So there I was, sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying a quiet cup of coffee after I had walked my girls to school, and gone for a longer walk myself, leafing through the paper, taking some time for myself before getting into the daily round of washing clothes, cleaning, preparing meals, heading off to university to teach a tutorial (last one for the semester – hurray!), and feeling somewhat melancholy because of the way Senator Clinton has been treated – read Melissa’s excellent post at Shakesville for the reasons behind the melancholy. But fortunately (that would be dripping with sarcasm, BTW), Janet Albrechtsen’s opinion piece in The Australian has shocked me out of the melancholy into outrage. Her pleasant little line – feminism causes infertility.
Here’s the basic argument.
(1) Feminism told girls they had choices, they could have careers.
(2) Feminism neglected to value baby making.
(3) All women really want is to have babies, and they will be really sad if they don’t.
(4) Feminists neglected to tell girls and women that the older you get, the more likely you are to have fertility problems.
Conclusion: Big, bad feminism – ruining women’s lives.
As it turns out, that conclusion really does follow from the premises. It’s a valid argument i.e. it is logically valid. But it is completely unsound, because some of the premises (like all of them bar premise 1) are false.
Let’s take it one step at a time.
(1) I take it there’s no problem with 1. This premise is true.
(2) Feminism did not neglect to value baby making. What it stressed, and still stresses, in most of its manifestations, is that baby making is not the only “choice” available to women. Earlier feminism certainly stressed the ideas of choice, of pursuing a career, of making choices about what to do in life, rather than just assuming the wife / mother / housewife role, but of course, one of the consequences of paying time and attention to other possible roles is simply that a lesser proportion of airtime is devoted to the status quo (of wife / mother / housewife). That’s a standard, basic thought – of necessity, if you introduce something new, then anything ‘old’ necessarily no longer occupies 100% of the space. And even so, has Albrechtsen not noticed the big battles that contemporary feminists are fighting over little things like work-life balance, about access to childcare, about (d’oh!) getting paid parental leave, about flexible work practices. All part of valuing babies and families, of enabling women to balance children and career, instead of being required to sacrifice one for the other. Feminists do value baby making and child rearing.
(3) Women want many, many things, and at least some, if not a majority, or even most women, do plan, at least vaguely, on having children sometime. But that’s not all women want, and at least some women, quite legitimately, do not want to have children at all. Furthermore, many, many people lead happy, rewarding, valuable lives without having children at all. Absolutely, if you have decided that you want to have children, and you find that you can not, then you will be devastated. I know that from the inside, from my own experience of infertility. Nevertheless, having babies is not the only thing that women want, and it is not the only thing that makes women happy.
(4) Gosh, I thought this was a responsibility of midwives and doctors and family planning practitioners, of people who routinely deal with human health and human reproduction. Not feminism per se. What Albrechtsen mentions, but does not analyse, is people’s attitudes towards IVF and fertility. She reports what one woman says about it.
Featherstone says it’s critical that young girls learn about their biology. “They may hold off having babies and do the career thing. And then they’re like: ‘Oh no, I’m 35 and I’ll have to do IVF.’ She says IVF should not be treated lightly as a fallback position for the next generation of career women. “It’s not something nice to go through.”
And earlier in the piece:
Of course, with male infertility accounting for 40 per cent of cases, there is a need for both sexes to understand fertility. Unfortunately, there is a profound gap between perception and reality. A study by the Fertility Society of Australia in 2006 found that 57 per cent of women in their 30s and 43 per cent of women in their 40s believed they would be able to conceive without any problems.
What I take out of these two extracts is that people have an idea that it will never happen to them, and even if it does, that IVF will work. They underestimate the odds that something bad will happen to them, and overestimate the odds that something good will happen – apparently a common enough bias for people to have. That’s where the work needs to be done – by contraceptive and medical advisors, and especially by fertility experts and practitioners, telling people what the odds are, urging them to think seriously about it, and making sure that people really do know the odds. It needs to be done as part of front-line medical care. That would mean that women could make informed choices.
And I think that’s where Albrechtsen’s argument really comes unstuck. You see, feminism is about giving women the freedom to make choices – real choices. That entails the freedom to make choices that you might later either regret or celebrate, including the choice to delay childbearing in order to pursue a career, or the choice to have children and let your career take a backseat for some years. The big thing is to make an informed choice. Even then, it’s hard to know whether better information would help people to overcome their predisposition to be optimistic (over-estimate the chance of good things, and underestimate the chance of bad things happening to them).
I just don’t see how feminism is to blame for giving women choices other than childrearing. Just why does Albrechtsen think this is a bad thing, especially as it’s clearly something she has taken advantage of herself? Or does she think that women would be happier if other people made choices for them, or limited their choices, or treated them as children who ought not to bear the consequences of their choices. Albrechtsen’s manic rush to blame feminism for infertility bears all the hallmarks of infantilising women, treating them as people who can’t make good decisions, poor dears, and then not even treating them as adults responsible for those decisions, however they might turn out.
Now lets get something straight here. I wish infertility on no one. No one deserves infertility. As I said above, I have been there and done that myself, and it was ghastly. That’s why women and men need better information. But blaming feminism for giving women choices, and then blaming feminism because some of those choices, for some women and their partners, go wrong, is bizarre. It’s as though either women should not have choices, or if they do have choices, then they should all be soft-edged ones, with no real world consequences.
Just to top this off, when I went to The Australian’s on-line edition, to get the link for the Albrechtsen piece, this was the image that greeted me.
Enough to return me to my melancholy. WTF is it with subbies who think it’s clever to talk in terms of killing?