The Means of Reproduction (a review)

This is a review of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World by Michelle Goldberg (2009).

Reading The Means was a lesson in self-discipline. At times, I was filled with elation and I wanted to run around and jump up and down for the energy it gave me. At other times, I was so frustrated or angry that it was all I could do not to launch the book (which I’d borrowed) across the room at the far wall; “Just take a breath and set the book down…” I would tell this part of myself, and give myself a minute to do something detached. For as sharp and lucid as Goldberg’s writing was a certain parts that could induce such feelings, the overall message of her book put those parts into a deeper, broader, more meaningful context. To that end, she’s a great, readable writer and even if you’re not deeply invested in the “big ideas” of the book, I’d still recommend it if you’re into well-crafted non-fiction prose.

What are the big ideas of this book, anyhow? (From this point on, there will probably be some “plot spoilers”, just to warn you.) That somewhat anthropocentric part of the subtitle, “the Future of the World”, nicely sums one recurring theme: human population on Earth. Perhaps it would be better to say “the Future of the World as We Know It”, but the discussion of population and demography is one which Goldberg examines and dismantles from every angle, from the ironically “anti-imperialist” far right of religious and political America and their far left counterparts, to the Cold War-era voices of Malthusian pushers of the “population bomb” theory.

Another major focus of Goldberg’s admirably well-researched work is the history and development of women’s rights and feminism in the global scheme. I admit to being woefully ignorant of women’s movements in places outside of my immediate experience (i.e. “the West”); Goldberg’s deep research and firsthand accounts of conversations with the major players in the international women’s movement is a crash course in the evolution of perspectives and strategies within that movement.

Another crucial motif is Goldberg’s analysis of “culture versus human rights”. This is an issue with which I have struggled for some time, especially coming out of school with a degree in anthropology (cultural relativism lalala). How can one objectively view the contentious, often incompatible relationship between the relativity of cultural views/values and the fundamental rights of the individual? I felt betrayed when it at first appeared that Goldberg was lending credit to the notion of culture trumping human rights– but that is why one must read this book from beginning to end. The careful examination Goldberg gives to all sides of this argument is edifying and elucidating.

Perhaps the most important theme is that which sums the elements of the subtitle; many, many aspects of this book come down to control, particularly control of female bodies. When put that way, it may sound horrific (what are women– cattle for breeding? Indeed, perhaps…), but the implications go far beyond an individual’s choice to have children, to control of our own persons. The author slowly but clearly builds on this picture, awakening us to the very real and imminent connections between our persons and our collective sustainability within our environments. She manifests some realizations that are impossible to ignore, my favourite of which is this: empowering women (i.e. recognizing women’s rights as human rights) is good for everybody– is good for Earth. (I’m tempted to plot-spoil on this, because it’s such a fantastic point, but because the entirety of Goldberg’s research gradually unfolds this point, I won’t ruin the pleasure of discovering her profound conclusion– you will just have to read it for yourself!)

The struggle between the religious right and more secular liberals is one that overwhelms much of this book (even, I think, at the loss of including other perspectives on women’s rights, including environmentalists’ thoughts on the matter). As they are the major shapers of rights and policies which directly impact people’s lives, it makes sense that she makes this conflict a central focus. In that sense, we get to see the very irritating, very hypocritical ideology of the religious right at work in international politics: their arguments against women’s reproductive rights often assert that the liberal agenda is merely neocolonialism in disguise, motivated purely by the desire to control the “under-developed” world. They frequently voice their concerns that liberal international (human rights) policies disrespect and undermine a culture’s autonomy– i.e. imperialism. What those same religious bodies never admit is that their colonialism has been attempting to alter and “purify” cultures for millennia. Is their denial of the neocolonialism within their own agenda willful ignorance, or do they simply define “culture” and “colonialism” in ways that best suit their own (patriarchal) interests?

