Generally, anthropology focuses on global issues, particularly regarding discussions focusing on maternal death rates. However, I want take a step back and focus on rates of maternal death in the United States – the richest country in the world.
I hope to provide a contrast between the liberal feminism that is controlling discourse and true intersectionality.
Women in the United States are dying of childbirth at rates higher than any other industrialized country in the world. While global rates of maternal deaths have decreased, rates in the United States have increased to the point where the US ranks above poorer countries including Iran, Vietnam, Romania and Russia.
Black women are hit particularly hard, with 4 times the rate of maternal deaths than white women. Poor women are more likely to die from childbirth than wealthier women, but black deaths outnumber white deaths at all income levels. This is likely due to the fact that across all incomes, black men and women receive different care than their white counterparts – including disparities related to pain management.
One doesn’t have to think hard about how such disparities in pain management may impact women who are giving birth quite painfully.
Although black women don’t experience a higher rate of deadly conditions such as hypertension, embolism, infection and chronic medical conditions, black women are more likely to die from them. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act, there are still enormous gaps between the poor and better off in terms of access to quality health care. Because black women are more likely to be poor than white women, they are more likely to delay prenatal care or not initiate it all. Racism plays a huge factor in maternal deaths as it affects both access to care and quality of care, and this factor is magnified when intersected with poverty.
In case you need a reminder, the United States has the highest gap between high and low incomes than any other industrial country, and that gap has been growing steadily since the Bush administration.
There is another theory posited by health professionals for the rise of maternal deaths in the United States: the obesity epidemic. Many maternal deaths are being driven by heart problems and other chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, which has increased sharply in the US population. Thus, researchers are theorizing that the modern obesity epidemic is helping to increase maternal deaths in the United States, and obesity is often correlated with poverty – which of course is more likely to affect black women and other women of color.
Let us be clear – even without the much higher incidences of maternal deaths among black women, the United States still falls behind every other industrialized country in terms of maternal deaths. So racism in and of itself cannot be blamed for the increases in maternal deaths in the United States.
Despite this alarming trend in women’s health, feminism, particularly liberal mainstream feminism, is basically silent on the issue of maternal death. The very movement created to improve the lives of women has let down pregnant women, particularly pregnant black women. Here are my theories as to why:
Reproductive Rights are focused on abortion, birth control, and are consistently diverted into the rights of fetuses versus women.
This isn’t entirely the fault of feminism. Women in the United States are in a protracted battle to differentiate between the bodies of women and the fetuses they carry. In this conversation, the safety of women is often only addressed in terms of the right for her to abort due to health reasons. At its very essence, the focus on the rights of fetus erases female bodies and thus de-prioritizes the issue of maternal death and prioritizes the “murder” of fetuses. This conversation takes women’s bodies and the risk of childbirth out of the equation as women always become secondary to the “rights” of fetuses. Feminist need to find a way to fight for abortion rights while also addressing the deaths of women who choose to bring pregnancies to term. Right now, anti-choicers are dominating the language used to construct discussions of female reproduction and pregnancy, and thus such discussions will never prioritize women’s bodies.
Black women’s reproduction, along with black women’s bodies, continue to be devalued in a racist, sexist society
Traditionally, black women were never able to truly own their bodies or their reproduction. This was most obvious in slavery, but after emancipation white men continued to get away with raping black women because black women were considered both over-sexualized and sub-human – so their bodies were attributed to be of the least value in our society, and thus expendable.
Black reproduction has further been demonized thanks to the myth of the Welfare Queen. The structure of white supremacy continues to view black women’s reproduction as a drain on the US economy, while rich white girls such as Bristol Palin are applauded for bringing their unplanned teen pregnancies to term. White supremacy continues to view black female bodies as “less” than those of white women, as demonstrated in the racist insults hurled at Serena Williams. It is no wonder that black women’s bodies and reproduction are of least concern when accessing quality healthcare – and thus have dramatically higher maternal mortality rates than white women.
Because racism is woven into the very fabric of our society, many people, including feminists, have no doubt internalized the aforementioned racial aspects of reproduction to a certain degree. Furthermore, because of this intimacy of racism in our society, cultural movements still unintentionally overlook inequities caused by race, accounting for the lack of concern specifically related to the particular high rate of maternal death among black women.
A very good example of this is the organization of the Women’s March, which in the beginning somehow managed not to include any women of color.
Modern Western liberal feminism, which controls current feminist discourse, does not adequately address capitalist structures of oppression
In the intersection of capitalism, race and health, poor women and black women lose. I include “poor women” because while working in an abortion clinic, women of all races and ethnicities came to get abortions for the insane reason that they would lose their jobs if they carried their pregnancy to term. This is an absolute travesty, as these women stated that otherwise they would have carried their pregnancy to term.
