Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Goodbye cramps, hello Brave New World.

There are feminists who have come to the conclusion that women cannot be valued equally because of their biological and anatomical differences from men. The fact that we ovulate, that we menstruate, that we bear children, they say, prevents us from being full participants in society.

The logical solution, it seems to me, would be to create a society in which these unique aspects of femininity are regarded as natural, and valuable: where our femininity is respected as something powerful, where fertility and menstruation is seen a part of that power, and not merely an annoyance for women, and an impediment to men being able to get sex on demand--where childbearing is a gift, and not an excuse to discriminate against women in or out of the workplace. Where childrearing (whether of one's natural or adopted children) is actually valued as a contribution to society at large. Where we work around our bodies and not against them. Where women can be valued as whole women.

Women like Mary Wollstonecraft understood this.

Unfortunately, many leaders in the feminist movement during the late 20th century preferred a different course. They could have demanded that men respect us on the basis of our femininity. Instead, they chose to tell women to repress those characteristics which distinguish us. The most important of these have been menstruation and child bearing. (Visual attractiveness seems to still be acceptable). It is pretty much expected that every modern, progressive, forward-looking woman will be using some sort of artificial birth control, "The Pill" being the most effective and convenient method devised so far.

Now we're working on eliminating those pesky little periods.

Recently, BCP's that shorten periods to three days, or that limit women to one period every three months or so have become available. Now, the FDA has approved a pill that can (potentially) get rid of periods for good.

The ideal end result? A lot of sexy, infertile, nonmenstruating women who can have sex any time--with no disgusting bleeding, no PMS, and no pesky little mouths to feed later! Sounds like some chauvinistic fantasy to me. (Except for the fact that hormonal birth control decreases female libido. Rats. They'll have to do something about that....)

If we're so disgusted with our own bodies that it becomes a handicap, even just one week out of the month, how can we women expect to have the positive outlook and confidence needed to contribute to society?

Come to think of it, if men find our natural biology so disgusting, they have no business expecting us to want know.

There are a number of very good reasons to leave our periods alone.

In the first place, ovulation, pregnancy and menstruation are not diseases, and therefore do no need to be "cured". A healthy cycle is a sign of overall good health and hormonal balance. Just ask women who have difficulties with infertility and irregular or painful periods. Often these problems are traced to other health issues, such as unhealthy body weight, poor diet, extreme stress, or serious physical illness. Or aging and menopause. Generally speaking, being in touch with one's female cycle allows one to discover if there is something wrong with her health. Deprived of this biological indicator that all is well, we are less likely to be aware if a reproductive problem develops. We have to know what is usual for our bodies before we can detect any unusual problems. If a woman has reproductive problems, one would think that the best thing to do would not be to suppress the menstrual cycle, but rather to trace any abnormalities to their roots, to cure any illness at its source and maintain overall health.

Add to this the fact that healthy hormonal balance during our cycles is a huge part of maintaining our general health. This is why osteoporosis is such a big issue with postmenopausal women, and even younger women whose hormones are out of balance. Think about that before you take a pill that essentially gives you artificial menopause.

In the second place, the attitude that female biology is somehow an impairment, a disease, or a disability is, in my opinion, unhealthy if we are going to raise our daughters with a sense of feminine empowerment. We cannot raise girls who are confident in their futures if we teach them the lie that the quality their lives will limited by their biology. We cannot raise girls to be comfortable in their own bodies if we teach them that their natural biological functions are dirty or inconvenient. We cannot raise girls to become sexually healthy women if we teach them that men are mindless, drooling sex fiends, and that they must make themselves the same by removing the power of their fertility from the sexual equation. Simply put, we cannot demand that men respect our fertility and stop taking us for granted as mere sex objects if we do not respect our fertility ourselves.

Thirdly, and related to my second point, repressing female fertility is more likely to create a world where women are oppressed because of their natural biology--not less. It is already expected that professional women (especially those in high-powered positions) not allow motherhood and childbirth to interfere with their work, precisely because we have birth control pills and abortions to prevent or eliminate any "little inconveniences". If a woman in an executive position goes on maternity leave, this is more likely to count against her than ever, because others in her profession, rather than viewing this as a natural part of life, may look down upon her for not having the so-called good sense to prevent or terminate her pregnancy. This can also be the case on college campuses, which do not usually have on-campus day care services, and contain institutional prejudices against mothers in other areas of campus life as well. (See, for example, this post about pregnancy-based discrimination in the NCAA)

Imagine what will happen if the cultural standard shifts to where it is expected that menstruation be suppressed as well. What are presently small inconveniences for most women (extra trips to the restroom, extra purchases at the drug store, minor physical discomfort, etc.) could eventually become markers for social and workplace discrimination in a culture that expects women to take care of the "problem" with a pill. ("Well, you should have thought about that when you decided not to take birth control. I don't care if you had an ovarian cyst rupture and a trip to the emergency room, you'd better be in the office tomorrow!")

One of the best things that could possibly happen for American culture would be a renewed respect, and even reverence, for authentic femininity, fertility included--respect for the power of the female body to nurture new life--respect for the process that may create new life, and respect for what that means for adults when such new life comes into being.

In short, a greater respect within the culture for the dignity of all persons is what women need. Not a pill that gets rid of a few cramps and saves us a few dollars on tampons.

Related Posts:
Freedom means Not Menstruating, Alive and Young
Against Nature, Modern Commentaries
A Glimmer of Hope, Modern Commentaries

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