Going along with this, something that makes The Means very difficult to digest is that Goldberg pulls no punches when analyzing all sides of an argument. That means we have to hear some hurtful, angering, at times shocking “logic” from some truly misogynist, racist, or nationalistic individuals and organizations. Whether you believe in hearing all sides of a debate because you believe in critical thinking or simply because you want to “know thy enemy”, this aspect of the book often clouds impartiality as it strikes powerful emotional nerves (not Goldberg’s fault, but the partiality of the reader). Take, for instance, the Uganda parliamentary representative who wanted to deny a spouse’s right to not have sex: “Refusing to have sex is the most violent thing a spouse can do” (p. 10). I still haven’t wrapped my head around that one. Or the fact that the world still takes seriously people like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports spousal abuse and execution of sodomites, though as to the former, “men should beat their wives lightly, and only as a last resort” (p.164). Or take the blatant 1970s sexism of American employers: “You’ll just work with us for a year or two and then you’ll go and have babies” (p. 69)– for, apparently, maternity and careers are mutually exclusive. Or, in examination of women’s rights in northern India, “To be frank, [a woman] is never consulted whether she will go to bed with [a] man. So there is no freedom of decision” (p. 191). The Means is full of perspectives that are difficult to digest, but they also give a pluralistic view of how humanity sees women– the “point” of women, especially.

That “purpose”, actually, does lend hope in the end. This aspect of Goldberg’s work is neatly summed in this, one of my favourite quotes: “Such religious rivalries, however, masked an equally important polarization, both inside of countries and among them, between secular, liberalizing cultures and traditional, patriarchal ones. One saw women as ends in themselves, human beings with dignity and autonomy. The other treated them as the means of group cohesion and identity whose primary value lay in their relation to men” (p. 169).

For me, this book comes down to two things, which are intrinsically connected: the dismantlement of hierarchy, and the prioritizing of human rights over culture. What is manifest again and again in The Means is that hierarchy hurts the vast majority of the world’s people, whether it comes in the form of Patriarchy, the caste system, racism, or capitalist economic dominance (and truly they are all very much interconnected), true fulfillment of human rights is simply impossible within a hierarchical context (unless, of course, one rejects equality as a fundamental prerequisite of human rights).

The dawning realization is that “culture and tradition is not a monolith” (p. 195); culture, as anthropologists have long droned, is dynamic. It is forever changing, evolving moment to moment, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, at times subconsciously and at other times with human imperatives hugely present. This issue, in my opinion, is one that has been growing more and more salient on the world stage. Maybe the major question every human individual needs to decide is “when culture and human rights collide, which should prevail, and who gets to decide?” (p.104). Traditionalists often cite identity, autonomy, and sheer reverence as reasons for the reactionary approach to culture, but to do so is to maintain harmful systems of hierarchy. That is one reason why I so appreciate the perspective of Agnes Pareyio, whom Goldberg interviews at length: “[Pareyio] wants Masai culture to change to embrace strong, educated girls” (p. 147). Pareyio’s ideas can and should be debated by individuals and groups of people, and globalization has made this somewhat unavoidable anyhow. This is an idea which the themes in Goldberg’s book foreground not only through her analysis of worldwide trends, but also through the relation of individuals’ experiences. It is time for humanity to move out of the age of the Cultural Mandate, and for each of us as individuals to engage in the study, shaping, and reshaping of culture, beginning with a collective redefining of cultural values.


Reblog: The Deep Resentment of Having to Think About It

Reblogging this brilliantly composed post on Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke by The New Inquiry. Thank you, Aaron, for this most insightful piece.

Eating Last, Eating Least

Malnutrition and food security are intimately connected with issues of gender. One such culturally-oriented gender norm is the amount and order in which women eat. This seemingly small gendered habit of culture has broader ramifications about gender inequity and female self-help and self-determination.

In many countries in the world, in spite of the fact that women are overwhelmingly responsible for growing, gathering, preparing, cooking, and serving food, women tend to eat last. Because of this and other reasons, they also tend to eat the least. The first, largest and best portions are served to adult men and male children (or children generally); women are often culturally expected to condone and be pleased with this sacrifice, for their part.

When confronted by a food crisis (as catalyzed by drought, crop disease, conflict, and many other natural and human-made causes), the results of this cultural habit become obvious: women are left with the smallest and often least-nutritious portions at the end of a meal.

