Friday, May 27, 2016

Five Forms of Sexism We Expect Pregnant Women to Tolerate

Sometimes I think feminism has forgotten about mothers. Eighty-one percent of women eventually become mothers. Women's status as potential mothers is routinely used to limit their choices, with many employers openly admitting that they won't hire women of childbearing age. Motherhood, avoiding motherhood, and the constant treatment even of infertile women as potentially pregnant may affect more women than any feminist issue.

But as soon as we talk about feminism and motherhood, we're accused of participating in the mommy wars. Men can endlessly post to Facebook about fantasy football leagues, and daily updates about fictional television characters are just fine. Share your opinions on birth, though, and you're just another one of those women whose lost her mind to motherhood.

Women are routinely excluded from feminist events because of their status as mothers. It's as if issues such as reproductive autonomy, bodily integrity, and choice don't matter when there's a mother involved.

It's time for feminism to take a long, hard look at the sexism pregnant women are forced to endure. In many cases, self-described feminists defend this oppression. So endemic is sexism to motherhood that it may go completely unnoticed, even by the woman asked to endure it. Here are just a few examples of the sexism we ask pregnant women to face with a smile.

Loss of Reproductive Autonomy 
Reproductive choice is perhaps the single most important achievement of the feminist movement. As soon as a woman opts to keep her baby, though, her reproductive choices grow increasingly limited. Hospitals have forced women to undergo C-sections they did not want, in some cases by seeking a court order and in others by threatening to have the woman's baby taken. These forced C-sections often rely on the judgment of a single doctor. Doctors can be and are wrong, as they were when they forced a C-section on Angela Carder, killing Carder and her baby.

Defenders of these practices argue that women who get pregnant must give up some autonomy. After all, they're growing a life. But research consistently shows that many of the interventions forced on women are dangerous and unnecessary. Women may have to undergo unwanted and unnecessary abdominal surgery solely because a doctor wants to make it to a weekend golf game. Why, then, aren't feminists protesting outside of every hospital with an exorbitantly high C-section rate?

This interference with reproductive autonomy isn't limited to forced C-sections. At every stage of pregnancy, we work to constrain women's choices. The list of foods pregnant women are forbidden grows longer each year, even in the face of evidence that most of these dietary restrictions are arbitrary and unnecessary. That won't stop random strangers from telling you what to eat. At least half a dozen people--all men--have told me I'm a "child abuser" because I drink a cup of coffee each day.

It's now routine to drug test pregnant women at many hospitals, even without telling them, and even though the results of these tests are unreliable. A single positive marijuana test can cause a woman to lose custody of her baby, even if the marijuana use occurred before she got pregnant. Apparently we think it's ok to treat all pregnant women as potential criminals and child abusers.

Physical Assaults 
Think everyday street harassment is bad? It pales in comparison to what pregnant women experience. From minor intrusions such as near-constant exhortations to smile, to outright assaults, pregnant women have somehow become public property. Strangers think it's perfectly fine to walk up to pregnant women and touch their bellies. When I've asked strangers to stop, they've called me a bitch, threatened me, or grabbed harder.

Good luck finding any police officer who will take this seriously. Going out into the world as a pregnant woman, it seems, constitutes a demand to be touched by every creeper in a three-mile radius.

Genital Mutilation
Think female genital mutilation is limited to a few "backwards" areas in the world. Then you've probably never been pregnant. Doctors routinely cut open the vaginas of women in labor to make the baby come out faster.

It turns out that episiotomies don't actually work. In fact, they increase the risk of a serious tear, and can make subsequent labors much more difficult. Those are the exact same effects as female circumcision, yet we treat one as a routine medical procedure and the other as a disgusting form of violence against women.

It gets worse. The complications of episiotomy can last a lifetime, and include:

  • Tearing through the rectal wall, causing feces to leak into the vagina. 
  • Bowel and bladder incontinence. 
  • Chronic pain. 
  • Inability to orgasm. 
  • Recurring infections. 
  • Subsequent tears. 

And just like female genital mutilation, most women don't get a say in whether or not they undergo an episiotomy. Seventy-three percent of women who have undergone the procedure say they did so without consenting. Doctors are cutting open women's vaginas against their will and apparently no one cares. 

Working Through Illness 
If you woke up tomorrow vomiting and experiencing intense pain, you'd probably skip work, right? What about if your colleague called in to work pregnant? Would you judge her? Somehow the same symptoms have different meanings depending upon who has them. People with chronic or acute illnesses miss work when they feel sick. But when a pregnant woman calls in sick, she's lazy and weak. She's a product of her "crazy" pregnancy hormones. And she's probably going to quit working after the baby gets here anyway. 

We offer pregnant women no disability leave, and paid maternity leave is still a distant dream. For many women, even unpaid maternity leave isn't an option. And yet there is no mass outcry, no significant push to change the law, and certainly no screams from supposedly "pro-life" Republican legislators to protect pregnant women and their babies.

Diminishing Value as a Human Being
I didn't believe it myself until I got pregnant, but a strange thing begins to happen when people start seeing you as a mother: they stop seeing you as a human. No longer are you allowed to be person with myriad interests. You're a mother first and foremost. Everything else comes second.

Consider, for example, how annoyed many people get when pregnant women post pregnancy updates or belly shots online. No one seems to think twice about the many obnoxious posts men make, but share a bit about your pregnancy and suddenly all you care about is motherhood.

What about work? LOL. The moment I got pregnant, people kept asking me if I was going to keep working. Many told me that I would quit, even against my insistences to the contrary. My husband has not had to field questions about his career plans even once. 

I used to think people were nice to pregnant women. I didn't realize how invisible I'd become. I've had people hit me with shopping carts. Random strangers approach me to tell me I'm "not special." people I hardly know comment on my body.

We collectively turn one of the most common female experiences into the most miserable. Then we wonder why pregnant women get depressed and new mothers kill themselves or struggle with anxiety. We tell them it's their hormones. I think there's a more obvious answer: life as a pregnant woman sucks, and life as a mother only builds upon the difficulty and abuse pregnant women routinely experience.

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