The inspiration for this post comes from two sources. First – today is International Women’s Day, a day most well suited for the discussion of issues related to gender equality, women’s rights, and the emancipation of women. Perhaps the emancipatory talk seems radical. Feminism is not a homogeneous critical stance; some feminists will be more radical than others. But we must recall that International Women’s Day – actually, International Working Women’s Day – began as a socialist political event, proposed by Clara Zetkin of the International Women’s Conference that was linked to the Second International; and so, the historical roots of this day recall the emancipatory struggle, and the need to overthrow capitalism. Second – it has been my intention since the recent inception of this blog to eventually discuss within it my thoughts on female egg cryopreservation. I owe this blog site in part to Dr. Françoise Baylis, of Dalhousie University, who recently gave a talk on the subject at a conference where I spoke at in Toronto – the Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference. Françoise used some of her time to impress upon us in the audience – mostly young graduate students and PhDs – the importance of blogging. A philosopher must today be a public intellectual, and the public are predominantly engaging with the diverse sea of varying opinions on the Internet. Ideas are only dangerous in numbers – or perhaps, zebra-like, we come under the protection of a shared formal reality against predation: stripes for zebras, emancipatory political realities for the underclasses (whatever your favoured class dichotomy).
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
These words, from the Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, are also inscribed on Marx’s grave. Françoise shares in this view of philosophy. After her talk, when pushed on the question as to whether the sorts of ethical quandaries which surface on her analysis of egg freezing could be resolved under a neo-liberal Capitalist democracy, she deferred commitment to any particular political ideology, but suggested an avowed belief in the demand placed on us to change the world.
Egg freezing is being sold to women as an instrument of gender equality. It places itself immediately at the intersection of competing feminist perspectives. Françoise gives seven arguments against egg freezing, in her original blog post (over here on Impact Ethics), which inspired the talk. Two of them speak directly to systemic social issues, which – I suggest – represent challenges that can only be met by a revolutionary feminist perspective, that recalls the historical unity of the workers’ and women’s movements. From this perspective, actual gender equality is possible only on the condition of an emancipatory politics that takes as its aim the struggle for the working class (the majority of whom, after all, are women). Those arguments are Françoise’s fifth and sixth:
Fifth, normalizing egg freezing does nothing to correct the fundamental social injustice experienced by women in the workplace who are effectively forced to choose between having a career and raising a family. This is not a choice demanded of young men. The working assumption is that they can be fathers and productive employees.
Sixth, providing women with the option of egg freezing does not meaningfully expand women’s choices because it does nothing to ameliorate the context in which they must make decisions. The social context, which does not assume that women can be mothers and productive employees, significantly (and inappropriately) constrains the options they get to choose between.
Dr. Françoise Baylis, “Left Out In The Cold: Seven Reasons Not To Freeze Your Eggs”
Both arguments treat autonomy as (legitimately?) delimited by socio-cultural constraints, echoing a conception of liberty similar to that of John Stuart Mill, and never far from the orthodoxy of political philosophy. Of course, these constraints are the result of material conditions imposed by the oppressive layers of society. We shall return to material conditions with the sixth argument; first, we must take up talk of patriarchy, in the fifth.
In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels effectively treats the enslavement of women and the establishment of patriarchal gender-class relations in society as a product of the state and the notion of private property. He embarks on an ethnography of pre-Statist cultures, pre-exchange economies, and argues that the prototypically bourgeois family unit is the result of a conception of private property, by which the man comes to identify the child (and thus the mother, as its bearer and caretaker) as his property, and through oppressive means (physical or ideological) continues to enforce his right onward throughout the annals of history. This is not to diminish patriarchy to a mere epiphenomena of the imposition of State and class antagonisms; ideas have a material existence, and insinuate themselves in a very real way into social structures and institutions. The socialist origins of the struggle for women’s emancipation have been repressed in the official histories; real victories of the women’s movement have been reduced and redescribed as victories in a woman’s right to upward mobility within a patriarchal society – this is the mostly petty bourgeois individualist feminism that focuses today on companies with women as CEOs and strong female Capitalo-parliamentary politicians. Egg freezing is marketed to women on exactly this platform. Bourgeois patriarchal ideology is insinuated in the context of the choice being offered, between career and family. The “working assumption” in the fifth argument is just the patriarchal assumption related to the origin of private property and struggle along class lines in society. The way to struggle against it is to challenge the assumption of the legitimacy of the authority of the oppressive layers of society; that is, to fight Capitalism.
The sixth argument speaks to the material conditions of production in Capitalist society. The assumption that women cannot be both mothers and productive employees relates to the contradictions of a class society, whereby one in four are without work, and the remaining three have far too much of it (clearly I generalize). The historical contribution of Capitalist society has been to elevate the means of production to the point that humankind is able to create surplus; however, the creation of surplus is utterly contingent on profit motive, and so scarcity is manufactured (the only bona fide ‘product’ of the bourgeoisie). Beyond the point where I can invest further in technology to gain a productive edge on my competition, my only recourse as a boss is to lay off workers. The Capitalist mythology relates the ever extending work day to the praiseworthiness of a Protestant work ethic – this is the ideology, perpetuated to the benefit of those blessed with work, and fortunate enough to work ever longer and harder. The ideology decries any deviation from the all-encompassing importance of work. A woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee, because productive employees work at least forty hours a week – twice that, if you aspire to become more like the bourgeois feminist icons that remain after the historical reduction and revision of the socialist origins of the women’s movement to its contemporary friendliness to Capitalist ideology. Those who deviate from this norm are stigmatized as being insufficiently dedicated to their professional lives, and so the mere expression in the professional world of a desire to shift priorities is treated as an affront to the ideological ethic.
Scarcity and surplus are two sides of the same coin, and this particular kind of coin exclusively fills Capitalist coffers – it is foreign currency in these parts. “Scarcity and surplus” is a false dichotomy imposed on the means of production by free-market Capitalist logic. A socialist alternative abolishes the distinction. The productive capacity of the average advanced Western Capitalist state is more than strong enough to support a reduced workweek, even while significantly reducing unemployment. The assumption that a woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee is built into the social reality imposed under a Capitalist system – a woman who would like to reduce her working hours in order to become a mother is not sufficiently dedicated to her work to thrive under this Protestant work ethic ideology, and most women who would make this choice would find it places them in an almost impossible financial situation. The way to struggle against this is to challenge the contradictions of Capitalo-parliamentary logic imposed as social reality on the means of production.
The emancipation of women is central to the struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed layers in society. The recent introduction of egg-freezing as an instrument of gender equality, endorsed by major tech companies like Facebook and Apple as part of their health insurance packages for female employees, reaffirms the legitimacy of bourgeois Capitalist ideology. It is congruent with the reactionary and revisionary history of the struggle for women’s emancipation, distilling the movement’s victories into a warped bourgeois-ified neo-liberal feminism, alien to emancipatory politics and inert with respect to true gender equality. And so, with a final word of thanks to Dr. Françoise Baylis, I conclude my thoughts with a simple imperative (and the title of Françoise’s aforementioned talk at Ryerson): “Ladies, Don’t Freeze Your Eggs!”