“Older Feminists”: On Gratitude and Moving Forward

Note: any time you start talking about a type of “feminism” things get complicated- whose feminism? which wave? who does it include and what does it stand for?  For this post I’m using the same language as the author of the article mentioned in the first page.  Generally this blog comes from a place of intersectional feminism and writes using a reproductive justice lens.

Last night my sister sent me this article about being the mother of a young baby and a professional, about “older feminists”‘ relationship with children, about babies in the work environment.  It touches on a lot of the issues I have been thinking about lately and is a great read.

My mother is an “older feminist”.  She’s also a math professor with a PhD in mathematics.  During her career, she went to bat to get other women hired in her department and to get the pay she deserved when the men in her department who lacked PhDs and the experience she had were getting paid more and getting promotions.  She finally got the respect and pay she deserved, but she had to fight like hell for it.  This is to say I have immense gratitude for earlier feminisms as well as a close relationship with an “older feminist.”

Because of a rough economy and the lack of paid maternity leave in this country, I have also been spending a lot of time with my mother recently, and during that time I have learned a lot about how some things used to be when it comes to babies and the rearing of them.

For example, I choose to breastfeed, and this is a choice I continue to make each day and each feeding until the day I and/or my baby choose to do otherwise.  There was a time when the breastfeeding rate was abysmally low in the U.S., when breastfeeding was rare, and breastfeeding in public virtually unheard of.  There was also a time before that when it was expected, demanded, forced, or just an unquestioned given.  A time when having a baby turned you into a food source, not by choice, but automatically.  For some links on the history of breastfeeding check this out.

Breastfeeding is hard work.  For many (if not most) it can involve a time of cracked, sore, and even bleeding nipples.  It can make you tired from all the energy your body uses to make milk.  It can involve mastitis, where suddenly you’re hit with the absolute worst symptoms of the flu for about 24 hours, leaving you incapable of doing much of anything other than sleeping and nursing your newborn.  It takes up a lot of time.  That being said it is also a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t trade that time I have with my baby for anything, and I think many (if not most) nursing parents would say the same.

But I cannot imagine it being something I was forced to do.

I am thinking of the women who were indeed forced to nurse other people’s children, “wet-nurses” as some called them.  The time, energy, and intimacy they gave out of force.  The time, energy, and intimacy they gave to children that were not their own– children essentially made of their bodies and flesh but who would in all likelihood reach social ranks from which they themselves were forbidden.  I am also thinking of the women who were forced to nurse their own children because there were not other choices or because it was what was expected.

I get why older feminists fought like hell to separate themselves from their children.  I think this was a necessary step.  People who have babies had to demonstrate they are not only a food source and care giver for their young, that they in fact remain independently valuable autonomous human beings.

Older feminists separated women from children and in so doing they made a few things very clear to me:

  • having a child should be a choice
  • breastfeeding should be a choice (and some women do not get that choice for many reasons including the inability to produce milk or a work environment that doesn’t afford them the time.  These women should have access to safe, nutritious options for feeding their babies.)
  • breastmilk has immense value
  • the time people spend with babies has immense value

Before that type of feminism (at least here in the U.S.) women having children, breastfeeding them, and caring for them were all taken for granted.  Like the clean air we breathe and the clean water we drink, this work was seen as a given resource, one that could be counted on.  That brand of feminism taught us these things are not a given, they are choices humans make, they are real services people choose to give.

There’s a lot of talking going on about how we value environmental services, how we can incorporate them into the market.  The President recently required federal agencies to account for natural infrastructure and ecosystem services in their decision-making.

Likewise, some people are having conversations about how to value the services of homemaking, child-rearing, giving birth, nursing- how to make sure these things count and how to make sure we as a society support them.  As a start, leaders are finally talking about paid family leave in major political forums here in the U.S.

Parenting in the Workplace is one organization working on addressing the question of what a world would look like where children come to work.  And as the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post suggests, to not allow people to bring their babies to work when there is no system of paid leave in place is really absurd and unreasonable.

I am starting back to work next month, and I am curious to see how this all will go.  But writing this now, I am saying visibility is crucial.  Our work as parents must be visible because that is how it will become counted, valued, and a part of our work environment in a way that makes sense for us.

I am wondering will I be brave enough that when it makes sense, I will say, “hey I need to work from home today because my baby needs me”?  Or when he’s quiet and my husband needs to go to a meeting and there’s no reason not to have him at work, will I say “my baby needs to be at work for a couple hours today”?  Will I apologize for when I need to go to a pediatrician’s appointment?

I hope I do a good job making this world better for all the people rearing children out there.  At least, I hope that most days I do my best.

