The invisible women of the women’s strike:

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Photo by Allen Lew of Flickr.com

The women’s strike was seen by many feminists to be the continuation of momentum from the very successful Women’s March.  It was expected to be less successful because a lot of women can’t strike (I could be fired as a government employee).  However, it did close a number of school districts (which was a BFD). I would also argue this protest served its purpose if the sole purpose was to raise awareness for things like family leave, reproductive rights, and equal pay.  However, assuming that this, alone, was the main takeaway is not helpful.  The women who did not strike have more to say than the women who did, in my opinion.  Let me say that I totally supported and cheered for my friends who were able to strike.  I think it was wonderful and I don’t think their intention in any way was to discount the voices of women of color.  However, I think if we are to use this strike as a moment of visibility, we need to be careful to talk about those invisible women, too.

I have talked before about privilege and feminism – specifically in the context of the romanticization of mothering in a developing nation which is often seen in discourse about how we raise and feed babies.  There are issues with intersectionality in third wave feminism.  The “selfie girls” who were criticised in the aftermath of the Women’s March illustrate an important dialogue about white feminism and the reality of being a minority or working class feminist.  I think it is important to continue to address these issues.

We are doing ourselves, as feminists, no favors by focusing just on the white, privileged women. It’s reductionist.  It is harmful.  This criticism became very vocal with the introduction of “you go girl” feminism in Lean In.  Sandberg makes some good points, of course.  She argues that women need to feel free to take charge, should speak more in meetings, and demand a place at the table.  Moreover, she suggest women need to choose partners who are supportive of them and will share equally. I value all of these things as a working mom and I would give the same advice to a young grad student or trainee.

However, as a working mom who is highly educated and white, there are so many opportunities I am already afforded.  My biggest problems truly are equal pay for a job that already pays my bills and parental leave at a job where I was able to use paid leave already for an FMLA protected leave where I did not have to go on LWOP.  Sandberg argues in Lean In that for our sisters in the trenches working other types of jobs, this should lead to an overall better standard of living.  That makes me uncomfortable because the issue of equality probably is hardest to swallow for these women.  It neglects the needs they have RIGHT NOW.  Asking them to wait while we serve our own needs seems selfish and misdirected.

This approach also puts the ability to succeed on the backs of women.  It’s your  fault if you don’t demand more-even though workplace harassment and institutional barriers are so entrenched in patriarchy that they are incredibly difficult to overcome.

Many feminist theorists have criticized this type of feminism, including the amazing Bell Hooks, in an essay about her “trickle down” feminism.  Hooks writes,

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

“You go girl” feminism is nearly impossible to achieve due to something political scientists like myself know all too well.  It is one big effing collective action problem.  You can do your best but only through the cooperation of women and, yes, men, can you change corporate culture.  Sandberg clearly hasn’t done that for even her class of uber-privileged ladies.  Uber (please grant me this pun) has a huge harassment scandal brewing and the EEOC is currently seeing an increase in such complaints:

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Source: EEOC (2016)

Clearly, it is not all fixed.  That’s why women marched and struck this week.  Still, focusing just on this is harmful.  I’ve already read a number of articles about the politics of gender equality and the strike.  One I would encourage anyone to read was an Op-Ed written by Meghan Daum in the LA TimesIn it, Daum states,

Make no mistake, March 8 will mostly be a day without women who can afford to skip work, shuffle childcare and household duties to someone else, and shop at stores that are likely to open at 10 and close at 5… Meanwhile, for the millions of women who have no choice but to show up and meet their responsibilities on March 8 (and every day), it will be business as usual.

I didn’t strike.  I couldn’t strike.  And the strike did not affect me as a woman because my female coworkers couldn’t strike and I was able to avoid buying anything (a man bought me a beer and a pretzel).  I posted about this on social media.  I felt it important to note why I wasn’t striking.  I was working a job to help people who needed me – vulnerable people – for a government that required me to work.  Many women are in the federal and state government workplace not represented by unions.  It’s hard for us in that capacity.  My only ability to take the day off work would be, ironically, through the PTO I do not have left because I just had a baby!  I made it clear that insufficient family leave was the reason I couldn’t strike.

