‘Normal birth’ and ‘breast is best’ – the neoliberalisation of reproduction

In July this year Sir Marcus Setchell, recently retired surgeon gynaecologist to the Royal Family, made his first public statements about the birth of Prince George. Jenni Murray, interviewing him on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour almost a year after the event, asked him whether he had been entirely necessary. His answer, that although what happens in labour is ‘an entirely private matter’ there are certain situations which might require a specialist to be in the room, prompted much speculation in the papers. The implication was clear – was The Duchess of Cambridge’s delivery really as ‘natural’ as we have been led to believe? That this arose, and indeed, that the interview was conducted at all, clearly has much to do with our contemporary obsession with celebrities’ personal business. However, it also reflects the extent to which the reproductive experiences of all women come under scrutiny in a neoliberal culture.

In the late 1980s, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a definition of ‘normal birth’ that suggested that unnecessary interventions should be avoided in low-risk labour and delivery. By the 2000s the term had become common among Western activists and health professionals. The UK National Health Service also adopted the slogan ‘breast is best’, which built upon WHO recommendations that suckling should be encouraged immediately postpartum. Today, there is an institutionalized arena of policy, practice and activism around breastfeeding and ‘natural’ childbirth, produced by a broad coalition of national and international organisations, non-profit and profit-making companies, health professionals’ associations, community and religious groups, and a multitude of interested individuals.

As Sir Marcus Setchell acknowledged in his interview, the development of the ‘natural birth’ movement in the West owed much to feminist activism against the medicalization of reproduction. This began in the 1970s and was led by experts such as British anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger, American midwife Ina May Gaskin, French obstetrician Michel Odent and British gynaecologist Wendy Savage. They rightly argued that women had been alienated from their bodies by a male-dominated and masculinised establishment, which treated pregnancy and childbirth as medical conditions rather than normal life events, was overly focused on risk and had been co-opted by market forces, particularly the infant formula industry. However, today’s ‘natural birth’ and breastfeeding movement has also been influenced by neoliberal values, which turns it from a feminist victory into something altogether more complicated.

For example, the privatisation of health services intensifies the pressure for us to become personally responsible for managing risk and preventing disease. Parents (mothers especially) have been tasked with ensuring their children’s wellbeing, and breastfeeding in particular has acquired magical status as the means of avoiding a plethora of childhood ailments, promoting emotional development, even purportedly increasing IQ. Within the contemporary logic of self-improvement, ‘natural birth’ and exclusive breastfeeding have been suffused with the language of achievement, seen as defining characteristics of successful motherhood and routes to women’s self-actualisation. Activists report their reproductive and parenting triumphs on social media, often with no attention to the economic, social and cultural privilege that has made them possible.

At the same time, neoliberalised healthcare systems have appropriated ‘normal birth’ and successful breastfeeding as performance measures. In 2007, the UK Maternity Care Working Party recommended that maternity services increase their ‘normal birth’ rates to 60 per cent within three years. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produces a ‘breastfeeding report card’, monitoring rates at state and national levels. This outcome-focused model coincides with cost-cutting agendas, as minimising caesareans and encouraging exclusive breastfeeding are seen as ways to reduce healthcare spending.

Although originally rooted in attempts to empower women, today’s approach to ‘natural’ birth and breastfeeding puts intense pressure on mothers who cannot achieve these goals, often for structural reasons such as poverty and social disadvantage, family or other burdens or medical issues affecting mother or infant. Furthermore, in a neoliberal milieu that depends on economic and social competition and individual responsibility, these women do not receive empathy but are berated for making the wrong choices, and defined as both ignorant and lazy. The reproductive experiences of the Duchess of Cambridge and other celebrities then become ammunition in these ‘Mummy/Mommy wars’, which are very much a product of the age.

