Birth Strike: A Review

Birth Strike, The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work by Jenny Brown


Reviewed by Colette Price

When a woman gives birth, she goes into labor, it’s work, usually hard work. At the end she delivers the product, a baby. It’s called (re)production.

When a worker goes to the job, it’s work, usually hard work. At the end he or she delivers a product (or service). It’s called production.

Both labors are necessary to the functioning of a society and you’ll notice the vocabulary for both is similar – but there the analogy ends.

Why is that, asks Jenny Brown in her recently published book BIRTH STRIKE: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work. Why is women’s labor – including the entire spectrum of what’s called “women’s work” – undervalued, unsupported, viciously restrained, and not given equal weight in the production/reproduction equation? Considering its importance to the functioning and continuance of a society, why isn’t childbearing, maternity leave, childcare, family leave, reproductive health care including access to abortion and birth control, not part and parcel of what would be seen as necessary to keeping society’s reproduction model in good working order?

Brown says to find the answer to that you have to look to who’s benefiting from keeping women’s work in this undervalued state. You have to investigate how they’ve managed to do it successfully for so long. Once you understand that, you’ll know how to defeat them.

The book, says Brown, started with the responses to a consciousness-raising question: “What are your reasons for wanting children? Reasons for not wanting them? Has your thinking changed?”

They came to “realize that among both groups – those that wanted children and those that hadn’t – neither group felt they could under present conditions”:

“I’d have to quit my job, because it’s more cost-effective than paying for infant childcare.”

“I don’t have maternity leave at my job, so I’d have to eat up my annual leave.”

“Why don’t I have them yet? The incredible amount of work I hear and see, tiredness…I feel like I do everything by myself.”

As the discussions evolved, it became clear these women weren’t having babies now and they weren’t planning on having babies in the near future. It became clear, says Brown, they were on strike – a Birth Strike. It seemed they were advocating for better working conditions!

Could it be that these women without individually being aware, but perhaps by inadvertent collective reckoning, were part of the cohort responsible for that falling birth rate which occupies many a news headlines these days, and for which politicians and world leaders are scurrying about trying to find solutions?

Brown’s investigation points out that in the face of falling birth rates, governments can go one of two routes. They can promote family-friendly policies like providing generous maternity and work benefits, free childcare, and flexible family leaves or they can go the coercive route of banning abortions, restricting birth control and putting in place otherwise punishing policies for women in the work force.

Several Western European countries provide extremely generous benefits to women in all stages of their procreative life. For example, Brown reports, “Swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of paid leave upon birth or adoption of a child – most of them at 80% of their pay.” I would bet that a good many Americans are more familiar with the fact that Western European countries are heavily taxed than with knowing the generous benefits and services those taxes buy. Meanwhile in the United States we are once again debating whether family leave is really possible.

Brown makes clear in her chapter on International Comparisons that whether a society is advocating for an increase in their population (by “family values” politicians such as Rick Santorum, who insists we get married, stay home and take care of our children, hopefully lots of them) or claiming a need for a decrease in population (as China did with its “One Child” policy) – what is essentially at core here is the manipulation of women’s reproductive role.

Who’s to Blame?

Brown goes on to punch holes in a good many of the most common theories that blame women’s role in reproduction for major societal ills. Take poverty, for example. We frequently take for granted the common sense understanding that the fewer workers there are in the work force, the higher their pay will be. And connected to that, we also absorb from society the stereotype of the “irresponsible” behavior of “lower class” women who reproduce at an alarming rate (often the same women denied access to abortion) and who keep the labor field flooded with workers, keeping unemployment rates high and wages low and contributing to a lifetime of poverty.

Brown brings us up to date with that financial argument, made back in 1776 by the “father of economics”, Adam Smith, who said “the survival of children controlled the price of labor.” She reminds us that a hundred years later Karl Marx came along and refuted that proposition. He argued instead that it was:

“the boom-and-bust cycle characteristic of capitalism which takes place every ten years or so, that was responsible… Corporate owners hire more people when there is paying demand for their products. When demand becomes slack, they lay them off… Instead of blaming the workers for having too many children, Marx blamed the tendency of capital to make more than it could sell.”

So is it the irresponsible reproduction by women that keeps us poor or the intricate workings of this unfair system – the poverty (wages) – that keeps us poor?

The Complexities of Immigration and Race

Brown also connects the struggle for reproductive freedom to the struggles around race and immigration. Along with the need to have a reserve army of workers available for industry’s shifting demands, we’re all familiar with the dictum that the ruling class needs lots of children to provide “cannon fodder” for its national expansion and imperial wars. It’s still true, says Brown, “along with a matching worry: the expense of recruitment.” She sums up a conservative’s dual concern: “Low-fertility societies…cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.”

In Chapter 7, entitled “Immigration: ‘Instant Adults'”, we find immigration described as the “American solution” to the employing class’s problem of low birth rates. But immigration is a double-edged sword, or a “complicated issue” as the employers put it. While providing so-called “instant adults” (meaning the receiving country has borne no expense for their bearing and rearing) as available as a “reserve work force”, immigration simultaneously sends off alarm bells. Protests against immigrants, declares Brown, are as similar and as prevalent today as they were centuries ago: “They’re disloyal, they bring foreign ideas, an alien religion, class conflict, crime, drugs, they won’t assimilate, they’ll come to outnumber ‘real Americans.'”

