The Feminine Mistake

How We Changed our Bodies to Fit the Market

By Lauren Butler Bergier

I. Two Major Changes in the Life of the Species

Something drastic changed in the life of our species during the twentieth century, at least throughout the developed world. Female human beings, before our era, more or less reliably experienced fertile periods of approximately five-to-seven days per lunar month from puberty to menopause, with the exception of the nine-month gestational period before a birth. There was once a great deal of variation among women as to how conscious they were of when exactly those five-to-seven fertile days occurred, which led many to characterize the female of the species as 'always available', reproductively speaking. Now, most women in developed countries have access to a pill that gives them a certain degree of control over which fertile periods occur and which do not. This drug was developed in response to demand for more control over fertility—something human beings had probably dreamed of for a long time—and has had breathtaking commercial success. For many, it has liberated female desire from the reproductive guessing game—is this just lovemaking, or will I be left with a child?—and in any case, it has created the new most common form of sex, in which one partner is chemically altered to remove the reproductive possibility. The second major development in the life of the species in the developed world during the twentieth century was the legalization of abortion in most Western countries, which both came from and reinforced the claim that inducing or simulating a miscarriage was an acceptable reaction to the coming birth of a child.

In any case, the Pill supplied a demand in the market, the demand for certainty that sex would be child-free, and legal abortion came out of the previously existing attitude that it would be merciful to allow women to choose a safe end to an unwanted pregnancy. Both events concretely changed the biological futures of women in the parts of the world in which they occurred. Both were in response to a perceived lack. But what was perceived to be lacking in the natural situation? Was the problem really with women's nature, or did women's nature become unbearable due to societal changes? The natural situation certainly caused great feminine distress. Pregnancy, for one, can be highly unpleasant; giving birth almost always is, aside from the very end, assuming one is awake enough and pain-inhibited enough to be able to appreciate the baby. Motherhood also has its disagreeable moments, but the vast majority of mothers—and this is true before and after the change—describe motherhood as the single most important, most fulfilling thing they have done in their lives. Are the material and social changes that pregnancy and motherhood now bring the real culprits, the real causes behind the demand for changing nature?

I will confine myself to speaking about our era; it seems to me that in our society, in recent memory, women found themselves in a situation so unpleasant that a technological solution, which would fundamentally alter the biology of the species, was sought and found. Our solution was not to prevent the unwanted material and social consequences caused by some pregnancies; we instead prevented, or ended, the pregnancies themselves, using new technology and laws. I think that this came about in part because many people believed the problem really was biological, and that the best solution was not to change society to accommodate all pregnancies or to prevent "undesirable" pregnancies using natural means, but to alter women's nature once and for all, in its most basic sense of biological destiny.

II. Making Women into Individual Economic Units

So we instead attempted to overcome part of women's nature: the relationship between the female body and childbearing. This coincided with what was arguably an acceleration in the long-term trend of thinking of human economy in terms of "individuals." The economy, in fact, no longer refers in any way to its root word, the oikos, or household. My remark may seem to come out of left field; but in a society that sees itself as being based on calculations of self-preservation and self-interest, where the self is isolated, doesn't it follow that women's biology sticks out like a sore thumb? The female body itself is set up for other-preservation, for the confusion of individuals in pregnancy, and even for self-sacrifice (believe me, that is what pregnancy and birth entail). This is in addition to the way that many adult women, most adult women, are, objectively, regardless of any questions regarding how they came to be that way. One statistic from the most recent Guttmacher Institute report on abortion confirms just how other-oriented most women really are: three-fourths of women in their sample of women who have had an abortion in the United States gave, as a major reason, "concern for or responsibility to other individuals." What do those concerns include? Fears about the health of their marriage or relationship to the father of the baby, responsibility to (or pressure from) parents or other family members, the desire to care better for existing children, etc.

