“How can men be mothers! How can some kid who isn’t related to you be your child?” She broke free and twisted away in irritation.
“It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. 'Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers.”
An exchange between Connie and Luciente in
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy
Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time presents the reader with a feminist utopia from the future. A world in which class, racism and gender have been eradicated, and where the nuclear family has been brushed aside in favour of a setup best described by the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child.” Babies are grown in artificial wombs called ‘brooders’. Parents are universally referred to as ‘mothers’. If a mother that is sexed-male wants to breastfeed, they can take hormones and make it possible. Children are assigned three mothers, but the community as a whole is expected to be responsible for a child’s welfare and education (due to a centuries-old ecological crisis and the breakdown of large cities, these communities are, in fact, literal villages.)
This is the world that Connie, an impoverished Latina woman from present day New York, is thrown into. Despite utterly harrowing conditions in her own time, she initially reacts with disgust and horror at its strangeness. She believes, as so many believe, that there is a natural order to things: that motherhood is something inherent to people with the biological apparatus necessary to bear children. That to be a woman means to be caring and to be a man means to be strong, even violent. This is the all-pervasive, cultural ideology that underpins everything from macho bullying to rape and victim-blaming culture (‘boys will be boys’ so it’s up to women to stay out of the way).
Piercy’s novel very persuasively demonstrates the harm of a gendered world underwritten by class inequality (most starkly when Connie, back in our own time, is admitted into a mental institution for attacking a pimp who is violently trying to force her niece into having an abortion), but most of all it challenges us to think: is the abolition of gender (and by proxy the nuclear family) possible, and what would it look like?
The central premise of Woman on the Edge of Time is that it is not possible to build a truly equal society without decoupling women from child-bearing and child-rearing. As socialist feminists, we believe that misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are rooted, to a very large degree, in the gendered division of labour: the division of women predominantly into ‘reproductive’ care-work, initially in the home but increasingly in low-paid, caring professions, and men into the productive sphere. This gendered division of labour rests at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. It, in turn, stems historically from the fact that it was women, and only women, who could bear children and breastfeed.
Real-life brooders aren’t yet available to us, and although billions are being invested into their development (for the purpose of bringing very premature babies to term, not getting rid of pregnancy altogether), it seems unlikely they’ll be made widely available any time soon. And yet, the argument Piercy makes is quite convincing - for as long as ‘womanhood’ is so closely tied to 'motherhood’ and women are required to bear the onerous (physically, mentally, socially) responsibilities of pregnancy, child-birth and breastfeeding alone, can we really hope to entirely abolish the cultural baggage surrounding woman/motherhood? Surely, in such circumstances, there will always be ‘genders’ of a sort?
All is not lost, however.
For one thing, we should not accept - cannot accept! - that motherhood need always be as physically and mentally taxing as it is now. In some senses, we’ve seen significant progress on that front already. Far fewer women die during pregnancy now than in times past, but the current era of cuts to NHS services, children’s centres, nurseries and schools means that we’re taking some big steps backwards. Most accounts of motherhood tell of severe loneliness and isolation; a phenomenon that is only getting worse as cuts bite. And it is this isolation that makes it so difficult for women to resist their lot. If their only regular human interaction is with a small child and possibly a partner, then subverting gender and motherhood seems like a very tall order.
We must set ourselves the task of not just halting these attacks and reversing cuts (though that’s an important starting point!), but of re-valuing care-work and creating the conditions in which it is shared out in a more just and equitable way, liberating carers of all genders. This will include:
1. A shorter working week, probably substantially so, so that everyone has more time to undertake caring responsibilities, whether for their own children or for other members of their community; universally-available flexible working hours and expanded maternity and paternity leave.
2. High pay for care-work, which in turn implies high union density among care-workers and strong, militant trade unions alive to questions of feminism and gendered oppression.
3. Community-centred care networks, not necessarily based around heterosexual nuclear families. For many, family networks don’t exist or cannot provide the support necessary for raising children. And even if they could, what is there to suggest that kinship networks are innately better equipped for the task than communities based on solidarity and comradeship?
Redistributing care-work would also mean eliminating the gender-coding of caregiving activities, so that men feel able to perform them too, free of social stigma, and women are free to give them up without feeling like they’re failing. And so we’re faced with a chicken-and-egg style problem: how do we fight for and build a society that overthrows the gendered division of labour without deconstructing gender - and how can we deconstruct gender without changing the material reality that underpins people’s gendered identities?
In her article ‘After the Family Wage: A Postindustrial Thought Experiment’(1994), Nancy Fraser argues:
“The trick is to imagine a social world in which citizens’ lives integrate wage-earning, caregiving, community activism, political participation, and involvement in the associational life of civil society— while also leaving time for some fun. This world is not likely to come into being in the immediate future. But it is the only imaginable postindustrial world that promises true gender justice. And unless we are guided by this vision now, we will never get any closer to achieving it."
The point is that although gender is a social construct, it is not something that can simply be dismantled in our own heads. We cannot just think queerly and hope that our whole social order buckles at the knees. Nor should we sit and wait for a magnificent technological innovation like brooders to do the work for us. Rather, through the act of struggling against low pay and cuts to our services, against the public/private divide and archaic expectations of motherhood and family, we will tap away at the extreme notions of masculinity and femininity so widely misunderstood as natural. But we must understand as we do so, what we are aiming for: not just saving this or that service, or winning this or that strike, but a wholesale revolution against gender and everything that it stands for.