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Motherhood as a Way to Control Women

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As a result of the legislation that sparked controversy over issues such as abortion and female bodily autonomy, female agency and motherhood takes stage front and center. From critiques of canonical thinkers, to scientifically conducted research and beyond, it is clear that there are explicit consistencies in the treatment of and attitude towards women. Society expects women to prioritize and focus on their role as mothers as the sole identifying aspect that they have, disregarding any other passions they may have. If women do not adhere to the societal standards, and if they choose to deviate from the norm, they thereby reject motherhood the woman is villainized. The difference between a “good” and a “bad” mother is that the “good” relinquishes her individual power of choice and independence while the bad takes power back into her own hands, with the power to choose. As seen in the bills passed banning abortion, those who choose to abort the fetus could be convicted of crimes as extreme as second degree murder and sentenced to jail, intensifying the aspect of a “bad” mother that is deemed as a villainess.

In light of the recent heartbeat bills passed in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio, a woman’s power and importance is being utterly stripped away as after six weeks, they are unable to gain access to a legal and safe abortion. In Alabama, the most restrictive abortion bill has been passed where abortion in itself, is forbidden… outlawed. This shocked the nation as it threatened the 1973 Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade which “affirms that access to safe and legal abortion is a constitutional right.” No matter what stage of pregnancy the mother is in, from the bill passed by Alabama legislation, abortion is banned. Even in cases of rape or incest, a female (who at the age of her very first period can conceive a child) is expected to carry the pregnancy full term, forfeiting her constitutional rights to a safe, legal abortion. Forfeiting her power, and her dignity. These bills being passed villainize women who deserve the right to choose how to live their lives and how to treat their body, by banning abortion it jeopardizes a woman’s physiological, mental, and psychological health. Leaving women powerless, forced, rather ordained to succumb to putting their entire livelihood on hold for the prospect of giving birth and becoming a mother, no matter what circumstance it came to be. With the passing of these bills, and the overwhelmingly privileged, male, white, old men that support it, it becomes clear that they believe a woman’s reproductive rights should not exist. Male politicians echo the male canonical thinkers where the use of a higher force such as “God” or “nature” deems the inequality between the genders to be true and just. For instance, the justification that Republican Senator Clyde Chambliss stated was that “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life”.

Now how does motherhood fit directly into this equation? Motherhood itself and the physical female body both impair a woman’s health and brings about a slew of problems. As in the article Medicalizing Reproduction in the United States and Britain that Casey Schroeder and Brian Gran wrote, “a woman’s very ability to reproduce puts her an at increased risk.” Women are capable of reproduction and therefore the pressure placed on them is incredible as they are expected to carry children, give birth, and raise children under the heavy societal expectations. Constantly there are “mom-shamers” in social media, of those who have not raised children themselves or from males criticizing how mothers raise their children. With the addition of this bill, the presence of a fetus that is not viable outside of the womb forces the well being of the actual woman to be pushed to the side. The idea of motherhood ties along with domestication as the perfect nuclear family unit in the 1950s was regarded as a male headed household where there was traditional division of labor in the household. Women were expected and suppressed to the domestic sphere where their sole responsibilities were to care for children and take care of the home. Furthermore because of motherhood, women are discriminated against especially in the workforce. In sociological perspective each individual needs to acquire human capital skills, which are work experience and work skill that one has. This is highly relevant to gender an inequality as women as a direct result due to motherhood have lower accumulation of human capital skills. They need to care for their children, thereby more likely to take leave from work and susceptible to mental health problems. The process of abortion is traumatic for a woman as the scarring process may leave her with post abortion syndrome or PAS. This syndrome is a form of mental health illness that women suffer after abortion and is similar to PTSD. Both PTSD and PAS have similar symptoms such as feeling guilty, suffering depression, reliving trauma. Along with this, we have to take into account postnatal and postpartum depression that women suffer after giving birth.

Likewise in the novel written by Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own the same gender inequality between the sexes as well as the disadvantages of a female body, one capable of reproduction, is emphasized. Woolf takes the readers on a hypothetical journey as she shows the parallel between the widely renowned William Shakespeare, one regarded as a genius, and a entirely fictional character named Judith Shakespeare, the female equivalent of William. Woolf puts in every effort to make sure readers understand just how talented Judith was by remarking that she was an “extraordinarily gifted sister”. As children, William was sent off to school to enrich his mind with the wonders of the world, to learn how to read and write and ponder about the world. While William was as school obtaining an education, Judith was tucked away at home with no opportunity to learn how to read or write though she was just as “adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world”. Though hindered, she still tried to learn on her own volition with her brother William’s books, but ultimately got scolded by her parents to “mend stockings” instead, further instilling the domestic duties that a woman was expected to complete. As the two grew older, William was allowed to marry whenever he pleased to whomever he wished. On the other hand, Judith was arranged to be married off against her will. This showed her straying from marriage and motherhood, and as a result got “severely beaten” by her father. In addition, while Judith went to London to escape from a forced marriage and abuse, William was able to desert his pregnant wife on a whim to go to London for pleasure. There the paths of William and Judith diverge even further, Judith had gotten pregnant at seventeen and ultimately kills herself. This paints the stark contrast between the societal expectations and norms between men and women: William could leave his wife who was pregnant and continue to work towards his dreams of glory, while as soon Judith fell pregnant her life became grim. Judith was betrayed by her own body, a woman’s body; “the heat and violence of the poet’s heart” is tormented when caught and tangled in a woman’s body. Meaning, that no matter how talented or intelligent, as long as the body is a woman’s and is able to carry a child she is doomed to a life in domestication, where her potential is unfulfilled, or her future lies death.

