Are we women or are we incubators? An interview with MaryLou Singleton

Mary Lou Singleton

Who gives birth? The answer used to be: females. Today, it’s considered politically incorrect to say that it is women, specifically, who get pregnant and become mothers. Thus, in the name of inclusivity, a number of women’s reproductive health groups are changing their terminology in order to degender the language of birth. Several organizations now refer to “pregnant people,” “pregnant individuals,” and “birthing parents” instead. Feministing writer Jos Truitt recently demanded we “Stop saying and stop thinking that abortion is a women’s issue.”

Well, okay then! Degendering women’s issues — I mean, “people’s issues” — is way progressive. But what are the costs of doing that? What are we losing in erasing women from the language of such a fundamental aspect of female bodily reality?

Mary Lou Singleton, midwife, feminist, and reproductive sovereignty activist recently addressed this question, along with many others, in an open letter to the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA). The letter asks MANA to reconsider the revision of their core competencies to remove all references to women and mothers. I recently spoke with her about these events and her upcoming actions at MANA’s annual conference.

Susan: So explain to me the controversy with MANA.

Mary Lou: Last year, MANA issued new core competencies for midwives. This is the document for midwives that says what basic knowledge they must hold for competent care. The old-school competencies were very much woman-centered and centered around the Midwives Model of Care, which promotes “a midwife for every mother.” The word woman was in there over and over again, because the word “midwife” means “with woman.”

The new core competencies reflect changes in our culture. The transgender community approached MANA maybe 10 years ago and nothing came of it then. In the last few years, however, they were successful in convincing MANA to revise their core competencies and erasing the words “woman” and “mother.” There’s one place in the document where they reference the trademarked Midwives Model of Care and the word “woman-centered” is there, because that’s a trademarked phrase where they have to leave “woman” in. The rest of the document now says “pregnant individual,” “birthing parent,” and “birthing individual.” In several places the term “mother-baby” is used, but even “mother,” by itself, has been erased from the document.

So essentially, we’ve taken this quintessential female process of gestating and giving birth, which is something biologically that female members of the species do, and we’ve erased all reference to people of the female sex.

Susan: And what is the problem in doing this?

Mary Lou: Well, many of us who are people based in a biological understanding of the world, who are very concerned with the biocide all around us, the collapse of all the living systems around the world, feel that this is going along with that trend to further and further disconnect us from the biological world, as well as furthering the trend of erasing from our language the reality of what it means to female, the reality of biological sex, and the reality of sex-based oppression in a male-supremacist world.

Susan: Why is it important to talk about sex-based oppression in terms of political language?

Mary Lou: My driving goal in life is making the world a better place for girls and women. It’s about female liberation from male supremacy. Everything I do is an attempt to liberate females from this global system of male-supremacy that is oppressing female people all over the world. As someone who is a biology-based person (I am a deep ecologist), I believe in life and I believe we are creatures among creatures on a living planet. To me, “female” means the members of the species who reproduce, who produce eggs or ovum, and who are (as mammals) capable of gestating and birthing young. So to me, the definition of “woman” is an adult human female — an adult member of the female sex.

As someone who is interested in female liberation from sex-based oppression, it is incredibly important to me that we use language that describes that sex-based oppression. The system called patriarchy developed and continues to exist because when power is transferred through males, males have to control female bodies so that they can know who their children are, so that they can pass power to their children. So the root of all patriarchal oppression is the control of female biology.

Susan: In this patriarchal system invested in the control of women’s reproduction, what is the significance of erasing women from the language of birth?

Mary Lou: This system exists specifically because of biology. For the last 10,000 years, all over the world, the males of our species have, at various times, through colonization and imperialism, ensured that patriarchy spread globally. (There have been cultures that have only recently been turned into patriarchal societies, but it’s been going on a long time.) Males as a class are oppressing females as a class, and the basis of that is that our biologies are different.

So long as we have private property and a system that passes power through male lineage, males have to police and control female bodies. This is why we have systems where women don’t have legal control of their bodies. Women are viewed as state regulated incubators and it’s considered a worthy subject of debate whether or not female people should be forced to give birth against their will.

The erasure of women from the language of birth is further destruction of female power. Whether or not an individual woman chooses to reproduce, female biology is powerful. It’s what brings the members of our species here. And if you control the women, you control the population.

