes other forms of family. Examining the various ways families are formed today — homosexual partnerships, adoptive families, remarriages, families formed with the help of surrogate mothers or IVF — Roiphe strives for tolerance, recognizing that people nurture each other and children in many ways. And yet, unaware of her own biases, she often undermines her cause. In an otherwise moving definition of family, for example, she seems blind to the huge caveat she throws into the argument, suggesting that different kinds of family are fine as long as they are not substantially different: “If we define the family as a bond, biological or chosen, which is dedicated to the caring of all… then the genders of the adults will affect the style, the culture, the politics of that home, but no more.”
There is, of course, nothing insubstantial about culture and politics. Roiphe says in her baldest statement of the issue, “Feminism needs to be pro-marriage, because that is the best way to make most men, women, and their children happy.” Her point is that parenting is at least a two- or three-person job, if not the whole village’s. But her wish for the return of the family, even the broader and more expansive families of the present, doesn’t seem to be any less fantastic. This is why I think she ultimately slips back into a call for “traditional families.”
Roiphe’s descriptions of her own family prove much more affecting, especially as it grows to include one daughter from Roiphe’s first marriage, a new husband, two stepdaughters, and two daughters from her second marriage. It is hard to dispute the elasticity and strength of a family that endures an angry child setting a bed on fire; one sister badly battering another; a daughter getting strung out on drugs, then going through recovery and the discovery that she is HIV-positive.
Reflecting on how much her experience as a mother has encompassed, how much it has expanded the way she thinks and feels about herself as well as others, Roiphe claims that contradictions collapse and the clash between motherhood and feminism is an “artificial one, after all.” At first, I found this disappointing, a facile resolution of a powerful conflict. But as I reflect on the family Anne Roiphe describes and the contradictions that motherhood entails, I believe her. Her personal story makes an important contribution to our understanding of who we are and to enlarging roles that the culture has made much too small.
Reproducing Persons: Issues in Feminist Bioethics, is entirely different in scope and purpose than Roiphe’s reflections. The book is a collection of formal philosophical essays on the moral implications of abortion, reproductive technology, and genetic testing written over the last 20 years. Purdy, who teaches philosophy at Wells College, is interested in bringing the rigors of her academic discipline to the moral issues underlying women’s childbearing choices. She also is committed to demonstrating that feminist ethics deserves the attention of serious philosophers. Therefore, she applies the rules of formal logic to each issue, testing the merits of each argument with the formal demand that “equal consideration of interests would mean that women’s interests would count as heavily as those of men and, where the two come into conflict, would be taken to outweigh those interests at least half the time.”
Purdy is much more skeptical than Roiphe when it comes to the reasons women choose to bear or raise children. Aligned with what Roiphe considers anti-baby posturing, Purdy is convinced that social pressures have more to do with reproductive decisions than intrinsic desire. Thus, while Roiphe and Purdy might agree on the current aim of feminism, which, as Purdy puts it, is “to help women take more control of their lives,” the two women have very different ideas about how close women are to achieving that goal. Purdy believes that the threats to women’s self-determination are enormous, consisting not only of the pronatalism that Roiphe dismisses, but of the insidious sexism that overtly challenges women’s development, and makes it difficult for them to feel as suited to other roles as they are to nurturing.
Purdy’s chief concerns about the difficulty of making reproductive decisions come to the fore in her 1995 essay, “What Can Progress in Reproductive Technology Mean for Women?” At issue is whether the risks involved in genetic testing, which allows women to abort seriously impaired fetuses, outweighs its potential good. Here, as in later arguments about abortion, Purdy emphasizes the burden on women raising children in a sexist society. Without guaranteed health care, child care, or equal opportunities in education and the workplace, raising children can be an overwhelming responsibility. Purdy’s view of how grim parenting can be is even starker, in an essay comparing compulsory pregnancy (which is what a ban on abortion amounts to) with the International Labor Organization’s definition of forced labor.