I saw mostly white women striking – women with good jobs, women who are salaried, women working in industries that supported their choices.  I value what they did because it does raise awareness and keep the ball rolling.  But just talking about the strike and the powerful message it sent misses the point.

The women who can afford to strike are the “you go girl” feminists already supported by people like Sandberg.  They are very, very visible.  “Selfie girl” basically explains this all in one picture.  I was able to go out last night and see my dissertation advisor, have a beer with him, and talk about my love of Canadian politics post-dissertation because my husband made a point of taking our kid for the night.  He was able to work around a change in morning routine without my help because we share responsibilities.  If I had had the PTO and wanted to strike, he would have supported me, work would have supported me, and I would have still sent my baby to daycare.  That, I argue, would have totally defeated the purpose of the strike for me and my family.

My sitter is a great lady.  She is semi-retired and we love and value her.  She’s a small business owner.  However, she doesn’t have my education or my privilege.  Every freaking day, she juggles three babies of various ages – one who is scooting, one who is a toddler and walking, and my 3 month old – and does an amazing job at it.  She does things I could not.  She’s also a working class woman who works every day probably too hard for too little.  I feel ashamed at saying that because what she does is so hard to value for us as parents because it’s an invaluable act to help our child grow and we are lucky to afford her.  She, like many women who perform domestic duties, could not strike.  If she had struck, she would have inconvenienced those of us who pay her a lot of money to watch our kids and threatened her own business.  We would have adjusted to accommodate her but her other clients may not have.

My grandmothers were both working class, albeit white.  Would the strike have helped them?  Likely not.  One of my grandmothers ran her own cleaning business.  She had 5 living children to support on a meager income.  Pleasing her clients was what kept food on the table.  Even so, her income was often a precarious thing and very dependent on the economic situation of her clients.  It was variable.  Her work was daunting and hard.  She could not have been on strike.  My other grandmother worked every day at a grueling factory job.  She could not have been on strike.  She was not unionized – even back then.  This was the lot of so many of our mothers and grandmothers – white or otherwise (although it was so much harder for women of color) – but I think we forget about it as the plight many women still face today.  The idea of “blue collar” has changed but “working class” women still exist.

Women of color also exist.  We neglect to speak about their issues.  Again, I cannot speak for them but I feel the need to advocate for them.  These women are paid less even then us white ladies.  Black women make 60 cents vs. a man’s dollar while Latino women make only 55 cents on a man’s dollar. This is opposed to our overall pay gap of 1 dollar for men compared to 77 cents for women.  This means Latino women make almost 40% less than white women and even Black women make almost 30% less than white women.  These women are more likely to work these sorts of precarious jobs where a strike would be disastrous for them and their households.  If your main goal is to put food on the table for your kids, you can’t even afford to take a day off of work when you are already making minimum wage.  So, even if your boss won’t fire you, you don’t have much of a “choice”.

“Working class” or “minority” feminist issues ARE feminist issues.  Full stop.  They should be treated as such.  We shouldn’t stop talking about the strike as  “women were striking” but we should continue on. We should also focus on who could not strike.  That speaks so much louder to the dire situation many women find themselves in.

Why couldn’t we all strike yesterday?  We needed to save our PTO and needed to pay our daycare providers so striking wouldn’t matter anyway.  Our daycare providers and cleaning ladies, which we are privileged enough to have, can’t afford to piss off clients or miss a day’s pay due to a scheduling conflict.  Women couldn’t strike for fear of losing their jobs, folks.  They couldn’t strike because that one day’s pay was the difference between eating and not.