Do I think the board of directors of MANA and the activists who petitioned MANA to change their language are actively, consciously working to promote male-supremacy? No. I think that most people are ignorant of the system of male-supremacy, because it’s like how a fish is ignorant of the existence of water. We’re just swimming in it. Most people don’t ever step back and look at the culture and see how male-supremacist it is, and how entirely global it is.

Actually, when I was communicating with the Vice President of MANA, Sarita Bennett, over email last month, she told me that she doesn’t believe there is a global system of male-supremacy, and that those who do believe one exists have a “dysfunctional victim mindset.”

Susan: Wow.

Mary Lou: Yes. That’s proving my point that I don’t think this is conscious on their part to promote male-supremacy.

Susan: Is there a history of women and women’s anatomy being erased from language and the conceptualization of sexual reproduction?

Mary Lou: Absolutely. I mean we can look at the anti-abortion movement since the 70s — possibly even longer, since the women’s liberation uprising in the late 60s/early 70s that clamored for abortion rights, then with Roe v. Wade saying that abortion was legal and between a woman and her doctor — whenever women won abortion rights, the right wing began a huge campaign to erase women from language and focus on the fetus. They focused, instead, on the fertilized egg, the embryo, and the fetus, which they called the “baby,” when obviously it’s not actually scientifically a baby until it’s born. There’s a great Stop Patriarchy chant: “A baby’s not a baby till it comes out. That’s what birthdays are all about.”

But to the anti-choice crowd a fertilized egg is a baby, an embryo is a baby, a fetus is a baby. All of their literature is about these pictures of fetuses, these pictures of embryos saying, “I have a heartbeat at this many weeks.” “I have fingerprints at this many weeks.” And the woman is completely erased from the dialog. The only time the woman might be mentioned is when they use infantilizing terms like “mommy” — “Mommy don’t kill me!” Or sometimes they will call the pregnant woman a mother, when she’s not yet a mother. She’s a gestating female and she’s in the process of deciding whether or not to stay pregnant and she’s deciding whether or not to become a mother. Yet she’s put into this societal gender role of “mother” and this fetus is a “baby,” and never ever ever is the word “woman” mentioned. So there is an absolute erasure of women in the abortion debate on the right.

It was very much a calculated move on their part to erase women from the language of pregnancy and put their focus on “saving babies”… “Saving babies” by treating women like incubators, that is. “Saving babies” by forcing women to go through all the full physical and emotional risks of term pregnancies against their wills. “Saving babies” by enslaving women is the part of the conversation that’s never mentioned. And even in the liberal press, nobody calls them on that. The question isn’t: When does a fertilized egg become a human being? The question is: When does a woman stop being a human being and become a state-regulated incubator? So even on the left there isn’t a whole lot of advocacy for women as full human beings — full citizens with the right to bodily autonomy.

Susan: This more current erasure of the role of women in reproduction reminds me of the way it’s been done throughout history, all the way back to antiquity. For example, Aristotle said that men provide the seed for reproduction and women are merely the soil. The idea being that the man’s sperm does everything to create the baby and the woman is merely the space in which it occurs — an incubator.

MaryLou: And isn’t that just what we’re still saying? By saying that life begins at fertilization, we are essentially saying that life begins at ejaculation. That a baby is something a man ejaculates into a woman.

Susan: That’s fascinating.

MaryLou: Yes, they’re saying that it’s not something a woman creates with close to 10 months of physical labour — that’s what a baby is. A baby is a new human being that a woman creates over the course of 10 months of physical work. Life-begins-at-fertilization is saying that a baby is something that a man ejaculates into a woman and that woman is then obligated to bring that baby to term, because it’s a full human being at ejaculation. So… we haven’t progressed since Aristotle! [Laughs]

Susan: It’s as if men want to take credit for birth.

MaryLou: Yes, and women’s labour is made invisible all over the world. I mean, the world runs on the uncompensated labour of women. And that’s part of sex-based oppression. We have to be able to discuss that. In midwifery this is so important because midwifery is a place where women have authentic power. This is a woman’s tradition. It’s women’s work to give birth. You can’t think of a more woman-centered profession and reality than the place where we focus on gestation, birth, and early mothering.