In recent years, veteran activist Sheila Kitzinger has expressed dismay at the mutation of reproduction into a goal-oriented agenda. Many women share this opinion and some are fighting back – for example, the ‘I Support You’ movement in North America brings together breast- and formula-feeding parents in mutual validation of each others’ choices. We should use initiatives like this to re-politicise reproduction, this time within a critique of the neoliberal culture which pits us against one another in cycles of assessment, judgment and shame. Setchell is wrong – what happens in labour is not an ‘entirely private matter’ for any woman, celebrity or not – but hopefully one day it will stop being a stick to beat her with.

About the author: Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex and works on issues to do with women’s bodies: childbirth, breastfeeding, abortion, sexual violence and sex work. Her book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age is published by Polity Press. 

Originally published in Cost of Living

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‘I am a victim of nothing but my own bad choices’: Women Against Feminism and neoliberal individualism

A group called ‘Women Against Feminism’ has recently been making the news. Now up to almost 20,000 likes on Facebook, the initial buzz was around its Tumblr where (mostly very young) women post photos of themselves holding messages about why they don’t want to be feminists. There are a variety of reasons, all of which seem to rest on bottom-line misunderstandings of what feminism is – predictably, not wanting to be seen as a man-hater is perhaps the most ubiquitous. But, almost as frequently, these young women cite “not being a victim” as the cause of their rejection of feminist politics. As one message reads: “I don’t need feminism because…I am an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for myself and my actions.”

Personal responsibility, of course, is the fundamental neoliberal mantra. No longer just yawped by right-wingers at those considered indigent and shiftless, it is now chanted with enthusiasm by the privileged, progressive and upwardly mobile. In 2013, during a graduation speech at Morehouse, a private, historically black liberal arts college in Atlanta, Barack Obama advised graduates and their families against using the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation as an excuse for not achieving their ambitions. That same year, fellow neoliberal icon Sheryl Sandberg notoriously told women to ‘lean in’ to their careers instead of holding themselves back with self-doubt. Taking responsibility for your life, the neoliberal myth goes, will help you realise your dreams – but what Women Against Feminism don’t realise is that for women especially this can become a curse.

First of all, as neoliberal states retreat, women’s responsibilities in particular have grown. Their ‘double burden’ has tripled as economies have expanded and social supports shrunk. It’s also become obvious that a world run on market principles cannot generate the transformation in gender roles which would be needed to lessen this load. Poorer mothers are increasingly staying at home, while their more affluent sisters employ other women to fulfil their domestic duties. Women perform the majority of unpaid caring, especially for sick or elderly relatives, with the greatest burden nationally falling on those aged 50-64. In the neoliberal context, women are taking up the slack as states cut loose. And they are doing it mostly on their own – their legal and social safety nets are being whisked away, to be replaced by a quest for individual personal growth in which those who fall by the wayside are left there, scorned and censured.

As members of privatising societies, women make their own luck through consumption. Neoliberalism, Wendy Brown argues, turns social problems into individual ones with market fixes: voucher systems as a response to the decline of public education; boutique and alternative medicine to compensate for crumbling health services; parental control software to mitigate the explosion of violence and sex onscreen. Women are often responsible for sourcing and implementing these consumption solutions on behalf of their families, since they shoulder a disproportionate amount of the household burden and control the vast majority of its spending. Mothers in particular are expected to protect their children from all imaginable physical and psychological risks through financial investments and prescribed bodily practices such as breastfeeding and intensive attachment parenting. This individualising of responsibility holds them personally to account when things go wrong, with issues such as obesity, behavioural problems or academic ‘underachievement’ put down to bad parenting (or most often, mothering) rather than poverty or structural disadvantage.

In a neoliberal society, working on oneself is the panacea for most ills: as a Women Against Feminism member writes, “I don’t need feminism because… I don’t need a helping hand to succeed.” The massive self-improvement industry around mothering meets others such as fashion, beauty, nutrition, alternative health and interior design, all of which mainly set their sights on women. The reality TV which fortifies them frequently juxtaposes the middle-class, white, ‘respectable’ femininity of its hosts against working class and/or minority ethnic participants who are defined as lacking and who are ’empowered’ through style, décor or other types of coaching. This is actually a form of symbolic violence. Women’s self-improvement spending also fuels gender essentialism – they are defined as innately frivolous and wasteful, epitomised in the phrase ‘born to shop’.

