Faminist Theory

As the pill turns 50, New York women shrug and change another nappy. Whatever happened to the fight for individual rights?

Midday last week, a 26-year-old woman we’ll call Morgan opened the front door of her two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Va., and apologized for being a little groggy. Morgan and her 2-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, had just awoken from a nap. Morgan was dressed in jeans and slippers; Kaitlin, a pink onesie and socks. Morgan’s long-term boyfriend (and Kaitlin’s father) was out on a freelance construction job. On the coffee table by the couch, the thin current issue of Time—the one with the cover story dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the pill (“So Small. So Powerful. And so Misunderstood”), by Nancy Gibbs—was opened to page 45.

“When I read that article, I thought, ‘Am I not a feminist because I chose to have children early?’” said Morgan, who is five months pregnant. “Honestly, being on the pill didn’t make me feel like a feminist. It made me feel sick. Like a wreck.”

Morgan was in grad school when she learned that she was pregnant. She made several trips to the abortion clinic—mostly directed there by her mother—but ultimately decided against it. Morgan asked that her name and her daughter’s be changed for this article because, though her mother adores Kaitlin now, Morgan hasn’t yet told her about the recent pregnancy. Morgan described her mother as a “total feminist” who came from a large Irish Catholic family; seeing her own mother perpetually pregnant, she put off having Morgan until she was in her 40s. “She traveled and worked and she wanted me to be able to do the same,” said Morgan, who plans to return to school after her second child is old enough. “I feel like for a long time women thought being liberated meant having a career, but now you can do whatever you want.”

The feminist battleground, with its slogans, marches, and campaigns for reproductive rights, has given way to the playground and the fight for lactation rights, stroller rights, school-system rights, unpasteurized milk rights, charter schools, birthing techniques, nutritional value of bagged lunches and water quality. It is not so much about the Fem as it is about the Fam.

“Women are defining themselves more by their families than they are by themselves,” said Pamela Paul, a 39-year-old mother of three in Harlem and author of Parenting Inc. (Times Books, 2008) “It’s no longer about something as selfish and self-advancing as abortion or the pill.”

The recent stories in Time (“The Pill”) and Newsweek (“Remember Roe!”), themselves artifacts of another era, feel distant from the mainstream discourse of what we have started to think of as Faminism. “They were sort of like baby boomer stories!” Paul said. “Most of the stories you read these days about ‘women’ have to deal with them as mothers. Even the celebrity causes—could you imagine Julia Roberts stomping in Washington for abortion rights? But you can totally see her being there for green schools or something.”

Indeed, you can’t swing a dead cat in Hollywood these days without hitting a famous Faminist: Julia was reportedly bumped recently from a People cover by Sandra Bullock and her secretly adopted son; Iron Man star Gwyneth Paltrow, all about proper meals for Apple and Moses, is mulling a third child; and Sarah Jessica Parker—whose upcoming Sex and the City 2 movie seems like a sad relic of the late-’90s credos of do-me and lipstick feminism—is toting around twins she had through a surrogate.


Since March, there have been ads on the New York City subways, placed by something called the Vitae Caring Foundation, featuring “edgy” people—including an attractive, unshaven man and a young girl with a bleached pixie haircut—and the subtle slogan: “Abortion Changes You.” On April 17, a pro-choice rally against the ads was held in Union Square; eight people showed up. Oh, what, you didn’t hear about it? 

“In my 20s, a woman who did not get an abortion was extremely rare, and for women to talk about it was almost like a rite of passage or badge of honor,” Paul said. “It was almost like, ‘My political is so personal and let me tell you why.’ Nowadays, you don’t hear anyone say they’ve had an abortion.”

(National abortion numbers have been falling steadily since the ’90s, down from 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2005, the most recent data available from the Guttmacher Institute.)

“It’s good news when abortion numbers drop and it has positive feminist implications, which have to do with better birth control and fewer unplanned pregnancies,” said Jennifer Baumgardner, 39, a former editor at Ms., an author of many books, and the creator of the “I Had an Abortion” T-shirt. “On the whole, we’re in a good place: Abortion numbers are dropping, women are aware of their options and you can have a baby out of wedlock.”

A’yen Tran, 29, used to wear her “I Had an Abortion” T-shirt as an undergraduate at Barnard. She offered an explanation for the current lack of discourse on women’s rights: “Gloria Steinem says in some ways ambivalence is a function of legality, which I think is right,” she said. “Young women can ignore that they have access to abortion and not realize how much those rights are threatened all the time.”

Currently a project designer at a media design firm, Tran doesn’t wear her T-shirt anymore. “I think I would be less ready for the fight or less interested in the fight. I guess I’m just more focused on other things.” ‘BABIES, BABIES, BABIES’

“Motherhood is in the saddle,” said Fear of Flying author Erica Jong when The Observer reached her by phone last week. “There is a whole pop-culture trend towards maternity. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt having six, seven, whatever. Jennifer Lopez having twins, Nadya Suleman having a whole bunch and then eight more. Babies, babies, babies. You can always make the cover of a magazine if you have a baby. Even I, who got these hideous attacks for leading women down the garden path to embrace their sexuality, when I had a baby in my arms, my press changed. First I was the happy hooker of literature—then I turned into Mother Teresa. You don’t get bad press when you’re holding a baby.”

Before the time when magazines put babies on the cover, they used to cover women’s rights issues. Think of Glamour under the esteemed Ruth Whitney; the now little-noticed Ms.; and the defunct Jane and Sassy and YM, which used to have a section called “Why Me?” in which young women sent in embarrassing stories of skirts getting stuck in their pantyhose, tampons falling out of their bags and other silly tales that defined young womanhood.

“As far as I can tell, women’s magazines have pretty much said October is breast-cancer-awareness month and there is no other advocacy beyond that,” Paul said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s hide behind the pink ribbon of the safest cause you could imagine.’” Abortion and the pill have never exactly been ratings-friendly material in the movies or on network television—the last time a network TV character had an abortion was Bea Arthur’s Maude in 1972; the next time will be on the next season of Friday Night Lights—but never before has the promotion of family been so prominent in prime time. The shows of careless singles (Friends, Sex and the City) are out—because putting off children is out. In are this season’s network shows of quirky, dysfunctional families: Modern Family, The Middle, Parenthood and Life Unexpected.

“There might be this idea among young women that they’re not going to screw it up the way the Sex and the City women did,” Paul suggested.

Baumgardner’s mother, she said, encouraged her and her sister, who started having kids at 41, to have their careers first. “There is a recalibration from that because there were some problems,” said Baumgardner, who is 39, with a 5-year-old and a 9-month-old. “So now this generation thinks ‘Oh, OK, we’re going to start earlier and then get back to the careers.’ And eventually there’ll be something else resolving that conflict even more. It’s not necessarily feminist to say, ‘Oh yeah, you can freeze your eggs! You can have a baby when you’re 80!’”

And so young Faminist Morgan is on to her second at the age of 26, performing a sort of ideological matricide. Horcasitas has two and said she plans to have a third and then maybe adopt another.

In Jong’s time, women were protesting compulsory motherhood; now, it seems, they are not protesting anything at all—they are too busy mopping up crumbs.

“You have to think through having a baby, and maybe we thought it through too long,” said Jong, whose daughter Molly had her first child at 25 and more recently gave birth to twins. “I think feminism is a cyclical movement. Mothers do one thing, daughters do the opposite.”

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