Feminism cannot be everything to everyone all the time, true, but it also cannot keep beating down the women who suffer most.  When working class and minority feminists start to demand inclusion and cry out for more, we need to stop high fiving ourselves and denying them a seat at the table.  Otherwise, we are no better than the misogynists calling us nasty women.

Part One: Assessing the Business of Being Born 8 Years Later

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Image courtesy of Sandor Welsz of Flickr.com.

This is part one of a series entitled Intervention on Interventions which seeks to address the place of medical science, interventions, and public policy in the lives of women.  Using research done on interventions, pilot studies, and public policy interventions, this series will highlight whether or not interventions are to be feared and how public policy – not the distrust of doctors and medical professionals – can help women have safer, more empowering birth experiences.

8 years ago, The Business of Being Born was released.  For any millennial or Gen X woman who has given birth in the past 5 or so years, it has probably been considered required viewing.  I saw it when my first group of friends to give birth was having their babies in 2010.  The film criticizes the over-medicalization of birth as the film’s directors and producers see it, and highlights how “choices” for women are significantly reduced by the current status quo for childbirth.  The film highlights a number of “sins” from episiotomies to inductions to c-sections and suggests that for most women, midwives and homebirths should be utilized.  Overall, it raises some important questions and it’s no doubt that women have taken to heart over the past 8 years.  And considering that the history of medicine has historically ridden roughshod over the actual experiences and needs of women, it is no surprise that many medical interventions could be used without question and without concern for the risks and benefits for the women they are practiced on.  Overall, I think the documentary is still worth a watch on Netflix but this series suggests you watch it with some counterpoints in mind.

TBoBB’s strongest criticism seems to be of medicalization and of hospital births.  While it is true that in other countries, midwives and homebirths are more common, this doc does not get into the nuances of the difference between homebirth or midwifery in the American perspective and that in other countries.  This will be flushed out in much greater detail in a later segment but suffice to say, midwives in most countries are highly trained medical professionals while most homebirth midwives in the United States are not medically trained in a comparable manner.  Likewise, there are serious issues with the assertion that birth in a hospital is without a place in today’s world.  Maternal and fetal mortality have declined significantly over time – from almost 700 deaths per 100,000 live births to now about 60 deaths (HRSA 2007).  This is largely due to medical interventions which have saved lives.  There is a reason that women see health professionals in this country as they go through the processes of gestation and birth.  Birth is an incredibly risky event no matter how “low risk” both for mother and child.

No better illustration of this is seen than in Epstein’s homebirth experience.  Her midwife notices that baby is coming out in breech position and they head to the hospital.  In the end, Epstein and her child were saved by the wonder of modern medicine and were luckily able to get successful treatment in a timely fashion.  Her baby was also premature and required NICU treatment that wasn’t really addressed much by the dialogue in this film.  The documentary does a poor job of addressing these complications – leading to a shaky conclusion that lower intervention is better because most birth is not that complicated.  Epstein’s experience is unfortunately not atypical.  The American Pregnancy association states that 1 in 25 births is breech (APA).  These births typically require a c-section as breech presentation makes a vaginal delivery complicated.  Thus, Epstein’s baby and labor weren’t serious outliers.  They are the reason that hospital births and births in birthing centers which are attended by serious medical staff who work closely with OB’s are the standard of care most women choose and most physicians require.

However, these problems are still not the most problematic part of the film.  The problem identifies an issue- the medicalization of birth – due to hospital and physician greed.  The very title affirms that doctors and medical professionals view birth as a business and the reason they diagnose and treat the women in their care the way they do is their bottom line.  For these providers, childbirth is a business and women and babies are simply obligatory customers.  Basically, birth is like dealing with your cable provider – you know you have to but you really wish it didn’t suck.   This is a really salacious and entertaining thought but it’s neither particularly accurate nor particularly useful.  While economic means do play into childbirth and while maybe the anecdotal evidence suggested in the documentary affirms that some doctors are out to get women so they can make their 10 AM tee time, these aren’t problem that can be easily solved by the documentary’s proposed solution – homebirth and midwives.  If homebirth and midwifery are to work, then why didn’t these solutions even work for Epstein?  The answer is that these solutions aren’t really feasible for a large number of cases – not just outliers – but that the solutions that are don’t entertain or allow the documentarians to tie this up with

