Monday, February 15, 2010

feminism and women as birthers

In Chapter One of Blessed Events, “Procreation Stories,” Klassen lays out the purpose of her study, the issues at stake, and the questions she hopes to answer. She frames the study within the context of childbirth in North America, where nowadays medicalized hospital birth is ubiquitous. She focuses on women who chose to birth (an intentionally active verb) at home because these women all share a strong conviction that childbirth is a natural process and not a disease.

Klassen points to two tensions that guide her exploration of the religious meanings these women ascribe to childbirth: “one, tensions between feminist and traditionalist appraisals of the symbolic meaning of birth, and two the kinds of agency afforded to or denied women as they derive religious meanings from childbirth.” (pg. 4) These tensions underlie much of my academic interest in the topic of childbirth, and I want to keep them in mind throughout my own exploration. In light of these tensions, Klassen gets at the crux of childbirth as an issue that implicates women as gendered and religious beings. This is important:

“does this supreme valuing of women’s roles as birthers and nurturers define women solely as procreators and caretakers, or does it open up new realms of cultural and social power for women?”

Scholars of gender studies and religious studies, as well as religious women themselves, have been asking this same question in different ways for a long time. It is a constant struggle in Jewish feminist discourse and practice. One the one hand, there is the traditionalist view, which essentializes women’s roles and, you could say, reduces them to baby-making machines. On the other hand, there is the feminist view, which obliterates separate gender roles and runs the risk of not recognizing or valuing real differences. When gender is completely ignored, male is still normative. For example, Jewish feminists want to increase women’s participation in ritual practices. Some women think the solution is to let women do everything that men already do. Men wear kippot (skullcaps)? Then women should start wearing kippot, they say. Other feminists argue that this egalitarian method just encourages women to be more like men. What about women’s specific needs that aren’t met by these rituals? Instead, they argue, we should create special rituals for women. But what would these rituals look like? Wouldn’t they just reinscribe the gender roles we’re trying to escape? If they are women’s rituals, how are we defining “woman,” and who are we excluding by that definition?

When you extend this reasoning to the question Klassen posed about valuing women’s roles as birthers and nuturers, you can imagine how complicated the answer is. In fact, I don’t think there’s a definite answer, but I think that for people invested in childbirth and feminism, this constant tension exists. I am eager to discover the conclusion Klassen reaches.

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