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Monday, July 16, 2007

Punishment of "Disorderly" Women: More From the Annals

In the American state of Pennsylvania, the governor has just signed a much-overdue law making it legal for women to breastfeed their children in public places. Criminals no more!

Under the heading "Disrespectful moms," a newspaper letter-to-the-editor writer complains, "What about the people who don't want to see this?...One would think the mothers would have enough respect for those around them not to do this in public. Don't they think about how uncomfortable this might make people around them?"

The writer goes on to attribute support for the law to parents' belief "that they are better than the rest of us" and concludes: "It was their choice to have children; it's my choice not to care."

Now, it is true that some people who are parents do harbor feelings of moral superiority towards people who, whether because of choice or fate, are nonparents (alas, there is just no good word yet for that status, and that right there shows the unjust social exclusion and invisibility of human beings with said status). I for one wish that parents who feel morally superior about the mere fact of being parents would cease and desist from their judgmentality.

(For the record, I myself have one literal, biological child, but this fact in and of itself doesn't make me necessarily "better" than anyone else. Sheesh.

And people have actually faulted me for not having more! "Isn't that selfish of you?" Never mind my plethora of ethically sound reasons, never mind that it's been my call-and-the-Universe's all along, not theirs. So I can begin to empathize, if I may so presume, with nonparents who get far worse flak.)

And, anyway, aren't there many, many paths to living a good life, as many as there are human beings--and why shouldn't people whose paths don't involve literal or biological parenthood (why, pray tell, should everyone's have to?!) get any less respect than anyone else?

Unfortunately, the letter writer undercuts his/her own ethical basis for demanding respect as a nonparent/other-than-parent, through the very disrespect, judgmentality, and lack of compassion s/he expresses towards mothers who wish to nurse their babies in public without threat of legal retribution. If his/her choice is "not to care," then why should anyone care back?...Although, dare I assert, we should all care back, independently of what the letter writer does or doesn't do.

A deeply entrenched and still sadly popular attitude towards anyone, but especially a woman, who acts "out of order," especially in a sexual or reproductive sense, is this: "You Made Your Bed, Now Lie In It." It's grounded in the rationalization that anyone, especially a woman, who has done something "out of order," deserves any sufferings and struggles that ensue...

As if these negative things were all necessarily natural consequences, instead of the humanly preventable, socially constructed problems--often punishments and retaliations-- they really are. As if the criticizing individual or institution had no responsibility to find a better, more peaceful and reverent way to treat other human beings...But hey...why bother doing that when you can just wipe your hands clean and self-righteously intone, "Hey, ain't my problem!"

Examples of who gets hit with "You Made Your Bed, Now Lie in It":
  • Women who don't have children, even those who don't have biological children and/or oodles of them--"If people levy heavy judgments and pressures against you, why, that's just what you get because you're so selfish and unwomanly."
  • Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered persons--"Hey, if you get beaten up or killed, that's just what you get for not staying in the closet/undergoing 'reparation therapy'/just plain being the degenerate sicko you are."
  • Women who are single and/or conceive in other "unauthorized" situations-- "So what if everyone and everything points the finger at you and refuse to lift a finger to help? That's just what you have coming to you for having sex and/or becoming pregnant when you shouldn't."
  • Women who have abortions, often because they feel they have no choice, and who then hurt over the violence done to their own children, within their own sentient flesh--Antiabortion version: "Well, what do you expect, you babykilling slut, you were just asking for it!" Abortion-rights version: "Shut up, I don't want to hear about it, you are just whining and evading responsibility for your choice!" (Barbara Ehrenreich, whose writing I otherwise appreciate, once ordered women who have negative or ambivalent feelings over their abortions to get out of "the fetal position" and "take your thumbs out of your mouths.")
  • Women who breastfeed in public...well, in my view, that returns us to the abovementioned letter writer's reaction.....

Though I do have to wonder: What lies behind the letter writer's evidently acute discomfort at the sight of women breastfeeding their children in public? Is it some kind of disgust at women's bodies and sexuality, and/or at the reality that every human being alive once depended for life on a woman's own flesh?

And no, I'm not saying here that this disgust and denial must of course, by definition, lie behind the letter writer's nonparenthood. Not at all!

Rather, I am wondering (not decreeing) why the letter writer (or anyone else, nonparent or parent) might experience feelings of being intruded upon, disrespected and belittled by, the sight of the very activity that has peacefully made human survival and flourishing over millenia possible, even though it never gets much credit for this accmplishment.

One need not seek or arrive at parenthood for one's own self, let alone declare parenthood mandatory for all, to appreciate and honor that. And of all the publicly nursing moms I've ever seen--and way back in the day I used to be one myself--the vast majority do not scream "ha, ha, you inferior being!" at passing nonparents. They do not impose the sight of rudely waved-about nipples upon unwitting and unwilling passerby. They just feed their babies when and where the babies need to be fed.

Yet I (for one) have been called a "slut" by one perfect stranger, and ordered to "take it into the bathroom" by another, whom I wish I'd told, "Well, why don't you take your meals in the bathroom ?" Other women have been arrested for "indecent exposure."

Expanding respect for nursing mothers and babies need not equal expanding disrespect for those from other quarters of the human spectrum...Indeed, it's as integral to respect across-the-board as respect for nonparents, who by the way have made their own indispensible but little-recognized contributions to human survival and flourishing!

So, dear readers (if any), what are your thoughts here?

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