Capitalism is thus maintained by this feminization of poverty, including within the US, which creates a hierarchy in which the health of pregnant women remains at the bottom because control of women’s bodies is what keeps profits high. To actually acknowledge the special needs of pregnant women within the workforce, companies need to view women’s bodies as more than a means of exploitation. This is the basis of Republican’s refusal to grant any real maternity leave. And intertwined in this exploitation is the fact that the VERY INDUSTRY THAT PROVIDES CARE has historically discriminated against pregnant women. The Affordable Care Act banned insurance companies from only including maternity care at an insanely high cost, but this could be overturned by the Trump administration. The message is clear: pregnant women are a pain in the ass of capitalism.
Liberal Feminism, unfortunately, does not truly do anything to radically change the capitalist structure of the US. Instead, liberal feminists focus on individual empowerment, work to entrench prostitution as actual legitimate work, and promote one-dimensional reflections of womanhood by using hypersexuality and pop stars as feminist empowerment – the very base on which the capitalist establishment depends.
Modern feminism is now controlled by trans feminism, which upholds the patriarchy by insisting on erasing women’s biology
In trans feminism and trans dogma, women no longer get pregnant, people do. Trans women and women-born-women are viewed as exactly the same, and it is now acceptable to tone down discussion of women’s reproduction and biology so as not to “trigger” trans women (recall all the accusations of “cissexism” regarding the Women’s March’s focus on reproduction). Furthermore, the tiny percentage of trans men who end up getting pregnant (with the female reproductive system) apparently cannot bear to hear the term “woman” without being triggered, so we must also erase reference to the VAST majority of the class that gets pregnant – women. Women are expected to maintain the gender identity feelings of a tiny few at the expense of the language best used to describe and address their own actual, material health.
In trans identity politics, women are expected to transcend biology and replace it with the idea of innate gender identity. No longer is someone a woman due to biology – they are a woman simply because they “feel like one.”
Except this isn’t the reality women face as they continue to die from pregnancy and giving birth. Trans women don’t get pregnant, and the fact that they don’t ever have to worry about death from pregnancy or childbirth is a male privilege they refuse to acknowledge or allow women to acknowledge without labeling them transphobic TWERFS. Women are suffering and dying from pregnancy and childbirth in the US in increasing numbers, and the very movement created to address such female issues is being cleansed of women and females as a distinct, biological class with their own needs and concerns.
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All of this is unacceptable.
It is unacceptable that the Christian Right has been allowed to frame childbirth and pregnancy in a manner always prioritizing the fetus. This is why women’s marches, rallies and gatherings need to continue to center reproductive rights, including the right to reproduce without dying. Liberal feminists fail to understand the importance of controlling female reproduction in a patriarchy, thus siding with the trans activists who criticized women’s focus on their reproduction in the Women’s March.
Racism must be addressed more directly in all strains of feminism, at all levels. Feminists must re-appropriate the original definition of the term “intersectionality” to mean the inclusion of black women and WOC, and the unique way in which racism and classism exacerbate most issues considered oppressive to women. Even after the Women’s March, white women continued to get offended at black women calling out this erasure of racism within feminism. Feminism cannot truly unite women or function as an intelligent movement if it refuses to acknowledge the experiences unique to women of color and poor women.
Feminists must open their eyes to the ways in which liberal feminism colludes with the intersection of capitalism and the patriarchy to keep women’s health marginalized. Liberal feminism does not have the tools to adequately address the complex issues of maternal death, and thus needs to be abandoned. I see some hope of this through my adventures in the blogosphere as many excellent bloggers critique the limitations of liberal feminism.
Lastly, feminism must relegate trans issues back to an offshoot, not the center, of feminism, to an intersection that does not define or steal language away from women. As I mentioned above, women need to gain control of the language used to frame the overall debate on women’s reproductive rights. But we cannot win the war of language if male-bodied individuals are the ones deciding what language is permissible, deciding how women should frame their views of themselves as women within the very movement created to serve them. Nor can we neutralize language that could be used to unite entire demographics in order to appease the “male gender identity” of a small percentage of individuals. Language is very important to the momentum of gaining human rights, and changing language to appease trans activists is doing nothing to benefit women.
Second-wave feminism and its achievements in reproductive rights is proof that progress is truly made when women focus the feminist movement on women, refusing to accommodate the feelings and needs of men, male bodies, and concepts of masculinity.
And the limitations of second-wave feminism are a warning to take heed of the ways in which racism and classism intersect to uniquely impact poor women and women of color within the white supremacist patriarchy – and how ignoring such impacts only serves a chosen few.
If feminists really want to focus feminism on empowering women, fighting for their right not to die in childbirth would be a good start. Perhaps if this issue actually received the attention it deserves, society may actually come to a solution.