Much like its Fordist predecessor and despite its rhetoric of equality and diversity, neoliberal capitalism is highly gendered. Small states and big markets hustle women back to the domestic and confine them to socially undervalued ‘feminine’ pursuits. Personal responsibility, however, is neoliberalism’s masterstroke. If women are dissatisfied with their lot, they need to ‘lean in’ and look to themselves to change. This is manifest in self-help and ‘positive thinking’ culture, which bothdeprives women of political outlets for their dissatisfaction and reifies traditional gender roles, with book titles such as ‘Women Who Love Too Much’ and ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ evoking heteronormative femininities while speaking the language of liberation. Self-help also teaches women that they are not victims; that they can transform themselves through adversity. “Smile, love, it might never happen” – and if it already has, you should stop blaming other people and use your bad fortune as an opportunity to grow.

This conviction unites therapeutic professionals with pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps right-wingers and Women Against Feminism. Women’s experiences of violence seem especially subject to its facile and individualistic logic. Many of the messages posted on Women Against Feminism draw on right-wing dismissals of feminism as a ‘victim’ philosophy through which feeble women wail on about male violence. Of course this is a caricature and, ironically enough, the neoliberal mentality of personal responsibility and renewal has even spread to some third-wave feminist initiatives such as Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising, which invites women the world over to ‘rise above’ sexual violence through dance. The problem with this mindset is the way it refuses to acknowledge the structures and histories of gender (and in Ensler’s case, colonialism) that make it necessary for women’s personal experiences of violence to be politicised.

In an apolitical neoliberal culture, chanting the mantra of personal responsibility is exhausting for women. While their domestic duties mushroom, they are expected to incessantly improve themselves and think positive about their difficulties. And in a free-market society, they must have chosen their fate. As one member of Women Against Feminism writes, “I don’t need feminism because… the pay gap is women’s choice, not sexism”.

In the absence of analysis of the factors shaping women’s choices, gender essentialism sidles in to fill the space. Contemporary neuroscience incessantly puts forth new claims that women’s and men’s brains are fundamentally different, which seem to endure no matter how skilfully they are rebuffed. Evolutionary psychology, which takes us back to the cave with gender narratives less sophisticated than The Flintstones, is enjoying a renaissance. Traditional family scripts are being re-spoken and enacted as part of a ‘new Victorianism’, amongst the privileged which erases broader social and political engagement with its white weddings, gourmet food and heteronormative, domestic bliss. Another Women Against Feminism member states, “I don’t need feminism because… I’m enjoying being a supportive wife and I love that my man is the head of my household.”

Women Against Feminism makes effective use of the new neoliberal common sense: women are naturally more suited to domestic tasks, why else would they want to stay at home? Women must be inherently more vain and superficial, or they wouldn’t spend so much money on frivolous things. This oppressive thinking holds that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus – otherwise, in a free world, why would there still be inequality? And if women want someone to blame, they should apparently look at themselves – in the words of a Women Against Feminism member, “I don’t need feminism because… I am a victim of nothing but my own bad choices”. I beg to differ – the neoliberal logic of personal responsibility is why we need feminism now more than ever.

Originally published in The F Word

What’s driving the new sexism?

“Rape, rape, rape.” Last week saw news of police investigating a group of young men, believed to be members of Cambridge’s drinking society The Wyverns, who had been videoed chanting this while marching down Oxford’s high street. This came days after it was revealed that Premier League chief Richard Scudamore had exchanged emails with senior colleagues in which women were referred to as “gash”.