Similar complexities exist for race. With its roots back to slavery days, Black workers have been a source of free labor, with women’s reproductive functions highlighted as a major source of that wealth. Brown states, “Slave owners measured in money the reproductive work of the African women they enslaved. … Children became the property of the mother’s owner, and a valuable commodity to be sold to other slave-owners. … Enslaved people didn’t just generate wealth, they also were the wealth.” But at the same time that slave-owners wanted maximum reproduction, they also feared that Black people would become too numerous, rise up and overwhelm them – the double-edged sword again.

And lest we forget, while increasing reproduction was at times the desired effect, forced sterilizations also played an important role. The eugenics of the 1950s was mostly about “improving” the white race and hence certain undesirable white women had to be eliminated from the pool. However, in the era of increasing civil rights demands in the south, it wasn’t long before the sterilization of Black women became the unofficial policy among white Mississippi doctors. The radicals of the emerging feminist movement found themselves denouncing forced sterilizations while at the same time demanding abortion rights.

“One very important obstacle,” Brown points out, “to understanding the value of women’s childbearing and rearing work is the utter individualization of it throughout the American culture. While the whole society gains…women are made to feel like it’s an individual personal indulgence.” So don’t complain, the common wisdom goes, about stingy maternity benefits, little time to stay at home with your newborn, or the expensive childcare which will exist until your child enters school and then beyond. As the bumper sticker says, “Can’t feed ’em? Don’t breed ’em.”  

But rest assured that the employing class, while busy here furthering hostilities toward the poor with slogans such as these, is meanwhile loudly applauding the fact that women are bearing the brunt biologically, financially, and emotionally for all the new workers, cannon fodder and breeders who daily work to keep society’s wheels well oiled. Along with those who proselytize for small government and big families, they continue to encourage us to have more children, at our own expense.

What About Male Supremacy?

But Brown is so focused in this chapter on the restraints placed on women by government policy that she neglects to discuss the restraints placed on women by the power differential in the immediate family – between male and female partners. The ratio percentages of who does the majority of the housework in a family hasn’t shifted significantly in decades, along with deciding who stays home from work when the children are sick and who’s going to be responsible for the planning and care of aging parents. How many women in making career plans in their early life come to a point where they have to “tone it down” when contemplating how raising a family will fit into that narrative?

Perhaps it’s this aspect of women’s lack of power that sheds some light on the question of why even countries trying to institute more generous pro-natal policies see no significant change in birth rates. Explaining the falling birth rate in Turkey, The Economist reports, “Ask Turkish women about work and motherhood, and the response is a torrent of grievances. Husbands do little housework … Employers are unsympathetic.” Or take the example of Sweden, a Western European country with some of the most pro-natal programs in the world, which still had to, Brown writes “push fathers to do more child-rearing work through a ‘daddy quota.’ Three months of the paid leave can’t be transferred to the mother, which means the father has to use it or lose it. … There’s also a ‘gender equality’ bonus payment if the parents split the leave evenly between them.”  

Male privilege lives in all descriptive categories of those devaluing women’s labor, be it the boss, governmental policies, the ruling elite or one’s own male partner. It was a major argument in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement that had the socialist-feminists on one side of the debate with their insistence that the enemy was “the system” and the radical feminists on the other insisting it was “the man.” In 2019, women’s liberation activists need to come to appreciate that it’s both.

Bringing Consciousness Raising to Bear

To me the two most electrifying discoveries of Brown’s book were first, her opening introductory summation of the problem, and second, her elucidation that consciousness-raising was the means whereby we solve it. The introductory summation states:

“This book argues that the effort to block birth control and abortion in the United States is neither fundamentally about religion nor about politicians pandering to a right-wing base, nor is it a result of prudery, nor is it to punish women for having sex. It is about the labor of bearing and rearing children: who will do it and who will pay for it.”

When your analysis is clear about what’s at the bottom of an issue, when you see the problem for what it is, your struggle is focused, efficient and effective. The awareness that those in power are not really that concerned about your sex life or when fetal cells can feel things or any of the like, but are really out to control women’s reproductive ability and power, strengthens you. It allows you to proceed in a more determined and fortified way.

That’s where consciousness-raising comes in. An early tool of the Women’s Liberation Movement was a particular type of political meeting in which women go around the room answering a question about their lives and then compare the data and draw conclusions based on their testimony – like the conclusions Brown came to as the impetus for writing Birth Strike.

Awareness is a powerful weapon; there’s no going back from it. Once you know it, you know it. Such awareness excites anger and action – and well-directed action when the villains are correctly targeted. If, as the saying goes “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” imagine what’s unleashed by a movement of them.

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Jenny Brown is a National Women’s Liberation organizer who was a leader in the campaign that made the “morning-after pill” contraception available over-the-counter. She co-authored the Redstockings book Women’s Liberation and National Health Care: Confronting the Myth of America and wrote Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now. A former editor of Labor Notes, her work has appeared in Jacobin, Huffington Post, and Alternet.

Colette Price was an early member of Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement and an editor of the group’s 1970s book Feminist Revolution. A midwife in the Bronx for 30 years, she also trained midwives in Central America. She is presently involved in working for passage of the single-payer “New York Health Act.”


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