One might assume that we are only talking about Africa, or Southeast Asia. But the sacrifice of basic necessities, like food, on the part of women is a phenomenon that can be found in “developed” countries, too. The recession in the States has seen some women going to extraordinary lengths to provide for their families, including depriving themselves of sleep (although women tend to sleep less on average, anyway) and rationing their (sometimes crucial) medication.

I’ve often noticed that here in Cambodia, women tend to eat last. This is because women with small children are obliged to feed children first; children are often allowed to run around during a meal, so women sometimes situate themselves in places where they can intercept children to get them to eat (e.g. sitting on the floor of the living room rather than at the kitchen table with the rest of the family). Another reason is that some women are too tired or too busy to eat with their families; they are busy serving rice, refilling the soup bowl, going outside to retrieve something off the grill. Sometimes they end up eating a meal long after everyone else has finished.

Come to think of it, that reminds me an awful lot of my own mom. She was often so busy feeding/serving the rest of us that at the end of it all she would either join the meal and then continuously have to get up again (get something from the microwave, the fridge, the grill, etc.), or join the meal after one or more of us were finished.

Another reason Cambodian women skip meals or eat smaller portions is because they simply don’t have enough time or money. A friend of mine whose a noodle seller often skips meals. She makes meals for other people, both customers and her own family, but she, herself, often only eats one or two meals a day. This, despite the fact that she is burning possibly 50% more calories than any other member of her household.

This image of women as eternally self-sacrificing mothers does not just disadvantage women on an individual level; women’s overall self-perception, as a group, tends to be maternal and self-sacrificing. The woman who chooses a career path over a “family path”, or who simply wants to have a job in addition to being a mom, may feel guilty or even “unnatural” about such a decision. The woman who doesn’t want to have children may feel stigmatized as “unfeminine” or “unwomanly” (and also “unnatural”). But women’s perception of themselves need not be any more self-sacrificing than their male counterparts. When women are continuously obliged to put the needs and wants of other family members first, they are also putting themselves at increased risk for mental health problems. The issue is cyclical, as mental health issues in turn decrease women’s productivity, and personal satisfaction with and enjoyment of daily life. They are also less likely to see how their personal issues connect to larger structures of gender inequity, as if they are suffering alone and that is as it should be. This is ideal for the maintenance of such a system: the self-sacrificing servant (or slave) is much easier to control, coerce, and take advantage of than one that is aware that they are not suffering alone.

Most mothers are never going to eat if it means their children aren’t going to eat, but there is no reason why a father should not be equally self-sacrificing (and many are). There should be no need for gendered norms like this, but rather our culture should embrace a norm of equal access to resources (including food, time, and money), regardless of gender.

Review: If These Walls Could Talk (1996)

If These Walls Could Talk is a made-for-TV movie originally broadcast on HBO. The film is broken into three segments, taking place in 1952, 1974, and 1996, but all take place in the same house. It portrays the stories of three women, whose commonalities are that each once lived in this house and each struggles with the issue of abortion.

In 1952, the protagonist is Claire (Demi Moore), a widowed nurse who gets pregnant but feels there is no way she can keep the baby without shaming her late husband’s family. Because abortions are illegal at this time, she is forced to secretly find someone to perform the abortion for her.

In 1974, Barbara (Sissy Spacek) is a middle-aged mother of four who has recently returned to school. When she discovers she is pregnant, she seriously considers an abortion: with strained family finances, a teenager about to go off to college, and a husband who works nights, she doesn’t see how she can manage a fifth child. Barbara’s teenage daughter encourages her to have an abortion, but her husband is hurt that she would even consider that an option.

In 1996, Christine (Anne Heche), a university student, becomes pregnant by her married professor. Wanting to keep their affair a secret, the professor encourages her to get an abortion and gives her money to attain one. Christine is torn between getting the abortion and living with what she feels are “the consequences of her mistake”.

Potential plot-spoilers beyond this point.

The main focus of the film is on the personal struggles of each woman: how she feels about abortion ethically, how her family and close friend react, the decision-making process she goes through. The film is less about the wider political and ethical debates in which the issue of abortion is usually embedded, and more about the intimate nature of such decision-making in a woman’s life.

