Book Review: Women on Strike—A Birth Strike

Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work, by Jenny Brown (PM Press, 2019).

More than 120 years ago the American Federationist, the newspaper of the American Federation of Labor, printed an editorial denouncing the entry of women into the trades. One of its many nuggets of misogyny was this: “The wholesale employment of women in the various handicrafts must gradually unsex them.”

That term was probably as unclear then as it is today, but if unsexed means women today are declining to pursue “nature’s dearest impulse” (another of the article’s nuggets), then we are indeed unsexed, because there’s a birth strike going on.

It seems the more we labor outside the home, the less we engage in that other form of labor—childbirth. Women may still be barely visible in the trades, but our wage work has become an essential part of the economy.

THE ECONOMICS OF REPRODUCTION

The political economy of our role in production and reproduction and our rejection of the double burden is the subject of Jenny Brown’s Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work (PM Press, 2019).

Brown, a former co-editor of Labor Notes, begins by citing the declining birth rate in the United States—currently 1.76 births for every two people. Population politics are an essential part of this book, and the U.S. has gone from panic about overpopulation in the 1970s to fear that we won’t replace ourselves now. Elite thinkers, says Brown, are concerned that shrinking population brings a shrinking economy, which is not good for business.

So are corporations and government encouraging women to have more babies? In a way. They’re making it hard not to have babies, by failing to cover birth control and restricting access to it and by making us run a gauntlet to get an abortion—in many places today abortion is impossible or prohibitively expensive. Forced pregnancy appears to be their policy.

But having children is increasingly difficult, with no mandated paid family leave, inadequate health coverage, and very expensive childcare. In fact, the high cost of raising kids on flat incomes is the main reason women are avoiding pregnancy in unprecedented numbers. That’s why Brown calls it a birth strike.

She contrasts the U.S. with the rest of the world, where most of the wealthier countries make it much easier to work and have kids. She zeroes in on Germany, France, and Sweden. There, punitive policies that made it difficult to avoid pregnancy failed, so governments incentivized childbirth by providing what they call a social wage. This includes free childcare, paid family leave and sick leave, paid vacations, pensions, and universal health care. So why doesn’t the U.S. do the same?

NO MORE FAMILY WAGE

Brown spends much of the book explaining why and offering some solutions. As men’s wages slid downward in the 1970s, more and more women joined the workforce. Previously many men earned enough to support a family without a wife working. That was called a family wage. For the working class, that’s now a relic of the last century. Rather than expanding benefits so women could work and families could still support having kids, employers were intent on busting unions and lowering their labor costs.

Once in the workforce, women found both economic independence and the double shift, which turned having more kids into real drudgery. So they stopped or slowed down. While this “birth strike” is not a conscious, declared strike, the decline in the birth rate has corporate and government elites concerned. They’re caught in a contradiction of their own making: their individual profit maximization schemes conflict with the need to reproduce the labor force for the future.

Besides, many fear economic stagnation, which a declining population will bring, and some fear the disappearance of the white majority. What’s the alternative?

WHY PAY FOR WORKERS IF YOU CAN GET THEM FREE?

It’s pretty clear that most employers do not want either to pay for reproduction directly or to be taxed like the Europeans to pay for a social wage. Not U.S. employers. Why do that when women’s labor (in both senses) reproduces the workforce free of charge?

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So most corporations are not vocally opposing the push by the pious and patriarchal to overturn Roe v. Wade or Hobby Lobby’s efforts that saved that company from obligatory coverage of birth control.

Brown rejects the usual explanation for opposition to abortion and birth control: that right-wing religious prudes and zealots are out to control women’s bodies. Rather, she says, the goal of the plutocrats who run this country is an ever-expanding workforce—raised with a minimum of public spending. So making it difficult for women to avoid pregnancy makes some sense.

Birth Strike puts class back in the discussion about the rights of women. I’ve been waiting a long time for this book, at least since the working class women’s movement got swamped by the glass-ceiling climbers, and we lost what momentum we had for free childcare, paid leave, and a host of measures that could have helped us work and have kids without mega-doses of stress and fatigue.

Instead we’ve blamed the attacks on women’s liberation since the 1970s on fundamentalists, patriarchs, white supremacists, political opportunists, and just plain woman haters. We have left out an analysis of the needs of capital in maintaining a reserve army of labor and divisions within the working class by gender, plus their real distaste for paying for what Marxists call the production and reproduction of the workforce. Yes, this is a Marxist analysis, and Brown takes on the theoretical opponents of working women’s rights from Thomas Malthus through Anthony Comstock to Pat Robertson, giving us a history of efforts to control women’s reproductive freedom through its many contradictory phases.

CANNON FODDER

She goes beyond the economics of work and family to discuss race and how elites want the labor of people of color but fear their numbers, even resorting to forced sterilization. The chapter on militarism is called “Cannon Fodder” and discusses the shortage of it these days as well as the cost of empire to our population.

But if the birth rate is so low, there’s always immigration—or is there? Again, elites want immigrants’ labor but don’t want more people of color.

So the book isn’t just about women and reproduction. It’s much more about the relationship between reproduction and population management to achieve economic growth, which is essential for the survival of a capitalist system. But women are at the center, and it all comes back to our rights and our liberation, and ultimately our power.

So how can we turn this “strike” into one that can win some demands? Brown says women don’t recognize our own power. Her recommendation harks back to the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s: consciousness-raising to develop women’s class consciousness.

Brown is a graduate of consciousness-raising and understands how it created the women’s movement back then. She says we need to understand that people aren’t poorer because they have more kids than they can afford; they’re poor because they’re not properly compensated for bearing and raising children.

I have been recommending this book to union women I know, but I wish Brown had gone further to develop the strategy to win this birth strike by making it a conscious campaign for gains for working women. How could consciousness-raising occur in a broad way? How do we then create a movement, and do we do so through our unions? Since such a small percentage of the workforce is organized, is demanding a social wage or something similar a good organizing demand in workplaces dominated by women, or is it a political demand to be won through legislation, or both?

Judy Ancel is a Kansas City labor educator. She produces the Heartland Labor Forum, a weekly radio show, and is on the leadership team of Kansas City Jobs with Justice.