These incidents gave grist to recent discussions about whether sexism has become particularly vicious – for instance, Zoe Williams has described a “new nastiness, something gleeful in the anger…that amounts to the bullying of young women that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.” The recent BBC documentary Blurred Lines presented other examples, such as the now-ubiquitous rape joke and the Twitter abuse directed at high profile women such as Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez.

The growth of the internet and social media, alongside the backlash against women’s rights, seems to be emerging as a central theme in analyses of this “new sexism”. This was evident in Blurred Lines and a Guardian piece preceding it, in which five high-profile feminists discussed the internet as “a cauldron of hate and vitriol, led by men against women.”

There’s no doubt that the rapid growth of online spaces, together with their relative anonymity and potential for hair-trigger reactions, has contributed to sexist bullying, as well as that directed at other marginalised social groups. But we also need to use a wider lens, to capture the context in which the online world was born and exists. The internet isn’t the Amazon, after all – new technologies are deeply embedded in the structures and discourses of neoliberalism.

Neoliberal economics and politics focus on individualisation, privatisation and unfettered market capitalism. As Henry Giroux argues, this “legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness…wages a war against public values…saps the democratic foundation of solidarity…and tears up all forms of social obligation.”In a neoliberal world, we are all out for what we can get.

This contemporary cut-throat culture is the perfect breeding ground for the most brutal types of bullying. It’s everyone for him – or herself, with others positioned as threatening adversaries or whinging victims who have failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Neoliberalism tells us that we are all free to create our destinies through consumer choice. The flip-side is that we constantly fall short of our ideals, assess the competition and judge those who don’t measure up to the new self-improvement morality. The “chav”, for example, that alleged benefit-scrounger who uses their dole money to bathe themselves in bling, is persona non grata in neoliberal society.

The “battle of the sexes”, in this context, has become particularly ferocious. Women who have benefited from feminism’s gains (still largely white, middle class, straight, cis) are a threat to male privilege. In a hyper-competitive culture equality is a zero-sum game – gains in women’s rights are seen as being at men’s expense, with “boys’ underachievement” and the alleged “crisis of masculinity” often blamed on girls and women. In the words of Universities Minister David Willetts, “feminism [has] trumped egalitarianism” – women’s equality must be hurting men, because in a dog-eat-dog environment somebody has to get eaten.

Conversely, women who dare to point out that inequalities remain, especially for those whose gender intersects with other aspects of identity such as race, class or sexual orientation, are vilified. Feminist critique is dismissed as “political correctness”, or a form of “victim politics” which clashes with the neoliberal rhetorics of freedom of speech/expression and personal responsibility and choice. This happens in left – as well as right-wing circles, with left-wing antifeminism most recently finding its figurehead in Julian Assange, who on being accused of sexual assault by two women, claimed he had fallen into a “hornet’s nest” of revolutionary feminists.

All this adds up to a culture in which women are feared and despised as either menacing ball-busters who are too big for their boots or mewling martyrs who expect special treatment and can’t take a joke. Either way, they deserve to be taken down a peg or two – and in a world where the only principles that matter are market ones, there are few limitations on how that can be done. Intimate personal insults and rape threats? That’s just freedom of speech. Sexual harassment? That’s just “having a laugh”. Women can choose to be offended or not – because after all, it’s all about personal choice.

In an interview with Blurred Lines presenter Kirsty Wark, Mary Beard articulated some of the obstacles to women speaking out in such circumstances. And if these could potentially subdue someone of Professor Beard’s brilliance and gravitas (thankfully, they haven’t), what hope is there for the rest of us?

Fortunately some young women are refusing to be cowed, as the rise in feminist activity amongst students and other groups attests. Outspoken women of all ages deserve our gratitude and respect. And to fully appreciate what they are up against, we need to understand how the “new sexism” combines age-old forms of misogyny with contemporary free-market heartlessness.

Alison Phipps is Co-Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex and works on the politics of women’s bodies – she can be found on Twitter@alisonphipps.

Her book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age is published by Polity Press. 

Originally published in the New Statesman