Over the course of the three segments, the options for women concerning abortion slowly improve. In the first segment we see that abortions are illegal and taboo; Claire claims to be seeking information about acquiring an abortion on behalf of “a friend” to disguise her real intentions. The prevailing attitude among her medical colleagues toward abortion is disdaining and hostile. The father of the child apologizes for his part, which doesn’t amount to much when he shortly abandons her to her fate. When she finally finds a willing “doctor”, the abortion is performed unceremoniously in her home, which results in hemorrhaging. The summation is that a pregnancy outside of marriage and, even worse, an abortion have the potential to ruin a woman’s life in 1950s America.

Fast-forward to 1974: abortions are legal, as Babara’s teenage daughter emphatically reminds her. But they are still de facto illegal, in that an “average” woman (Barbara, in this case), doesn’t feel this option is available to her. In a scene with her husband where they discuss the possibility of abortion, he is shocked that she could even think of such a thing. Even when she admits that she doesn’t want another child, he supersedes this by saying they can “make it work”. He says this as if he plays an integral role in the functioning of the household beyond his financial contribution, as if he shares a proportionate burden of responsibility. He also glosses over Barbara’s desire to remain in school; she has finally returned to college after setting aside her ambitions to take care of her family for most of her life, but he reacts to this desire as if it were purely selfish. He clearly sees her first, perhaps only responsibility to be the family. Barbara’s daughter is a hyperbolic contrast to her father: at first she urges her mother to consider an abortion, and then resorts to pressuring her, calling Barbara selfish and “a martyr” for deciding to keep the baby. This segment aptly portrays the realities a woman considering abortion would have faced in this time: abortion was still an unrealistic possibility for many 1970s women.

In the final segment,  Christine debates with herself and her best friend about whether or not to keep the baby. At first she goes straight to the abortion clinic, where she is confronted by a group of anti-abortion Christian protesters who remind her that her unborn fetus is a life and to end it would be a sin. While she meets with the clinic staff, she reflects on how unfair it is that her life has been turned completely upside-down while the father is getting on with life as usual. Christine’s best friend (Jada Pinkett) derides her for considering an abortion, and Christine changes her mind– much to the delight of the protesters. They spout the usual rhetoric of how she has saved a life and so forth. They are much disappointed when she returns a few days later, this time with her best friend who has, in spite of her moral qualms, decided to support Christine. The best friend’s logic initially was that Christine needed to live with the consequences of her actions, but is moved to pity by love for her friend. What is interesting is that Christine feels the need to beg her friends forgiveness, as if she is accountable to this friend or anyone else for the unwanted pregnancy. The day that Christine receives her abortion, the clinic doctor is murdered by one the protesters. In the world of 1996 America, while abortions are legal and, medically-speaking, safe, they are still potentially dangerous in a broader social environment of condemnation.

 Several themes surrounding abortion manifest in each segment: that it is a shameful or morally abhorrent act, that it is selfish on the part of the woman, and also that the main burden of the pregnancy– regardless of whether or not she chooses to end it– rests on her. Although the film isn’t explicitly pro-abortion, it does display it in a favorable light by realistically depicting the results of what a world looks like when abortion is illegal and de facto illegal. Particularly in the first segment, These Walls pulls no punches about the terrible possibilities women faced in the times before the Women’s Liberation Movement. While, in the eyes of the law, the situation of reproductive health seems vastly improved, the extreme reactionary attitude of the Right (particularly the religious Right) only shifts the violence from being solely on women to anyone seen as “aiding and abetting” women. The middle segment seems rather benign (albeit depressing) compared to the violence of the first and last segments. It would be hard to say that the film is very optimistic; rather its message seems to be that the struggle for women’s reproductive rights has a long way to go, both on a political level and on a personal level, especially concerning women’s own beliefs in autonomy of self and the right to self-determination.

 A “sequel” of sorts, If These Walls Could Talk 2, was made in 2000 and also deals with issues affecting women. Also on my “to see” list!