CNN anchor Kyra Phillips is the latest high-profile professional woman making the case that women can achieve workplace equality by freezing their eggs. The idea is that by extending the window of biological fertility, women can spend more time building up their careers without the competing demands of parenthood.
Take this kind of reasoning to its logical science-fiction conclusion and you have an argument for the artificial womb. That technology would sever genetic parenthood from pregnancy altogether, putting mothers and fathers on a far more equal footing in terms of their biological responsibilities. Would such reproductive technology ultimately be a good thing for women?
In a 1987 paper for Signs, Robyn Rowland looked at how various feminist thinkers of her era looked at this kind of issue. Rowland quotes radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, who wrote in 1972 that “Pregnancy is barbaric… the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species,” and called for women to be freed from “the tyranny of reproduction.”
But Rowland warns against assuming that new reproductive technologies automatically help the feminist cause. Even beyond the very important point that expensive medical procedures are available to a very limited slice of the world’s women, she writes that high-tech procedures are controlled by male-dominated institutions. Depending on the financial and political environment, new technology may be available only to married women, or may be used for objectionable practices like sex selection.
Rowland also notes a subset of feminist thought that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s in which feminists like Adrienne Rich and Mary O’Brien looked at biological motherhood as a source of power for women. This view stresses pregnancy and birth as a source of female solidarity.
Another writer in this period, Nancy Chodorow, argued that “maternal thinking”—a focus on nurturing and caring for others—is a valuable quality even though it’s also something women develop as a result of the oppressive practice of “enforced mothering.” Chodorow called for the inclusion of men in child care, partly to encourage them to develop this quality as well. In this view, technology like the artificial womb could expand men’s parenting role. But other feminist thinkers worried giving men too much power in parenting would leave “many women with no sphere of influence” and potentially make more women and children vulnerable to violent or abusive men.
The feminists Rowland discusses might have a wide range of opinions on issues of technology and motherhood, but they also share something that rarely comes up in conversations about these issues today. Phillips bases her case for egg freezing on the idea that individual women can use technology to advance their own interests. But the feminist intellectuals of the 1970s and ’80s called for an analysis that began not with individual choice but with systemic power. The question was not just whether new technology could help a woman compete with men in the working world but whether it would help women as a class in all parts of their lives.