The gender of gestating is ambiguous.
This response to Merve Emre’s forum essay is in Boston Review’s summer 2018 print issue Once and Future Feminist, where you will also find half a dozen other responses, as well as concluding thoughts from Emre. To read all of these, plus five other provocative essays about gender and reproduction, order your copy of Once and Future Feminist today.
The gender of gestating is ambiguous. I am not talking about pregnancy’s deepening of one’s voice, its carpeting of one’s legs in bristly hair, or even about the ancient Greek belief that it was an analogue of men’s duty to die in battle if called upon. I am not even thinking of the heterogeneity of those who gestate. Rather, in a context where political economists are talking constantly of “the feminization of labor,” it seems to me that the economic gendering of the work itself—gestating is work, as Merve Emre says—is not as clear-cut as it would appear.
Are motherhood and pregnancy really viable cornerstones of a livable world?
As Paul B. Preciado points out in Testo Junkie (2008), the feminization-of-labor thesis, which describes global trends toward job precarity—sorry, flexibility—and emotional labor is not very helpful. It presumes what femininity is; but even on its own terms, the waged baby-making workplaces of the twenty-first century do not fit well into that model. The commercial gestational surrogates who are doing pregnancy for pay in the comfort of their homes (in California) or in clinic-dormitories (in Nepal, Kenya, Laos) are working 24/7. They are not “flexible.” They are supposed to be pure techne, uncreative muscle. Dreams of artificial wombs may have been largely abandoned in the 1960s, but ever since the perfection of in vitro fertilization (IVF) enabled a body to gestate entirely foreign material, living humans have become the “technology” component of the euphemism “assisted reproductive technology.”
Angela Davis did not think the so-called New Reproductive Technologies were all that new, anyway: hadn’t black women long served as surrogates on the Americas’ plantations? Since motherhood in the United States was elaborated as an institution of married white womanhood, black enslaved women could make no claim of kinship or property to the fruits of their gestational labors. Indeed, they were not even publicly recognized as women, let alone mothers or Americans. Other eugenic and patriarchal laws dispossessed unwed proletarians of “their” babies, as well. To this day, the racial and class dynamics of U.S. society continue to trouble the commonplace certainty (mater semper certa est) that gestation naturally produces the status of motherhood for the gestator.
But this also raises the question of whether it should: whether motherhood and pregnancy are viable cornerstones of a livable world. Humans still die in the hundreds of thousands every year because of pregnancy, making a mockery of UN millennium goals to stop the carnage. Almost a thousand of us die yearly doing childbirth in the United States alone, and another 65,000 “nearly die.” This situation is social, not simply natural. Feminists used to draw a distinction between mothering (potentially good) and motherhood (bad). The former conjured an ensemble of practices (including Audre Lorde’s “we can learn to mother ourselves”) that could potentially destroy the latter institution. With today’s abandonment of family-critical horizons, however, mainstream feminists have largely left this helpful distinction in the dust.
Fortunately, while the infertility industry continues to throw every last resource into convincing everyone that they must have a biogenetic babe of their own, radicals such as Alexis Pauline Gumbs are salvaging an earlier tradition of thinking creatively about the work of mothering. In her writing, Gumbs points to traditions of polymaternalism (where each child has many mothers, of whatever gender) as evidence of the queerness and communistic anti-propertarianism of some longstanding black kinship practices. It was the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers that proclaimed that children “will not belong to the patriarchy. They will not belong to us either. They will belong only to themselves.” Doing away with parental possessiveness, fostering a comradely relation between adults and children instead: this was the point of Marge Piercy’s vision of a society, in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), reliant on automated gestation. It is the oft-forgotten crux of Shulamith Firestone’s proposal, too, alongside her insistence on vindicating those who, as Emre puts it, “simply did not want to do the work of gestation.”
So I imagine it must have been with some reluctance that Emre, in composing this piece, turned from the history of procreative automation in speculative fiction, 1970s utopian feminism, and science experiments (that 1894 steamer trunk!) to begin her luminous yet despondent tour of “infertility treatment” as it actually exists in the United States. I could not agree more with Emre’s argument that all procreation should be regarded as assisted; in my opinion, this ought to be leftist doxa. “We are utterly at stake to one another”: that’s a recent phrase of Donna Haraway’s, but I still remember when it first clicked for me. I had casually dropped the term “assisted reproduction” into a conversation. My interlocutor was a disability rights activist. I had thought to impress her; instead, a sharp disquieting laugh pulled me up short in the middle of introducing myself. “As though baby-making could be unassisted!” she said. Too true. It takes lots of work from lots of people to make and remake us, before and after we are born.
In her essay, Emre keeps one toe firmly planted in the question of work and liberation from work. “Fertility treatments felt like another full-time job,” she writes of K. Even the precise temporal discipline (so painstakingly described by Marx) of assisted reproduction is weirdly similar. What helps workers survive, as ever, is care, community, and solidarity—forces, Emre found, that were coming overwhelmingly from women. Indeed, excepting the extras who appear momentarily in order to be homophobic or flail in the face of a retroverted cervix, there are not any men in Emre’s essay. There are only women and eggs and sperm. Realizing this, I initially thought, “Firestone would be proud!” However, as Emre makes clear, you do not actually need men or even heterosexuality these days to uphold a pretty conservative image of the family.
There were two minor stumbles in the course of Emre’s discussion. The first was her (sympathetic) reflection that Joanne Spataro “evinces palpable discomfort around biological matters.” I did not feel that Spataro “describes only the most superficial effects of estrogen withdrawal.” What was missing? Perhaps the risk of suicidality; details of breast and genital size fluctuation. Emre also writes that some terminology (specifically “sex” and “sperm”) was “suppressed.” But, relative to the level of explicit detail one expects in narratives about cisgender parents, there is no dearth of biology in “Adventures in Transgender Fertility.” Admittedly, this is the one scenario in Emre’s story in which a penis is doing the inseminating. Should this mean, though, that it is the one place where “sexual” and “biological” appear as synonyms?
Speaking as a stakeholder, also boasting a trans fiancée: the mechanical and psychological dynamics of the rare subtype of lesbian sex that involves vaginal penetration by bio-cock do interest me. I still feel they are legitimately (not just strategically) excluded from a discussion about the specificity of the procreative timing question for trans people. The New York Times’ promotional use of the phrase “the old-fashioned way” at least mirrors, if not reflects, the prurient wish on the part of a tacitly transphobic public that Spataro “justify” Lara’s possession of a penis capable of ejaculating in the vicinity of her cervix. Emre so rightly perceives, in the varied types of harsh response to the piece online, an unfair demand from LGBTQ readers that this couple should “model reproduction’s most inconvenient configurations or its most radical politics.” But perhaps the expectation, however sympathetically couched, that the trans woman’s sex and sperm be held up comfortably is equally a little unfair.
The second hesitation I experienced concerned the reference to “political conditions that are not meant for women—or families, however they are constructed—to thrive.” On the one hand, this is a vital puncturing of the lie of “family values.” As Nina Power has it, “Politics is so pro-child in theory because it is so anti-child (and anti-woman) in practice.” Capitalist society is entirely uninterested in the thriving of anyone or anything, except surplus value. It is only designed “for families” in the sense that inheritance laws have been instrumental in the production of inequality. On the other hand, that is why I appreciate the inclusivity of Emre’s tacit definition of family, angled to encompass the relationships once known as kith: the elective kinships and caring commitments that have historically kept dispossessed queer youth (and other outcasts from productivity) alive.
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