The reason is that physicians’ greed is not the issue.  The business of being born is actually driven by other factors which I will get into later in this series.  Most actually arise from a serious of intentionally or unintentionally bad public policy decisions that have been made over the same period where birth has gotten much safer.  The plateau shown by HRSA’s 2007 report in maternal mortality may be changed and birth experiences may be changed by empirically-sound and women-focused public policy not by demonizing the role of the physician and hospital in childbirth.  Of course, public policy is a much less sexy story but public policy seems to be best able to address a number of concerns.

As a feminist, I love anything that focuses on empowering women in a safe way.  But as a scientist, I have to wonder if the evidence supports the conclusions of this doc.  And, in all honesty, while I think TBoBB offers up some great talking points, it falls short of actually offering legitimate improvements to the way providers, women, and hospitals approach birth. The purpose of this series on interventions is to assess the world after The Business of Being Born using empirical evidence, important medical research, and knowledge surrounding how good public policy can help move childbirth forward.  I’m a political scientist and a researcher by trade but my goal with this series was to educate myself in preparation for birth.  I’m not an MD but as someone who does research for a living.  Still, what I found did surprise me.  And I think my findings about public policy are really important.  I share them here to try to balance the dialogue that has been going on for years.  The next segments in this Intervention on Intervention are meant to serve as talking points in a debate on how to improve health care.

Please note that I come here with my own biases.  After tons of time spent researching interventions, I found what I was comfortable with and have planned my own birth around that.  Having had a high-risk pregnancy thus far with a number of complications, I do feel it is important to trust my provider.  I am lucky to have found one who listens to new studies and who works at a hospital that tries to use science to improve the lives of women.  I had 4 hospitals to choose from and was really lucky in that regard.  Many women only have one option.  But, that said, because my pregnancy is now considered to be “high risk”, I am limited in the options I have.  Even if there was a birth center nearby, it would no longer be an option.  I have attempted to look at this puzzle not only to help myself but also help others but I acknowledge my own reading of this is filtered through the above perspective.  I think TBoBB is an entertaining documentary that raises excellent questions about women’s agency, maternal health, and interventions but my commentary explores these topics 8 years later to see how far we have or haven’t come and where we go from here.

The Romanticism of Third World Motherhood

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Image courtesy of David Leo Veksler of Flickr.com.

The recent Cry-it-Out arguments and “Breast is Best” competitions on my facebook have devolved into commentary about how “90% of the world doesn’t see it this way”. Possibly true.  But I especially love these comments from people who have never been to the developing world for more than a luxe holiday.  I get that many people don’t do it “our” way and see bedsharing and breastfeeding as the only “normal” option.  But  I also think the romanticized idea of women in the developing world having it all figured out to be patently offensive.  Why?  Let me explain.

A lack of choice – Women living in developing nations don’t have all of our luxuries.  They may very well live in a one room flat or hut with 5 or 6 kids.  When I was going out to villages to speak to women in Rwanda, many women appeared to sleep on a dirt floor with all of these children.  That was the way it was for their families because that was the only option.  Breastfeeding was definitely the preferred,if not really the only, way to feed in Rwanda but that was also due to a lack of safe water.  Formula feeding there would either be dangerous or prohibitively expensive.  Most of my friends would have a hard time understanding this.  In cases where women lost production due to illness or an aberrant inability to feed their kids, other women living in the same village or social circle would often help.  I know there are milk banks here, many of which do not screen milk, but this idea of community feels very different.  These women do what they need to for their kids to survive.  There is no other option.  Sure, there are also plenty of wealthy women in Rwanda who live differently as there are plenty of wealthy women everywhere but the average woman breastfed and bedshared due to a lack of space and a lack of funds.

