We need to talk about women as a class

Glosswitch on The problem with talking about “pregnant people” – she starts the way I did, with “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” It is very much the point, after all.

The problem, we see, is not what pregnancy is, but where women are situated within a social, cultural and economic hierarchy.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to stop talking about women as the targets of efforts to eliminate freedom of reproduction.

Occasionally this tension comes to a head. For instance, last year the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) changed some of the language in its core competencies document to refer to “pregnant people” as opposed to “women” (although there is still one reference to the latter). In August this year an organisation calling themselves Woman-Centred Midwifery delivered an Open Letter to MANA in protest at the changes, arguing that they constituted “the erasure of women from the language of birth”. The signatories include Ina May Gaskin, one of the most well-known advocates for natural birthing choices. Her involvement has shocked and disappointed many, to the extent that some have petitioned for her to be removed from the Birth and Beyond Conference speakers’ list. After all, why should language that is more neutral be seen as politically objectionable?

Because reproduction isn’t neutral. Because reproduction is central to why women are an oppressed class. Because women already get erased and ignored and shoved aside everywhere you look, so it’s not “progressive” to do even more of that.

It is very easy to dismiss Women-Centred Midwifery as the bad guys in all this. First of all, they’ve called themselves “woman-centred”. Nobody calls themselves “woman-centred” unless they’re a 1970s throwback, belonging to an age when feminism was drab, unenlightened and too busy eating its own afterbirth to get anything done.

Um. I can’t tell if glosswitch is being ironic there or not, but if she’s not…yikes. Is that really how 1970s feminism is seen now? Has anybody thought to compare it with feminism circa 1964? 1970s feminism got quite a lot more done than placenta-munching.

If one looks at how gender functions, not as a means of self-definition, but as a class system, the gender-neutral pregnancy starts to feel akin to John Major’s “classless society”. It’s a way of using language to create the illusion of dismantling a hierarchy when what you really end up doing is ignoring it. Pregnancy is a gendered experience, not because pregnant individuals necessarily feel like women, but because the pregnant body is externally managed within the context of its subordinate sex class status. Because if it had a different status, “abortion [and free birthing choices, epidurals and caesareans on demand, investment into more and better pregnancy care etc.] would be a sacrament.” We need a way of talking about this which is permitted to prioritise the sex-class reading of gender over the identity-based one, not as way of excluding people, but as a way of naming what happens to them and others in the context of class-based oppression.

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes our tendency to discuss humanity as though it were “created outside class, gender, race, age, background and experience – rather than through class, gender, race, age, background and experience”:

“Instead we see circumstances, the body and context as layers that have to be peeled away. They cloud the vision. If we want to talk about how things really are, we must abstract how things really are, we think.

But being human is experienced precisely through a gender, a body, a social position, and the backgrounds and experiences we have. There is no other way.”

I wrote my next Free Inquiry column about that – about the fact that “identity” isn’t just internal, it’s social, it’s shaped by how the world sees us. There is no other way.

One can argue over whether or not gender exists as an apolitical entity; whether to be a woman is to identify or be identified as one. Our most immediate challenge, however, concerns whether all pregnant individuals are seen as people, not whether all pregnant people are seen as women. In order to address this we need to talk about women as a class. Gender-neutral terms limit our ability to do this. Whatever our intentions, neutralising language is not a neutral act.

Neutral isn’t neutral.

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