Book Review by Judy Ancel
More than 120 years ago the American Federationist, the newspaper of the American Federation of Labor, printed an editorial denouncing the entry of women into the trades. One of its many nuggets of misogyny was this: “The wholesale employment of women in the various handicrafts must gradually unsex them.”
That term was probably as unclear then as it is today, but if unsexed means women today are declining to pursue “nature’s dearest impulse” (another of the article’s nuggets), then we are indeed unsexed, because there’s a birth strike going on.
It seems the more we labor outside the home, the less we engage in that other form of labor—childbirth. Women may still be barely visible in the trades, but our wage work has become an essential part of the economy.
THE ECONOMICS OF REPRODUCTION
The political economy of our role in production and reproduction and our rejection of the double burden is the subject of Jenny Brown’s Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work (PM Press, 2019).
Brown, a former co-editor of Labor Notes, begins by citing the declining birth rate in the United States—currently 1.76 births for every two people. Population politics are an essential part of this book, and the U.S. has gone from panic about overpopulation in the 1970s to fear that we won’t replace ourselves now. Elite thinkers, says Brown, are concerned that shrinking population brings a shrinking economy, which is not good for business.
So are corporations and government encouraging women to have more babies? In a way. They’re making it hard not to have babies, by failing to cover birth control and restricting access to it and by making us run a gauntlet to get an abortion—in many places today abortion is impossible or prohibitively expensive. Forced pregnancy appears to be their policy.
But having children is increasingly difficult, with no mandated paid family leave, inadequate health coverage, and very expensive childcare. In fact, the high cost of raising kids on flat incomes is the main reason women are avoiding pregnancy in unprecedented numbers. That’s why Brown calls it a birth strike.
She contrasts the U.S. with the rest of the world, where most of the wealthier countries make it much easier to work and have kids. She zeroes in on Germany, France, and Sweden. There, punitive policies that made it difficult to avoid pregnancy failed, so governments incentivized childbirth by providing what they call a social wage. This includes free childcare, paid family leave and sick leave, paid vacations, pensions, and universal health care. So why doesn’t the U.S. do the same? ….