This technological mastery over female reproduction is a major development goal. Women are seen as 'untapped resources' for emerging economies, and in the developed world, women more than ever do jobs formerly reserved for men, thanks in large part to the new control over pregnancy and births. In theory, nowadays, a woman's education and career-building are unperturbed by her fertility. If you think about it, many women alter themselves hormonally for years, or sacrifice a developing baby more or less early in pregnancy, for other considerations. In the case of abortion, they decide that whatever they are doing is more important than the human life growing inside them. This creates an even greater investment in one's career or schooling. The altering of female biology allows women to make this calculation in favor of self-preservation, something that was not even possible before; now, she fits much more comfortably in the current economic model. We even say that she is "fulfilling her potential."

It may, in fact, have been this last change that allowed the current economic model to make any sense at all; women and men can now be entered into the calculations as the same kind of unit without any discomfort. "Individuals," for their part, can make all kinds of contracts, including familial ones, because the messy business of women's dependency during pregnancy is more or less out of the way. Men and women choose to marry each other and divorce each other; they choose to have children, who are 'dependents' until they are 18. Childrearing itself has become a bigger business than ever, although many of the professions involved (daycare and teaching, for one) still give relatively low monetary returns while involving great amounts of self-sacrifice. In fact, early childrearing can now be blithely classified as just another category of relatively unskilled work, albeit work that cannot be outsourced.

With this, of course, has come the disappearance of most middle and upper class women from the home—Julia Child, today, might simply open up her own world-renowned restaurant, rather than addressing herself to the audience of millions of French and American housewives, ready to study all the complexities of kitchen chemistry, engineering, and art. Before, these women raised groups of siblings at home, teaching them one-on-one or in small groups for the first years of their lives. Perhaps most significantly, they, unlike today's schoolteachers and childcare workers, were "allowed" to hug and kiss their small children. Their daughters and granddaughters are all engaged in highly useful and rewarding activities, like politics, diplomacy, medicine, law, education, and consulting, and their children spend their days at school as early as the age of 2—the age most babies begin to speak. Now, children are raised in large groups with caretakers who are neither naturally predisposed nor even legally allowed to cover them with kisses. Should we be astonished that the emotional development of middle class children has taken a hit since most middle class women have left the home? Should we be surprised that the overall complexity of many languages has likewise radically declined? I am sure you can think of many other aspects of culture that have changed for the worse since women throughout the social classes have begun doing more or less what men do. Just look at what we eat, what we say to each other, how we spend our leisure time, how we clothe ourselves, and how we date.

III. Defending Women's Bodies

This is not to say that the benefits of women being able to work outside the home do not matter; on the contrary, I, for one, am grateful to have the option! But I also resent the pressure to conform to the current economic model even to the extent of using technological means to modify what my body naturally does. And whether we like it or not, even in the age of "reproductive choices," the scope of our individual choices is highly limited, even determined, by the sum total of the choices of all the individuals in our society. If it is not possible to raise a family with a certain standard of living—say, where everyone in the family has health insurance—on a single salary, nowadays, most women will choose to provide the second salary and put the kids in daycare and after-school programs, all while limiting family size.

I do, however, think that there are still some things we could do to change these disturbing trends. The first solution is a kind of civil disobedience: get off the Pill and allow women's bodies to throw a curveball once more in the self-preservation-based economic calculations. This would mean, even when natural family planning is practiced, that the female body would no longer be altered to the extent that the possibility of pregnancy is not even thought about for years at a time. Second, support pregnant women in difficulty, so that they may choose not to end their pregnancies out of fear of material and social consequences. Third, vote for "family-friendly" domestic policies—childcare tax credits, for instance, that can be applied to time spent at home by children's own mothers; laws limiting the kind of usury that fuels the need for every family to have two salaries. And while we're at it, we could support research into women's health that seeks to understand, rather than to alter, the natural functioning of the female body. Is it not symptomatic of our societies' contempt for women's bodies that aberrations in the menstrual cycle, hormonal variations, and even causes of infertility remain mysteries to modern medicine? Lastly, when judging foreign policy, and in your personal giving, look for development programs that raise the standard of living without changing women to fit the economic model through contraception and abortion. Access to clean water, for instance, should be one of our highest priorities—not access to birth control.

My hope is that by becoming aware of what really happened to women in the twentieth century, we can force the world economy to accommodate women's biology rather than altering women's biology to accommodate the world economy.