Federal Funding and Fetuses: Our pregnancies, our babies, and their future

In the past 5 years, the number of children born with birth defects on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i has risen to 10 times the national rate.  The island is also where a handful of companies develop over 90% of the U.S.’s genetically modified corn. Of all the Hawaiian islands, Kaua’i is home to the largest percentage of indigenous Hawaiians.  Talk about the intersection of environmental and reproductive justice.   This article details the predicament and is well worth the read.

Kaua’i attempted to give residents some measure of protection from the extreme pesticide exposure on the island’s west side by issuing Ordinance 960,  requiring public disclosure of spraying times, locations, and chemicals present, as well as buffer zones around places like hospitals, schools, and day care centers.  You’d think this would be a no-brainer, common sense, something everyone would want in order to protect our children and our elderly.  However, after a challenge by Syngenta, Pioneer, Agrigenetics, and BASF Plant Science, a federal district court ruled the law invalid due to state preemption issues.   The case is currently on appeal thanks to persistent advocates Ka Makani Ho’opono, Surfrider Foundation, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America, and their Earthjustice attorneys.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the U.S. Congress leads a special investigation into Planned Parenthood because the organization provides a legal service.

The investigation of Planned Parenthood is a sham.  It’s about people believing women shouldn’t be allowed to make their own decisions when it comes to their reproductive health.  I know this for many reasons, but here’s the reason I want to focus on right now: carrying a healthy pregnancy to term in many locations across America is a constant battle because legal environmental harms threaten that pregnancy almost constantly.

Where’s our special investigative committee looking into the folks causing the environmental contamination that terminates all those deeply wanted pregnancies?  Look up all the chemicals known to cause miscarriages and birth defects, look up where they are made, look up what they’re manufactured for, look at how shockingly prevalent they are in our lived environments– acutely so in some locations.  And look at who makes them.  Where’s our special investigative committee looking into them?

There is no special committee investigating whether Syngenta, Pioneer, and other agribusinesses are killing fetuses and causing babies to be born with life-threatening defects despite physicians in acutely affected areas suspecting a causal connection.  Syngenta and most of the agribusinesses of its stature get significant federal assistance in the form of loans, grants, tax breaks, and other subsidies.  Yet when agribusiness destroys fetuses and causes babies to be born with their organs on the outside, there is no congressional committee investigating whether the U.S. should take away these companies’ federal funding.

Those killing babies and fetuses while receiving federal subsidies aren’t limited to the agricultural sector.  This great reporting by Rolling Stone details how a midwife in Vernal, Utah is sounding the alarm warning that fracking is causing stillbirths, miscarriages, and birth defects in her community.  This issue isn’t only affecting those living near gas wells in Utah.  As the article details, we’re seeing this issue in communities affected by fracking everywhere.  The environmental effects of fracking kill fetuses, or have detrimental effects on their health to the degree that babies are born with a host of defects, or born without life at all.

I repeat: these corporations are highly subsidized by the federal government.

Evidently the federal government doesn’t care about the fetuses these particular federally-funded organizations kill.  It doesn’t care about the pregnancies they terminate. Or at least it doesn’t care enough to create a special investigative committee to look into the operations of federally subsidized oil and gas companies and agribusinesses.  The protestors with their right-to-life signs do not gather around the fracking wells, or outside the offices of the oil and gas companies that own them.

We are how we spend are time.  The U.S. Congress is spending its time investigating an organization that provides people with health care that, despite activists’ hardest attempts to get its employees to do otherwise, has consistently followed the law.  If the U.S. Congress cares so much about fetuses, I am ready to see it interested in protecting all the fetuses lost and threatened due to careless, irresponsible corporate action.  That is a legal starting place for protecting fetuses.  They could even pass some constitutional laws to protect all those fetuses currently harmed or destroyed by toxic chemicals from one industry or another.

The right to privacy protects a person’s decision to terminate a pregnancy.  When a physician at a Planned Parenthood clinic performs an abortion, that physician is respecting a private decision made by the pregnant person.

When a company’s irresponsible conducting of business operations causes a pregnant person to be exposed to toxic chemicals that harm the growing fetus, the company violates that person’s body and removes that person’s right of choice.  The company violates the pregnant person’s privacy and the health and safety of the fetus and the pregnancy.

The attack on Planned Parenthood is a sham.  If America cared about babies, the priority would be on giving them a healthy environment to grow up in, on ensuring that healthy environment is going to be here when our generation is long gone.  If America cared about babies, it would start holding polluters accountable.

