“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.

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