A child’s serious health problems added to this make it an almost impossible burden, one that should count as much as — or more than — fetal life. This burden is compounded when a woman has been pressured into having the child, a phenomenon that Purdy sees as pervasive. Unlike Roiphe, Purdy does not believe many women choose to have children for the power of the experience. In fact, she is skeptical that many women actively choose at all. As she sees it, the pressures of pronatalism are very real, very harmful and widespread: “Many women (and men) have children because ‘it is the thing to do,’ and only ‘misfits’ fail to reproduce.” Even more insidious is the way sexism can corral women into unwanted pregnancies and parenthood: “Women in sexist societies are bombarded with the view that women (but not men) are nurturers by nature,” Purdy maintains. “This assumption, together with the (now usually subliminal) message that females lack the qualities necessary for other projects, undoubtedly leads many women erroneously to concur in the judgment.”
Purdy’s remedy, at first glance, seems patronizing. “Feminists need to engage in an unrelenting campaign. . .to make sure that women are provided with the opportunity for thoroughgoing scrutiny of their needs, desires and plans before going ahead with having a child. Such scrutiny must include a realistic assessment of the demands of motherhood. It must also include a clear-eyed assessment of each individual woman’s inclinations, strengths and resources. It is easy to see why Roiphe and others might reject this argument. If you don’t acknowledge the impact of sexism and pronatalism, you might think Purdy is saying that women do not think through their choices. They are being herded toward motherhood like sheep. But in fact, Purdy is adamant about looking at the social pressures women are under to define themselves as mothers, the hardships they can endure as a result, and the effort to alleviate those pressures by making alternatives available through genetic testing and abortion as well as through wider social reform.
In her essays on abortion, which make up the second part of the book, Purdy makes an even stronger case for the need to evaluate the social forces that influences a woman’s decision to bear children. In “Abortion and the Argument from Conscience,” for instance, she suggests that the political debate has focused on the sanctity of the fetus to divert attention from the real issue — why there are so many unwanted pregnancies in the first place. We avoid these problems because the social cost of remedying them would be profound.
Reducing the number of pregnancies and abortions would mean changing deeply ingrained social assumptions and the behaviors that go with them, (empowering girls to refuse unwanted sexual encounters and making contraception and sex education a priority are two important examples). It would also mean improving women’s health and financial status, and providing adequate food, shelter, and care for children. This lays out a far more constructive agenda for feminism than arguments about the relative sexism of the culture, for it calls attention to the very real consequences of ill-considered pregnancies: those young people whose lives we say we hold so dear, yet whose well being we do so little to foster.
Purdy shows greater sympathy for desire to have children in her more recent essays on reproductive technology, which comprise the third and last section of the book. Indeed, it is the basis for her argument against feminists who fear men will use technology to control women’s reproductive decisions, or even eradicate the need for women themselves. Unlike Roiphe, Purdy offers a much more measured, even cooler, view of the experience. Carefully defining the “right reasons” for parenting, she acknowledges that some men and women want children for the pleasures of the special closeness in being a child’s primary caretaker and the wish to nurture a child and witness her or his growth, yet Purdy remains skeptical of the independence of their choice.
Rather than define herself as a parent, Purdy says she “participates in parenting.” Nevertheless, she does admit that the desire to parent can be a compelling interest — one that outweighs the many arguments that Purdy puts forth against parenting in a sexist society, and one that she ultimately upholds on the same grounds she gives for the access to genetic testing and abortion: the right to self-determination, which emphasizes control over one’s body and resources.
Given how much influence society has over our decisions, in Purdy’s view, it is not surprising that she ultimately argues that the more significant issue in reproductive technology is not about individual choice, but whether the huge sums of money being allocated for it might better be spent on broader social change, such as routine health care for women that might reduce the infant mortality rate.
Roiphe would agree, despite her radically different view of parenthood and the forces that shape it. No one can deny how hostile the environment has become for women and their children, given the recent welfare “reform” measures that aim to marginalize (if not extinguish) them. Onslaughts like this make it clear that, while it is important to debate and define who we are and what we need as women, right now we may need to subordinate our differences to fight for an environment in which women and children can survive, let alone thrive.
ROBIN BROMLEY is a writer, editor and mother living in New York City.