Katherine Armitage discussed Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work with Jenny Brown on April 28, 2020 as part of Red May Seattle Online (replacing the original plan to do this in person!). Replay it at the link.
On the Jacobin webcast series “Stay At Home,” Jenny Brown discusses her book Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now, and why we cannot rely on NGOs to protect or expand abortion rights. Includes a critique of NGO-style abortion rights advertising and shows three remarkable ads as examples. Originally webcast April 15, 2020. The book is available from Jacobin here.
Texas and Ohio have ordered a stop to abortions, saying they’re not essential medical services, while state officials in Mississippi and Maryland are edging that direction. Their coronavirus prevention program is “Stay home and have the baby.”The states argued that equipment such as masks used for surgical abortions could be used for care of COVID-19 patients. And they claim if anything goes wrong emergency services would be needed, exaggerating the risk of a safe procedure.
Abortion clinics in Texas sued to halt the ban, and in Ohio, where the order was less clear, they argue they’re already complying since abortions fall under the essential category. Clinics are backed up by leading OB-GYN doctor groups, which saw this attack coming and specified on March 18, “Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible.”
Of course, it’s not about masks. Anti-abortion forces are using the pandemic as a pretext, but it’s an extraordinarily poor one, since they’ve spent twenty years blocking the at-home and telemedicine pill abortions that would be useful now.
Women: Labor Pains
In 2018, the birth rate in the United States reached its lowest level in decades. This alarmed the patriarchal class that wants to control women’s bodies. Reproductive rights and access to abortion are under sustained political attack. Roe v. Wade is under threat. What role does misogyny play in gender relations? Feminist activists assert that declining birth rates represent a work slowdown, or strike, in the face of the poor conditions for those who do the work of bearing and raising children and the accompanying financial stress. The U.S. economy relies on the unpaid labor of millions of often overworked and exhausted women. What happens when they organize and say, “No More”? Unpaid work, particularly bearing and rearing children must be paid for. Jenny Brown says, “When it comes to compensating for the labor of having kids, the U.S. is truly at the bottom.”
Recorded at the University of California.
National Association of Manufacturers billboard in Memphis, Tennessee, 1937. (Edwin Locke/Library of Congress)
From New Labor Forum, vol. 29, issue #1, 2020
The U.S. birth rate is now the lowest it has ever been. Other countries, confronting low birth rates in the twentieth century, instituted supports to make raising children more appealing. They provided universal child care, health care, paid leave, child allowances, and shorter working hours. The United States, by contrast, has taken the low-cost route to raising new generations: poor access to birth control and abortion. But despite these obstacles, women are refusing. This article will explore what it would take for working people in the United States—and women in particular—to leverage our spontaneous birth slowdown into family-supporting policies.
Starting in the 1980s, while birth rates in most developed countries dropped, U.S. rates remained elevated. We had higher teen pregnancy rates, and higher unintended birth rates, about twice those of Sweden and France.1 But more recently, the U.S. rate has declined, across ethnic groups, and is now considerably below the 2.1 “replacement rate” required for a stable population, reaching 1.72 in 2018 (see figure on following page). The women’s liberation group Redstockings in 2001 described this as a “birth strike,” a reaction to the difficult conditions women face having and raising children.2
Surveys indicate that potential parents are deterred by the costs of child care and housing, long or irregular work hours, low wages, unreliable health care, and student debt.3 In National Women’s Liberation (for which I am an organizer), women name these factors as reasons to stop at one child or have none at all. In consciousness-raising meetings, testifiers describe the stress and exhaustion of their “double day”—eight or more hours of paid work and then an additional eight hours a day of unpaid care work and housework. Others recount difficulty finding partners who are willing to take the plunge into parenthood, wary of the time commitment and costs. Some say they were deterred by memories of their mothers’ struggle to raise them.
As in other countries with modest birth rates, government and corporate planners from both sides of the aisle would like the U.S. birth rate to be higher. “Simply put, companies are running out of workers, customers or both,” the Wall Street Journal claimed in 2015. “In either case, economic growth suffers.”4
“Declining birth rates constitute a problem for the survival and security of nations . . . in the broadest existential sense of national security,” wrote Steven Philip Kramer of the National Defense University in his 2014 book, The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do about Falling Birth Rates. “For several hundred years, economic growth has been tied to prosperity . . . Growth in population has increased the size of the domestic market and labor force.” While many scholars continue to worry about the effect on the environment of expanding global populations, in fact birth rates are now dropping in most of the world and total population is expected to be stable or declining by 2100. Among continents, Europe, Asia, North and South America are expected to have less population in 2100 than in 2050. Only Africa is expected to grow.5
READ the rest in New Labor Forum.
By Jenny Brown
The U.S provides very little support for parents—no paid parental leave, expensive childcare and college, unreliable health care that can bankrupt you, pay that requires both parents to work, and long working hours. These conditions are contributing to the U.S.’s lowest-ever birth rate: 1.72 children per woman, well below the 2.1 rate required for a stable population. But instead of taxing the rich to provide support for childrearing, as other countries have done, the U.S. employing class has been carefully avoiding the costs of reproduction of its workforce. These costs are instead pushed onto families, to be paid out of their strained wages. The level of exploitation has reached the point that U.S. parents, and women in particular, are having fewer kids. It’s an uncoordinated “birth strike” in response to all the unpaid work, stress, and exhaustion. And now there’s evidence the low birth rate is freaking out establishment think tanks and policymakers.
Immigration has always been the U.S. employing class’s answer to lower birth rates, so why won’t it suffice now? Immigrant workers arriving as adults substitute for the children U.S. women didn’t produce, and if they settle here permanently, may have children of their own. But now we’re seeing new levels of anti-immigrant fury while pundits and politicians plead with U.S. women to have more babies. This article will examine what is going on. Continue reading “Bosses, Birth Rates, and the Battle over U.S. Immigration Policy”
Here I’m interviewed by Liza Featherstone at the Strand Bookstore in New York on October 10.
And here I am on a panel with Nona Willis Aronowitz, Lillian Cicerchia, Allison Guttu and Fahmida Azad, at the Verso Loft in Brooklyn on November 7.
Publisher’s Weekly calls Without Apology a “laser focused polemic.” Amelia Bonow of Shout Your Abortion says, “Without Apology manages to make perfect sense of the current political moment.” Nona Willis Aronowitz says, “Without Apology draws an exhilarating line in the sand between reformers and visionaries, between near-sighted regulation and true reproductive freedom.” Support the Kickstarter here, and get the book.
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? ….
Here’s a sample:
Read pages 1—59 of Birth Strike:
Chapter 1. International Comparisons
Chapter 2. Small Government, Big Families
Chapter 3. Is it a Birth Strike? Women Testify
a. What are your reasons for wanting children? For not wanting them?
b. Has your thinking on this changed? Are your parents’ lives a factor in
c. Do you experience pressure from anyone on the subject?
a. What care work do you do (child rearing, care for elderly family members,
or others in your life needing care)?
b. What care work do the men in your life do?
c. Have you tried to get them to do more? What happened?
1. Who is the power structure? What are some terms people use to describe these
individuals? Which terms do you prefer? Why?
2. To what do you attribute the continuing battle over abortion and birth control
in the U.S.? Did the reading change your view? How?
3. What caused other countries to develop universal programs such as childcare,
healthcare, paid family leave, and family allowances?
4. What do “pro-family” conservatives mean by family? What is their ideal of family
life? Who would benefit from that?