Women as poultry. We’re used to the images: chick, bird, mother hen, old crow. And now, more soberly, more eerily: canary. This is the bird sent ahead of the workers in the coal mines. If she died, that meant poisonous gases escaping, a forewarning of grave danger, a sign to take action, the claxon to evacuate quickly.
When mainstream media in the West began to report on the plight of Afghan women after September 11, these grim reports were not news to people who had for months been learning of them on feminist websites. But because it was women who were, mostly, the ones affected by the confiscations of freedom in Afghanistan, hardly anybody noticed. Only a few alert souls understood that women’s suffering was a harbinger of what would befall the whole planet. The erosion of women’s rights should have been an immediate signal—a kind of Distant Early Warning line—that other freedoms would soon be under siege as well. But savvy journalist Tom Freidman announced on national television, in the thick of the West’s revulsion at how women were treated under the Taliban, “We just weren’t paying attention.” In fact, women were the birds suffocating in treacherously dangerous mines (in this context, read burqas, or caves).
This issue of LILITH explores some of the ways we—as Jews, as women—respond to this world which had almost succeeded in cleansing itself of women, at least in public spaces.
In the wake of the cover story in the previous issue of LILITH —on the growing market for Jewish women’s eggs for in-vitro fertilization—I’ve been hearing from a whole range of individuals about when—or even whether—Jewish women should have children. The ads in college papers offering up to $25,000 for the eggs of young Jewish women, the trigger to my article last fall, have opened up a discussion about fertility and its opposite.
“Why would I want to quit my job and have a kid now?” a married woman in her late twenties asked me last week. “Why are you defining pregnancy and childbearing as the default position, the norm?” challenged another. Obviously, whether or not to conceive is an utterly personal choice. But to be able choose intelligently, we’ve got to have the facts. These include an understanding, made even more clear to me in the conversations I’ve had since the article was published, that technology has a long way to go before women will be able to routinely conceive, and maintain a pregnancy, well into their forties. Despite all the much-trumpeted advances in reproductive science, it is still dramatically easier for most women to get pregnant and have a child before age 40.
Certainly not every woman has to—or should—become a mother. The young woman who railed against seeing pregnancy as the norm was right—we have struggled for decades as feminists not to have women valued for reproductive capacity alone. But for women who do want to have children, it’s urgent that the facts emerge out of the hype.
I’m hearing the worries about increasing numbers of infertile “older” (that is, post-35) Jewish women not as part of some dreaded demographic dip for Jewish population as a whole, but as personal disappointment—even anguish—for the women involved. This is an evolution of sorts from the cries, heard in the 70s and 80s, about a shrinking Jewish population in North America. Now it’s the needs of women themselves at center stage, not some abstraction of “the Jewish community.”
I cannot believe I am still having to articulate this, but maybe each generation has to hear it anew: For women to consider having their children younger (and Jewish women, if they have children, have them later than the norm), they must have assurances that they won’t have to choose (as men do not have to choose) between having a career and having a family. Community institutions do have an essential role to play here— in supporting with quality Jewish childcare the children who are being born. And publicizing this so that women who want to conceive aren’t faced with one of a constricting number of choices—quitting work to care for the child or, if partnered, having one’s partner do the same; re-jigging work schedules so that each partner works a shift of child care each day; hiring a private (and expensive) caregiver for the child; finding affordable and reliable group day care.
The solutions emerging—not because the Jewish community wants women to make more babies, but because women themselves are so uneasy over the specter of infertility—is for the Jewish community to help lessen the anxieties of people who want to become parents. The most direct way to help is by providing childcare supports. Women (and men) are not going to leave the workplace so readily, nor can many of them afford to, nor afford a private babysitter or nanny, nor would some choose to (“Why would I want to hire a woman who must leave her own children in order to take care of mine? Many of us feel uneasy with those class and often racial issues,” admitted a woman who says she’ll wait until she’s in her thirties before she and her husband consider having a child.)
How about quality childcare, and enough of it in every underutilized Jewish building—synagogues, community centers, office buildings? I have to tell you that I choke to see that this need is surfacing—unmet—again! If young women should be encouraged to have their children in their relatively most fertile years, they have to be supported by a community taking childrearing seriously as a shared endeavor. And how about showcasing men as well as women in parenting roles? Both these pretty obvious suggestions used to be put forth at least once a week when I first began lecturing across the country more tiian 20 years ago! Now that women have greater earning power than ever before, this may be the time to leverage some of this economic clout to encourage Jewish organizations to meet these needs.
And women’s groups need to make sure that we aren’t afraid of the facts. About how fertility for women diminishes significantly, year by year, between 25 and 40. Not all things are possible to us, or not without great personal and financial cost. Sometimes I hear that this sounds like a reversal of feminist gains. The facts, in this case, have no politics. One specialist in in-vitro fertilization at New York University Medical Center told me that when he posts statistics on his website about how difficult it is for women to “keep” a pregnancy after age 40, he is accused of being sexist, of wanting to keep women barefoot and pregnant. He counters: “the best cure for infertility is prevention.”
There is other—hidden—political fallout from women’s increasing infertility that few have recognized until now. The most stalwart soldiers in the marches for abortion rights have been women who themselves have had to terminate a pregnancy. But here’s what I heard the last time I wrote in these pages about abortion rights: “Honestly, Susan, I believe in what you say, but for me and for most of the women I know,” said a friend in her late thirties, “our biggest worry is not an unwanted pregnancy but just trying to gel pregnant.” With infertility anxiety so high on the agenda, the reproductive rights movement loses the attention of women who understand in their guts (or their wombs) what it is like to have an unwanted pregnancy and no way to terminate it.
The right wing is once again lobbying powerfully against a woman’s right to choose. At the same time, Jewish women, once in the forefront of this movement, may now be more worried about their own fertility than over a threatened seizure of reproductive freedoms generally. However ardently we might support abortion rights and other reproductive freedoms intellectually and politically, unless there are women who understand in a quite personal way that safe and legal abortions must be safeguarded, there won’t be the emotional energy to fuel a newly urgent abortion rights struggle.