And as for us- what can we do?  Tell our congresspeople we will not tolerate this.  Picket the people causing these harms.  MAKE THIS ISSUE PUBLIC.  Tell everyone your pregnancy, your sister’s pregnancy, your friend’s pregnancy, our babies should not have to put up with this crap.  There is serious work to be done here.  A chemical known to cause birth defects and miscarriages should not be coursing through our veins, should not be in our water, should not be in our food, should not be in our placentas and breasts, should not be in our babies’ umbilical cords.

Tell them this will be fixed, demand that it is fixed, demand the people causing the problem be held accountable, do not demand the products requiring these chemicals, find alternatives, demand alternatives.

This is urgent.  Our babies are growing up and we are letting the chemical industry continue to invade our bodies and this world.  This is urgent.  Our babies must have better.  We must do better.

~Water. Drinking Water. Bathing Water. Water~

I started following Erin Brockovich a few months ago.  I recommend you do the same.

Who knew the state of drinking water in the United States was in such piss poor shape?

I spent some time in Medellin, Colombia last year.  Before I left this country, Amercans warned me again and again not to drink the water in Medellin.  I showed up (pregnant, mind you), and everyone assured me that Medellin tap water was fine for all the drinking, teeth brushing, and showering my heart desired.  It turns out the city long ago decided drinking water was a top priority and went about making a safe drinking water system — no small feat for a densely populated urban area in a developing country.  But they got it done, and the system continues to be a great success and source of pride for the city.

In just the past couple months of following Brockovich’s feed, I have learned of  the following:

As this great article by Emily Crockett at RH Reality Check points out, clean water is a reproductive health issue.  Often the bodies of pregnant and lactating women, as well as those of infants and young children, are not considered when officials announce warnings about the safety of drinking water.  After the chemical spill in West Virginia, officials gave the “ok” for people to drink the water.  Later they said “wait, pregnant women might want to hold off.”

Mothers are not an afterthought.  Mothers, in fact, are where human life begins.

The articles about the brain-eating amoeba in Louisiana insist the drinking water is safe to drink because the only way people are at risk of acquiring the deadly organism is by getting the amoeba up their nose.  Have the people issuing these warnings ever bathed an infant? Have they themselves ever showered?

As New York City attempts to deal with the Legionnaire’s outbreak in the Bronx it listens to experts saying the bacteria is a problem in cooling systems.  Yet we know the disease can also come from mist from showers and faucets.  And when a doctor recognizes this and expresses concern that the city is focusing on cooling systems instead of drinking water he loses his job.

Some reporting of the infant who died following a water birth as a result of exposure to Legionella are blaming the concept of water birth itself.  The details of the Texas incident suggest the midwives likely did not follow best practices.  However, reporting that fails to blame contaminated water and instead blames the idea of giving birth in water at all is missing the actual problem.

All this has me furious and disappointed.  This is a basic task.  This is ensuring America has clean drinking water — that all people in America have clean drinking water.  It’s a task you would think everyone could get behind.

But instead it’s like this doesn’t matter.  I have a friend who lived in an old house.  She got her baby’s lead levels tested- I’m not sure why, maybe this was protocol at her pediatrician’s practice.  They were elevated and the doctor suspected the old pipes were to blame.

I am sick of politicians not caring about America’s crumbling infrastucture.  I am sick of the USEPA not doing their job to carry out the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In her book Counting for Nothing, feminist economist Marilyn Waring explains the importance of day to day work– reproductive work she calls it– the act of doing all the things that must be done and done again to keep ourselves going: making food, cleaning living space, bathing children, things like that.

Well America needs to take some serious time to focus on reproductive work.  The drinking water must be kept clean; the pipes must be kept up and checked to be sure they haven’t become too corroded to be of any use in transporting fresh, clean water for people to drink; lead paint must be safely removed; new safe paints should be added.  The list goes on and on of basic tasks that must be done repeatedly.  It is the maintenance of a civilization.  America is slacking and its citizens are paying with their health and the health of their loved ones.

People need jobs? America needs more jobs?  Fix the crumbling infrastructure.  Make America safe for our mothers, our infants, our children.

Some people don’t think the government should supply jobs, don’t think our tax dollars should go to keep people employed.  I am happy to see our tax dollars go to paying people to do this necessary work.  But I also know we have to hold people accountable to make sure they are doing their job.

I encourage everyone reading this to find out where your water comes from.  To see if there are any violations under investigation.  Encourage your friends to do the same.  When you travel, be aware of each location’s water source.  Encourage your friends to do this too.

We are made of this environment we live in.  There is no separation between it and us.  We can be responsible and know that and accept that and act accordingly, or we can wait until we are forced to realize it due to the illness and suffering of our loved ones or ourselves.

There is no reason to wait.  We can take responsibility and work to make sure others do the same.  This is a big task, but we must be up for it.