Defining female empowerment

October 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm

This blogpost was originally written August 15, 2009 (also re-posted March 6, 2010). I received excellent comments both times. Please do click over and check out those discussions. Hoping for some more today…

The whole battle between the two camps is due to the faiure [sic] of women in the country to fight for real empowerment. They take up an ‘easy’ cause, child birth and child raising, to fight for with the enemy that does not exist, other women. Rather than fight men for equal pay (the ERA is STILL not ratified in this country!), equal opportunity, fight sexism, fight discrimination, they pick easy ‘battles’ with no true winners. My partner calls the breast-home birth-epidural-vaccination battles ‘Hen Chatter’. No real substance or results. These arguments do nothing to better the lives and livelihoods of women or our daughters. Filled with hystrionics [sic] and personal anecdotes they are just busy work, like darning once was, for women. Keeps the little women busy and from tackling the real fights. Keep it up ladies and we will remain in the 1960’s for another half century. Empowering women is not about how you have a baby!

-Ali (excerpt from her comment in response to “Pushing Back: Has the natural childbirth movement gone too far?” by Lisa Selin Davis)

I linked over to Lisa Selin Davis’ essay from the Citizens for Midwifery blog. Initially I expected the article itself to get me riled up. But it turned out to be fairly balanced. Just a few painful jabs. Then I started reading the comments. Why do I let myself read the comments? The essay’s title is quite fitting, in fact. Except Jennifer Block’s title was making reference to the way women as a whole are “pushed” into less than ideal maternity care. This essay refers to the way women “push” each other. And, after reading the comment by “Ali” above, I certainly did feel as though I had been violently shoved to the ground. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about since reading Ali’s words…

4.3 million births were registered in the United States in 2006 (source). And the vast majority of women worldwide will give birth at some point in their lifetimes. That translates to a mind-boggling number of births. So, in my view, what happens to women in childbirth is an issue that should matter to all women everywhere.

But, of course, we are all in different stages of life. The issues that matter to each of us are usually those most pertinent to our circumstances. I happen to be in my childbearing years. I have spent the past six+ years totally immersed in childbirth and childrearing. That is where my head is. So I am well-versed in the abuses toward women (and babies) occurring within that sphere. On the flip side, most of my female age-mates have spent the last six years in graduate school and the workforce, building their careers. They would be well-versed in the abuses toward women within their spheres.

Doesn’t it make sense for all women to work within their own spheres of influence? What good would I do championing the cause of females in the corporate world if I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be in their shoes? What good does it do for any woman to say, in essence, “What matters to you is meaningless! My crusade is so much better than yours!” It reminds me of the similar sentiment that my work as a “stay-at-home” mother is menial or pointless, or that my career choice is somehow harming the progress of womankind. It is attitudes such as these that have led me to eschew the “feminist” label.

“Ali” accuses me and other birth advocates of fighting with “the enemy that does not exist, other women.” But what has she just done? Is she not attacking me and women like me? I have always tried to make it clear that I do what I do to educate, inspire, and empower other women. Not ever to attack them. And, yes, I said empower.

Let’s talk about empowerment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard women say, following the birth of their child, “That was the most empowering experience of my life!” I would love to see the day that childbirth is empowering for every woman, and never disempowering, as it is for too many. “Ali” may not be aware just yet, but women across the country are abused daily by their maternity care providers (many of them males). Can’t we agree that needs to change?

Women can be empowered in a multitude of ways. Having a salary equivalent to a male executive is only one of them. Shouldn’t “feminism” be about what matters to all women, not just about what matters to one small niche of them? Who is Ali to decide what ought to be empowering to other women? Aren’t we all entitled to decide that for ourselves?

The fact of the matter is that the childbirth experience is a huge, often life-changing rite of passage for women. And what happens during that special experience matters deeply to many women, and rightly so. How does it harm the progress of womankind for us childbirth advocates to focus our efforts on maximizing the empowerment of that pivotal, life-changing experience? Can “Ali” and her partner really believe these issues are “hen chatter” or “histrionics”? Or that our efforts “do nothing to better the lives and livelihoods of women or our daughters.” It is, in large part, because of my love for my daughters that I continue my crusade.

Furthermore, I happen to believe that darning is a valuable lost art—one I very much wish I had. Oh how many hole-filled socks I could have made wearable again!

So, “Ali” wants to get women away from their “needlework” and out fighting the “real fights” in the feminist agenda. I’m glad there are women like her fighting for equality in their realm of experience. But if you imagine all of womankind as a whole, perched on a tabletop, doesn’t it make sense that we can’t just raise one corner? Shouldn’t we all “stand close together and lift where we stand” and improve every aspect of women’s lives simultaneously, each exerting our efforts in the areas most suited to us? You work over there, I’ll work over here, and together we’ll all make a difference? Isn’t that how it should be?