The Economics of Choice
Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America.
By Rickie Solinger
New York: New York University Press, 2005, 301 pp., $27.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Kim E. Nielsen
For me, a feminist occasionally depressed about the state of the world, reading Rickie Solinger’s Pregnancy and Power felt in some ways like taking a medicinal tonic. She provides a vision of what a society dedicated to reproductive justice could be. We would share a commitment to the reproductive health, safety, and dignity of all women; we would stop blaming poor people for their problems; and we would consider the choice of whether or not to reproduce to be an essential human right.
As a feminist trying to live a life of intellectual and moral consistency I also experienced Pregnancy and Power as a personal and political challenge. Taking the arguments of this book seriously required me, as a reader, to confront and reassess the reproductive privileges I have and what, if anything, I’m going to do about them. The usual feminist antagonists appear in Solinger’s historical narrative. Particularly discomforting, however, is Solinger’s application of that historical narrative, which raises the question of whether I, and perhaps the feminist movement as a whole, have unwittingly joined the ranks of villains undermining reproductive justice.
Solinger persuasively argues that “reproductive politics”—the question of who has power over pregnancy and its consequences—has shaped and continues to shape the lives of both women and men in the United States. Policy-makers, government officials, religious figures, media commentators, and feminists have claimed that reproductive politics hold the solution to problems such as poverty, race relations, and social upheaval. Given this, attempts to control or mediate women’s reproductive lives are not surprising. Indeed, they are immensely logical.
Solinger explains, “When the state takes the right to decide which women are legitimate mothers, the state has, historically, also taken the right to treat different groups of women differently.” Such differential treatment is of course unjust; and it limits feminists’ ability to organize against it by making cross-class or cross-race coalitions difficult to sustain. Solinger believes that “the right to reproduce safely and with dignity is a fundamental human right, as is the right not to reproduce.” When the state denies women control of their own sexual and reproductive bodies, when it denies them maternal legitimacy, it denies them full citizenship.
Solinger tells story of how, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day, the economically powerful have attempted legislatively and socially to control women’s reproductive capacity, ensuring privilege for some and detriment for others. At the same time, women have struggled to make their own reproductive choices. The state created and then policed racial and gender boundaries before the Civil War by regulating sexual intimacy and reproduction. These boundaries defined citizenship; thus, enslaved women had almost no reproductive control: they could not choose their partners, maintain their reproductive health, live with their families, or mother their own children. Their offspring were commodities. In contrast, white womanhood and motherhood were ennobled—at least, for those who pledged themselves to chastity and supported the criminalization of abortion and contraception. Violating those strictures meant illegitimate motherhood, even for whites.
During the period of urbanization, from the 1870s to the 1920s, women’s reproductive experiences were further stratified. Despite the 1873 Comstock Law and others that banned contraceptives and abortion, more and more white, middle-class married women successfully exercised fertility control. Urbanization, emerging notions and possibilities of privacy, and the increasing (but veiled) commercialization of contraception and abortion made reproductive control a possibility for women with education and economic resources. At the same time, eugenic policies, miscegenation laws, and poverty brought the sex-and-pregnancy experiences of poor white women, African American women, and others deemed unfit for reproduction under public scrutiny. For example, Native American women were considered inherently unfit mothers; many lost their children to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their religion.
The economic stresses of the Great Depression increased the desire of women of all races and classes to manage their fertility. However, it also strengthened and made more explicit the claims of some eugenicists, policy-makers, and social welfare workers that uncontrolled reproduction by poor, “irresponsible” women had caused the country’s dire social and economic problems. When put into practice, the Aid to Dependent Children program of the 1935 Social Security Act further racialized notions about who was a “legitimate” mother. Officials routinely defined poor mothers of color as “reproductively expensive and producers of worthless children.” They refused them economic assistance and took away their children. Some women were sterilized against their will or without their knowledge. Poor white women were more likely to be considered legitimate mothers under this bureaucratic, centrally planned system.
Stratified reproductive politics did not disappear with the advent of the birth control pill. Public debates about the pill were racialized: young white women were encouraged to use it to protect their reputations and futures; young African American women were encouraged to use it to curb the social problems supposedly caused by “too many” poor black babies. Poor women became potent symbols of danger—of “what could happen when the wrong people got rights.” Yet increasingly, in the feminist and racial freedom movements, single mothers both of color and white argued that their motherhood was legitimate. Women of color in particular demanded an end to coerced sterilization.
Today, Solinger argues, we’re not even close to being a society of reproductive justice. The accumulating restrictions on abortion, sentiments that value the fetus over the pregnant woman, female prisoners’ almost complete lack of reproductive control, and the increasingly limited reproductive information given to teenagers are all symptoms of increasing state control over the definition of legitimate pregnancy and motherhood. Reproductive politics continue to reinforce privilege and to shape society—even for women outside of Solinger’s class/racial analysis, such as those with disabilities.
For me, and probably for other women who benefit from today’s reproductive politics, Solinger’s analysis of the language of choice is chilling and challenging. Persuasively, she demonstrates that hidden behind choice rhetoric and ideology is the reality that “a woman’s race and her class position… profoundly shape her access to reproductive self-determination.” Almost universally, “the good choice-maker” is defined “as the woman who has earned the right to exercise choice properly by having enough money to be a legitimate and proper mother.” Women without economic resources are considered bad choice-makers, who should not reproduce—even as poverty and public policies like the Hyde Amendment limit their access to birth control. Choice language thus obscures disparities of access. And feminists contribute to the shrouding of reproductive injustices when they use this language.
Although I agree with Solinger that women can be full citizens only when they have reproductive control, my struggle with this book is that I sometimes saw in myself the ideology Solinger argues against. I’m one of those white, middle-class, able-bodied women with maternal legitimacy. While intellectually I don’t believe that legitimate motherhood should be a class or racial privilege, I’ve heard the grumpy internal commentary in my own head about “those women” who live in poverty with more children than I. I’ve made my maternal decisions partially based on my economic capacity, and have proudly considered myself a responsible choice-maker. I’ve questioned whether some women are fit to be parents. I believe that some actions—violence and sexual abuse of children, for example—do render a person an unfit parent; just as having a child in some situations—with inadequate income, for example—can make good mothering difficult.
The feminist task, at least for me, is to reconcile or resolve the conflict between my politics and my emotions. According to Solinger, I’m not the good reproductive choice-maker I thought I was—I’m just privileged. Pregnancy and Power demands that feminists move beyond analyses of individual reproductive choices (I’m-a-good-choice-maker-because-I-didn’t-have-a-baby-while-lacking-health-insurance) to analyses of the social structures that give some women more choices than others (all-women-need-adequate-healthcare-and-a-livable-income). Reproduction can be an individual “choice,” but the social structures that shape and define that choice are nearly overwhelming. While Pregnancy and Power made me uneasy, it made me think—and for that, I like this book immensely.
Kim E. Nielsen teaches courses in history and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Her latest books include Helen Keller: Selected Writings (2005) and The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (2004).