A lack of economic power – The reason I was in Rwanda was to study post-genocidal recovery and to look into the status of women there.  As a white feminist who doesn’t want to make her experience the only acceptable experience, I have a hard time saying that more “traditional” setups can’t be a CHOICE for women.  However, when it comes to working outside the home, on average, Rwandan women had few options.  The main bit of field research I did required me to interact with women in somewhat precarious situations.  Many were abused by partners.  Leaving was not easy.  There is a “No Sugar Daddy” campaign by the government currently so girls will stay in school and go into the workforce rather than marry early and end up in a bad relationship.

Because women don’t often make their own money (especially typical middle and working class women), they don’t have the same problems with juggling breastfeeding and work or deciding who will take shifts.  There is just no question.  Most women stay home and provide almost all the domestic labor.  It’s not comparable to the experience that many Western women have.  Whether it is better or worse is immaterial.  It’s apples to oranges.

A totally different “role” as a woman applies – Patriarchy is a huge issue in the U.S. and abroad. My time in Rwanda made me realize that similar things were said to women, a similar rape culture dialogue existed, and women, in large part, were fighting similar battles to be seen as equal.  The women in Rwanda, however, were dealing with other basic necessities not being easily found and disparities in education beyond what is seen in the West.  So, we all face patriarchy but in different ways and different amounts.  While my working mom was a bit unique in my upper-middle-class suburb for working despite having a gainfully employed husband, she wasn’t seen as a pariah or completely unusual or unheard of.  Sometimes teachers did not “get” it but no one was downright offended by her choice of working over homemaking.  This is different in other places.  There was a choice in her role.  At one point, my father quit his job to stay home and raise us so my mom could go back to work.  She did not enjoy staying at home. This sort of choice would have been unheard of in Kigali.

Romanticizing the fact that women who don’t have a choice, don’t have their own economic ability to “choose” to work outside the home, and don’t have the ability for outside work to be seen as “normal” or even “acceptable” is disturbing to me.  These women aren’t choosing to stay home for the most part.  Many of them don’t see any other opportunities.  That’s the role of a woman in her society.

There is a weird need to explain bedsharing and breastfeeding as being “closer to nature” and, thus, preferable but we need to be especially careful when we romanticize women living in the developing world as “closer to nature” lest we veer towards describing them as “primitive”.  Nothing could be more offensive in my opinion!  It’s not “cute” for women to be stuck in a role without the choice or economic means to pick another way.  A lack of cry-it-out and formula feeding is out of necessity and different circumstances.  It’s not only unfair to women in the developing world to take this tack, it completely ignores the difference between a woman in a postmaterial society and than in society industrializing.  I’m not big on first-world feminism being the only argument and I’m a huge believer in intesectionality, so these dialogues just ignore huge, important concepts surrounding the rights of women around the world.

Instead, how do we avoid this?

First, know that it is okay to say you prefer to bedshare or breastfeed.  If you prefer it, that’s reason enough to do it.  It is your choice to do so.  If bedsharing means everyone sleeps, that’s fantastic.  If breastfeeding works for you, keep it up!  Second, we should acknowledge the difference between a choice and a given.  If you live in a place with non-potable water and a one room place, you don’t have a choice.  Realize that women around the world are not pictures or scenes, they are living breathing people just like us who have their own struggles which may differ from ours and that’s okay.  As long as we don’t try to speak FOR THEM directly, we should be okay.  Using them to support your argument against an entire swath of women (for the purposes of basically calling the other women bad moms) as if they are game pieces or tokens is never okay.

We can’t say their experiences are ours or are better or worse than ours but we can be sensitive in our conversations.  Neither CIO or bedsharing are the devil. Neither breastfeeding nor formula feeding will kill your kid.  It’s okay to have a preference and it’s okay to respect the preferences of others.   But, seriously, leave women in developing nations OUT of it!