Roe, Russ, and The Baby on the Fire Escape

I have never been pregnant. I have no children. I do not regret either of these things, but both of them are things that could have happened.

They didn’t happen because I came of age not only when birth control pills were available, but also at the time when it became easier for single women to get prescriptions for the pill or other forms of contraception.

Since I’ve never been pregnant, I’ve never had an abortion. However, I know that I would not have hesitated to have an abortion if I had become pregnant at many times in my life.

I can imagine more possible regrets to having a child than I can to having an abortion. Is that shocking? Perhaps it is. But I have watched the struggle of single mothers.

On the basic biological level, the purpose of our existence may well be to reproduce, but despite the many failures of human beings, I do think our current purpose is far beyond the biological. People have dreams and goals, things they want to accomplish in their short period of time on Earth. I object to people sacrificing what matters to them for their children or their partner or their parents or even the good of the world.

I was in law school when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. It was certainly something to celebrate.

I think the biggest mistake we made back then was to be queasy about supporting abortion. These days we say it is health care, but in the past all too often people said it should be “rare.”

We tiptoed around it. We should have claimed abortion a long time ago.

No one should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Period. (No one should be forced to end one, either, but that’s part of the point.)

That brings me to two books.

Gillian Polack’s post on Monday on Joanna Russ brought her to mind. The book I’m thinking of in light of the leaked Supreme Court opinion is We Who Are About To....

It is an extremely uncomfortable book written by an angry person and focused on an angrier one. A small group of people are stranded on a planet — a few women, including a child; a few men. The likelihood of them being rescued is minuscule.

But some of them are convinced that if they reproduce, they can build a surviving society. It quickly becomes a place where the women are seen as incubators.

The main character’s way of dealing with this is part of what makes this book so hard to read. But looking at the news of the day, I can make a strong argument for Russ’s approach.

It’s a good book to re-read right now, probably more useful than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Baby on the Fire EscapeThe other book is the new one from Julie Phillips: The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem.

This is another one of those books that I am reading because of the author. Julie Phillips’s book on James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon is the best biography I have ever read, so I am a fan. I will read anything she writes.

So though I did not think I was much interested in the intersection of motherhood and creativity — not being a mother — I got it and began reading.

And soon came to this observation: “reproductive rights—including access to abortion, contraception, fertility treatment, and health care—are a necessary part of creative mothering.”

Yes. Because those things are a necessary part of being a full person doing what matters to you when you are someone who can get pregnant, regardless of whether you want children. Which means, of course, that this book is very relevant to me, and to our times.

All of the women Phillips writes about in this book were mothers. Most of them also had abortions, some legal, some not. Some of them had fraught relationships with their children. Many had difficult marriages, which often caused some of their problems with the children.

Some of them were probably hard people to like. Phillips makes a choice in the book to label some of the chapters “The Discomfort Zone.” While she did not want to judge the choices these mothers made, she found some of the things they did made her uncomfortable. So she addressed her discomfort as part of these sections.

The most interesting of these sections is on Susan Sontag. It is the only chapter in the book written in the present tense, making it more immediate and, I think, more critical of her subject. It is clear to me that Sontag’s way of dealing with motherhood, her sexuality, and, ultimately, cancer disturbed Phillips in a visceral way, one she manages to put on the page without once saying anything direct.

It was powerful reading for me. I always admired the fact that Sontag was accepted as a brilliant thinker and writer at a time when few women got that chance, but this book makes me deeply aware of what it cost.

Phillips contrasts her story with that of Audre Lorde, who also loved women and dealt with cancer. Lorde was more honest with herself and with others, and, reading this, I am convinced that it mattered.

There are other heart-breaking stories in this book, situations where women lost their children when they ended their marriages (because the law was stacked against them). Yet most of those who suffered such losses made great art.

The happiest story is that of Ursula K. Le Guin. Perhaps it is the happiest because she was fortunate enough to find the right partner in her husband, Charles, who not only did his share with the family but, perhaps more vitally, believed in her work.

The book left me aware that children are not necessarily an impediment to the creative lives of women, but that the societal pressures and complicated messages about what it means to be a woman continue to cause difficulties. Those things remain unsettled.

It’s not an easy book, though not as difficult as We Who Are About To. I recommend it highly.

2 thoughts on “<i>Roe</i>, Russ, and <i>The Baby on the Fire Escape</i>

  1. Australian culture incorporates many of the opportunities women receive with the accepted standard life of a woman. Single women have different paths, therefore, and often different challenges. Or maybe I just know the obstacles in the single path because I’ve encountered them time after time. What all of this has in common is that women are only sometimes considered perfectly full human beings and able to be treated as equals with the same right s as men. When I try to explain that this attitude is carried over to trans men and women, that they are given and even lesser amount of validation and even more obstacles and fewer opportunities 9except for the lucky few), however, I get the same reaction from some conservative women that I get from some conservative men when talking about women.

  2. Yes. I once thought that by being single I had more options, but the truth is I just ran into slightly different barriers. Given that the world doesn’t see cis women as people — not even the cis women who are busy saying all those misogynistic things so men they want to please will pat them on the head — the fact that some women who purport to be feminists don’t understand the barriers faced by trans and nonbinary folk is enraging.

    I seem to be staying angry. Good time for reading Russ.

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