This ties in with Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideology in “A Vindication of The Rights of Women.” Wollstonecraft critiques Jean Jacques Rousseau as she refutes the idea that women should be “governed by fear” and rather states that men and women should be held at the same principles and have the same aim, with the proper use of education, thereby creating a better functioning family unit. Wollstonecraft cleverly points at that in Rousseau’s ideology, everything about women is relative to men; whether it be education, their titles (mother of, sister of, wife of), essentially how a woman is raised should be relative to the comfort of men. This puts further emphasis on how men blindly believe they know and understand a woman’s mind better than a woman can, by restricting access to proper education in pursuit of women catering to them without hesitation. Rousseau argues that education of women should be relative to the comfort of men; He wants women to please men and ultimately “render [men’s] lives easy and agreeable.” This extends into motherhood since women are expected to be “good mothers” and raise their children to be respectable and intelligent, yet how could a mother do so without being educated properly herself and being able to make an educated choice about her future and her body? Wollstonecraft states that being a good mother they must have sense and independence of mind, which few possess because they were raised with the virtue that they needed to rely entirely on their husbands. The idea of female independence would stem from the idea of the independence of mind. Wollstonecraft vehemently is against the idea of restricting women to the domestic realm, she wants women as a whole to participate in civil and political employments. Without proper education, Wollstone states that it renders women unprepared for the peculiar duties which might entail child rearing.

John Stuart Mill elaborates with the concept of the subjection of women. He states that nature is not the source of inequality between men and women but rather a justification so that women are curbed from their full potential. Women are bound under men as if they were slaves, where each individual is in a permanent state of bribery and intimidation combined. This ties into the abortion bills being passed as women are being chained to unwanted biological situations where politicians strike fear and uncertainty into both the nation and women’s hearts. Mill states that men have put “everything in practice” to enslave a woman’s mind. He explains that “masters of women wanted more than simple obedience,” they want all women to be brought up to believe that it is in their nature to live for others and to have affections for men with whom they are connected, or to the children who create another indestructible tie between woman and man. This is solid evidence that can be interpreted in the sense that the abortion bill serves to strengthen the dominance that men have over women as women are not even allowed to live for themselves but rather put an unborn tie to male superiority as a priority. Mill further goes on to state that working gives women an advantage, as well as power and independence. However, if women do work society expects women to continue to manage the household and raise children, so how is a woman expected to do it all?

This is where contraceptives come into play as women empowerment and female autonomy is positively correlated to the access of contraceptives. Contraceptive use and access would be able to help women avoid, or delay unwanted pregnancies. The use of contraceptives and the access to contraceptives also increases the likelihood of women to continue working and boost family incomes since women don’t have to depend on their spouse or male counterpart to provide financial stability. Furthermore, contraceptive use improves family relations as a result of less unwanted pregnancies, helps women continue their education while engaging in healthy sexual activity, and boost self image. As shown in the study conducted by Abraham Alano and Lori Hanson about women in an Ethiopian village proves that contraceptive use emancipated them from “the worries and entrapment” of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. Thus, creating peace and stability in the lives of those women. The power of women being able to control their own bodies and have female autonomy, as well as take control of their reproduction ultimately created high levels of female empowerment.

Based on the research and questions raised in the topic of motherhood, it is apparent that motherhood is enforced as a way to control women. Women have been and still are subjected to extremely high standards when it comes to the female body, political rights, and autonomy as an effort to control women. If these standards were not held for women to become mothers and for them to depend on men or a higher institution for protection, society runs the risk of upheaval as women would gain “too much” political power, autonomy, and independence. Thus, motherhood is policed by man, requiring women to conform to society’s standards to give all of themselves to their children alive or unborn, or suffer the consequences.

Works Cited

  1. Alano, Abraham, and Lori Hanson. “Women’s Perception about Contraceptive Use Benefits towards Empowerment: A Phenomenological Study in Southern Ethiopia.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0203432.
  2. Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” The Feminist Papers from Adams to De Beauvoir, by Alice S. Rossi, Northeastern Univ. Press, 1992, pp. 183–238.
  3. Parenthood, Planned. “Roe v. Wade: The Constitutional Right to Access Safe, Legal Abortion.” Planned Parenthood Action Fund, www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/issues/abortion/roe-v-wade.
  4. Schroeder, Casey, and Brian Gran. Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 67, no. 1, 2005, pp. 263–264. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3600154.
  5. Williams, Timothy, and Alan Blinder. “Alabama Senate Set to Take Up Bill Effectively Banning Abortion.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/us/abortion-law-alabama.html.
  6. Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” The Feminist Papers: from Adams to De Beauvoir, by Alice S. Rossi, Northeastern University Press, 1988, pp. 44–58.
  7. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Harcourt, 1989.

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