The right-wing anti-sex “real woman” backlash seems to have hit the feminist movement this month, with the publication of books telling women to swear off the Pill and to swear off sex. I’m writing about it in the Guardian: That we’ve come a long way, baby, but gender relations remain fraught, and living with a wide variety of choices that look wide-open but end up constrained is much more challenging than having one or two paths to choose from. It’s easier, in many ways, to offer simple proscriptive advice about “real” femininity than to have to figure out how to be a woman when the definition of “womanhood” is increasingly broad:
Anti-abortion and anti-contraception activists often brand themselves as the “true” feminists, claiming, for example, that “women deserve better” than abortion. But their arguments are almost universally premised on the idea that women simply don’t know what’s good for them. We might think we want birth control or abortion access or the right to control the number and spacing of our children, but what’s really empowering is to embrace our natural femininity and have as many babies as God gives. That women have spent all of human history trying to avoid just that doesn’t seem to register. Feminists, you’d think, would understand that better than anyone. Which is why arguments like those in Sweetening the Pill are so disappointing.
Hormonal birth control doesn’t work for everyone, but neither does any medication or treatment. No, birth control isn’t “natural,” and it does interfere with what your body would otherwise naturally do. But so does nearly every other kind of medicine. Ovarian cysts are “natural;” that the pill helps to prevent them is not. Heart attacks are natural; open-heart surgery is not. Cancer is natural; chemotherapy is not. I’m a fan of avoiding putting unnecessary or harmful chemicals into your body. But I’m also a fan of science and of staying alive, healthy and happy. “Unnatural” is not a synonym for “bad”.
Similarly, that something didn’t work for you doesn’t mean that it’s useless for everyone. I experienced some unpleasant side effects from hormonal birth control, went off of it and never looked back. Another good friend of mine had to go off the pill for a few months and was miserable without it. Another swears by her NuvaRing. Another won’t shut up about her Mirena. With 3.5 billion women in the world, it should come as no surprise that some things work for some of us and not others. Of those 3.5 billion, some 222 million would like to control their fertility but lack access to birth control.
Women in many nations today exist in a strange time. We’re technically on equal legal footing and we’ve come so far so quickly that it’s easy to declare feminist victories achieved. But we still lag – we make less money, there are far fewer of us in positions of power, we do more domestic work, our most fundamental rights to our own bodies are still hotly debated, traditionally female careers are especially under-paid and traditional female interests under-valued. We’re supposed to be nurturing child-bearers and also successful professionals, but working mothers find themselves facing wide discrimination. Girls tend to do better in school than boys, not because we’re inherently smarter, but at least in part because girls are taught from a young age to follow the rules, be polite and defer to authority figures. Female workers who succeed are perceived as difficult, aggressive and tough to work with, while successful men see the opposite. Sexualized images of women pervade media and advertising, but we shame women who are unapologetically sexual (and even teenage girls who wear pajamas and take selfies).
There’s no easy way to be a woman today. Adopt the life of a traditional wife and mother and you’re taking a very real risk by making yourself financially vulnerable, not to mention potentially bored and resentful; you’ll also find yourself routinely condescended to and assumed to be an uninteresting childlike twit. Try to be a having-it-all supermom and you’re stressed out, exhausted and frustrated with the systematic barriers to equality, not to mention regularly pilloried for being insufficiently dedicated to your children. Skip or delay the kids and you’re a selfish narcissist flitting through life with no real purpose.
There’s something sweet and simple and safe about being able to say, in such a confusing culture, “The best way to Be A True Woman is to embrace fertility and let it define you.” Or, “We live in a sex-saturated culture, so it’s best for women to give up sex.”
It’s easier to point to one simplistic solution than to assess the diversity of problems women face, and to recognize that “womanhood” is not a singular experience. That’s part of why right-wing anti-feminist narratives resonate so widely: wasn’t life just so much simpler for June Cleaver?