That’s all about women. And to come in and steal that power and say, “That doesn’t belong to women, that belongs to individuals. This is an individual thing. There’s no such class of people called women who give birth.” That’s being taken from us. Now it’s just something that individuals do. And we need to look at what we lose when that happens.

An analysis of sex-based oppression is extremely important to midwifery. There is a normalization of brutal patriarchal violence in our birth practices and MANA is an organization that exists to liberate women from that. To liberate our birth practices and to end these practices that are so hard on women and our babies. We think we’ve made all this progress since the ’50s when they used to strap women’s hands and feet to the bed with leather restraints. We think, “Oh that’s so brutal. We’d never do that. We’ve come so far.”

But women are just as restrained in labour now as they were then. Think of that old book from the ’70s: “Friendly Fascism.” It’s done in a way now where people can’t see it. It’s done in a pink and blue monitor belt around women’s bellies that’s attached to a machine that’s on a short tether and it’s done in an IV in their arm — neither of which are evidence-based. Neither of which are necessary in the vast majority of births. Anyone who’s ever had an IV in a bed in a hospital understands how restraining that is to your movement. And to have these tight elastic belts with a uterine monitor and a fetal monitor — it’s actual called “fetal surveillance.”

Women are under constant surveillance by the authorities when giving birth. And that’s American birth. It’s very much a rite of passage in our technocratic, authoritarian, woman-hating culture. Most of them cannot tolerate birth under these conditions, most mammals. I mean, even your domesticated house cat would try to rip your face off if you did this to her during labour. But women are socialized through gender to be docile, to put everyone else’s needs first, to not trust ourselves, to trust the authorities more than ourselves, and so women put up with it. It’s a system of male supremacy doing this. I mean, thank god for technology when you need it, but the vast majority of women in our species can reproduce normally. But we don’t let anyone do it normally. This is about how we are treating women as a class. This is important to the liberation of women from sex-based oppression in birth practices, through midwifery.

Susan: So I understand MANA is having a conference starting on October 15th, what will you be doing there?

MaryLou: Well, I’m the reproductive sovereignty taskforce coordinator for the Women’s Liberation Front (WOLF). I’m also a MANA member. I sat on the board of directors of MANA in the late ’90s. I’ve been a midwife for a long time. I’m no longer currently practicing, but I’m a midwife. It’s who I am. I practice now as a nurse practitioner, but I’ll never stop being a midwife.

So, the members of WOLF decided we wanted to have a table at MANA. Michelle Smith, who is another WOLF member, and I decided we wanted to do this even before we found out the changes to the core competencies. We wanted to be there, recruiting and explaining women’s liberation to the women at the MANA conference. I applied for a table, and because I’m one the signers of the open letter to MANA asking them to reconsider their erasure of women from the language of birth, I was told that my presence and the presence of Women’s Liberation Front at the MANA conference would be “unsafe,” and that we couldn’t have a table there.

So we have decided, in the spirit of the time-honored tradition of many banned radical groups, that we’re going to have a suite at the hotel, which is the WOLF meeting room, where we’ll have materials and a place for women can come learn about radical feminism.

Susan: How can people get in touch with you if they want to visit you at the conference?

MaryLou: We’ll be there. We’ll have multiple WOLF members there, we’ll be handing out pamphlets, and we’ll have some speakers in our reception suite. Carol Downer, a long time women’s liberation activist, will be there. She helped set up underground abortion clinics when abortion was illegal. She’s one of the founders of the women’s self-help movement, helping women to learn about their anatomy and gather together in consciousness raising groups, reclaiming our healthcare. Carol’s group is Women’s Health in Women’s Hands. So she’ll have a table there that people can come to for information on where to find our room, because we won’t know until the day of the conference what room we’ll be assigned.

We’re also going to have Kathy Scarbrough, a longtime women’s liberation activist, speaking about some of the history of the women’s liberation movement, from her perspective, as someone who has been in this movement since the early ’70s. Kathy is also a reproductive biologist and will be on hand to discuss the difference between sex and gender, because that’s very much confused in the public discourse right now. She writes about this in a beautiful essay you can read, “Women’s liberation is based on sex, not gender.”

And I’ll be there talking about reclaiming abortion rights. We’ll have treats and food and all kinds of wonderful stuff and people can come join us.

Susan: Thanks for speaking with me today, MaryLou. I look forward to hearing developments on this historic issue.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.