Sarah Mesle’s piece “Top Seven Ladies Who Could Have Used Obamacare’s Birth Control Mandate” has me thinking about the importance of birth control, and the absurdity that its importance to the quality of women’s (and men’s) lives isn’t more universally acknowledged.
As Sarah, herself, has noted, her list included only white women. And the stakes of control over reproduction have, indeed, been different for women of color throughout American history. The economic system of chattel slavery, in particular, depended upon the control of women’s bodies. Absolutely necessary to this system was preventing enslaved women from controlling their own reproduction. So I offer here, using Sarah Mesle’s model, an addendum to her excellent list, a few African American women who could have used Obamacare’s birth control mandate. (One could also write about how Native American women or Asian American women, for example, might have benefitted from access to birth control, for different reasons than I discuss here.)
In effect, enslaved women’s use of birth control would have been a radical act. While these women did not always have control over their sexual encounters, controlling the reproductive means of enslavement – the partus sequitur ventrem that held their offspring enslaved based on their own position of enslavement – they would have been able to impede the domestic growth of slaveholders’ wealth following the illegalization of the transatlantic slave trade. If these women could have refused to bear children into enslavement, they would have disrupted the entire economic system, proving it untenable. Or, if they could have controlled their reproduction in more specific ways, they might have avoided bearing children conceived in rape, or even simply controlled the number of children they brought into an existence that was exceedingly difficult to endure.
1) Sally Hemings
(7 children in 18 years, all born enslaved, and all of whom were most likely the children of Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father)
Annette Gordon-Reed explores the intricacies of Hemings’ relationship with Thomas Jefferson, in a way that refuses to absolve Jefferson of his participation in the sexual coercion of enslaved women that was commonplace among slaveholding white men, or to simply dismiss Hemings as an agentless victim in this seemingly complex relationship. Still, one wonders what Hemings’ hope for her children with Jefferson might have been. To push the point further, what might have been different if having children hadn’t been the default position of enslaved women like herself? While one might argue that having the children of her slaveholder had the potential to benefit her in some way (special treatment, the possible manumission of those children – eventually), none of these was a “sure thing” nor did the fact of these children’s paternity change her own condition of enslavement. It’s unsurprising that when William Wells Brown rewrites this story in Clotel that not much good can happen for the president’s concubine or his daughters, despite their their paternity. (SPOILER: the “tragic mulatta” character dies!) [Also, Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wales Jefferson, who died from complications after her sixth pregnancy and childbirth, could have really used some birth control, too.]
2) Harriet Jacobs
(two children in four years, both born enslaved)
When I think of Harriet Jacobs, I often think of the way she wrests agency away from her “master” by not only thwarting his sexual advances, but by “choosing” a free, white man to be the father of her children, in the hopes that this might help her to facilitate their emancipation. Jacobs is an excellent example of black women’s resistance, even while under the confines of enslavement. As Jacobs is prevented from marrying a free African American man, though, her choice looks something like this: “Which white asshole is going to father my kids – the slightly-lesser asshole who will maybe help me to free the children but probably won’t, or my asshole “master,” who is all but threatening to rape me on a daily basis?” Some choice. But what if she could have prevented pregnancy altogether? This option might have led to a different enactment of agency and resistance.
3) Margaret Garner
(four children, all born enslaved, three of whom were likely the children of her enslaver)
To say that Margaret Garner wanted to kill her child would be to really miss the point. It would be like saying that women who decide to have abortions want to have abortions, when what they really want is not to have gotten pregnant in the first place, or to have a pregnancy that will result in a perfectly healthy birth that also doesn’t threaten their own lives. Margaret Garner is notorious for the radical position of attempting to remove one of her children from life conditions that she viewed as unbearable. Had she had the opportunity to prevent any of her pregnancies in the first place, hers might be a much less-dramatic story. Surely, the problem with Margaret Garner isn’t that she killed her child, but that she was in such a desperate position that this occurred to her as the best of the few grim solutions available. Had she been able to control how many children she had in the first place, these solutions may have looked very different when she and her family tried to emancipate themselves in 1856.
4) Eliza Harris from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
(three children, born enslaved, two died; one who she had to carry across the frozen Ohio River to prevent from being sold away from her)
I thought it fair, given Sarah Mesle’s original post, to include a fictional character. And who’s more iconic than Eliza Harris? Various images have been produced depicting Eliza crossing the Ohio River, leaping from one patch of ice to another, slave-catchers close behind, her child in her arms. But few of these images remember just how big this child must have been. Back in chapter one, we see Harry give a rather elaborate minstrel performance for George Shelby, Sr. Harry sings and dances and does impersonations that suggest that he must have been a “big kid” – at least a toddler, and definitely not the infant that we often see in Eliza’s arms. How far must she have carried him once she determined that it was too slow moving to have him walk on his own? The great virtue in Eliza’s escape is often touted as her altruistic, motherly love. She does not run to emancipate herself, but to save her child. Isn’t that great? But George Harris gives us a grimmer picture of their situation when he says he wishes the child had never been born. Usually we chalk this up to George’s more negative (or more realistic) view of enslavement and the probability that things won’t work out well out for their family. Had the Harrises access to birth control, though, maybe they would have decided not to have children in the first place. Or, George’s initial plan to escape himself, and then attempt to buy his family from George Shelby might have worked had it not been for the presence of the delightful child who the trader to whom Shelby is indebted was so eager to buy.
5) Harriet Wilson
(one child, born free)
Harriet Wilson ‘s Our Nig is one of my favorite texts to teach, and it begins with the explanation that Wilson’s circulation of the text is meant to help her to support her son, following the death of her husband. This novel is the only thing Wilson is known to have written, and she doesn’t seem to have had any other children following her son’s death at the age of seven. One wonders whether she would’ve written Our Nig at all had she not needed to provide for a child. I suppose I might lament the possibility that this rich text never existed until I remember that this was an autobiographical novel, based on Wilson’s own life. The abandonment of Frado/“Hattie” Adams (Wilson) with the family that overworks and abuses her is reason enough to wish that her life had been better and that I had only happy books to teach. The question of Frado’s/Wilson’s mother adds another problem to the mix. A white woman who, after her husband’s death, felt that she would be better off leaving her mixed-race child with strangers than keeping her, she probably would have benefited from birth control. Of course this is a problem partially inflicted by racism, and not all white women who have mixed-race babies wish those babies weren’t born. But maybe those who do ought better not have them.
6) Anna Murray Douglass
(five children in ten years, all born free)
Not much gets written about Frederick Douglass’ first wife, at least in comparison to the vast oeuvre of work on her husband. But with five children to care for, a husband who was often traveling, and the home of one of the most important abolitionist figures in the nation to maintain, one must assume that she was one busy lady. According to her daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, she worked binding shoes in her husband’s absence, and thereby earned enough money that when he returned from his first trip to Europe in 1845-46, she had paid all the household’s debts, with none left for him to settle. While she sometimes travelled with her husband on short trips, she more often remained at home, presumably to care for the household – and their five children. One wonders what her life would have looked like had she had a smaller family, or no children at all. Would she have joined her husband as an icon of American abolitionism at home and abroad?
7) the Mammy
(who knows how many children she has, because she’s too busy taking care of her white enslaver’s children to pay attention to anything else)
Picture whichever Mammy you want from literature – Aunt Chloe from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Roxy from Pudd’nhead Wilson, Hattie McDaniel from Gone With the Wind, Abileen Clark from The Help. These characters were based on countless enslaved or employed women who cared for white people’s children, one can only assume at the expense of whatever attention and care they would have otherwise been able to give to their own children – or maybe just to themselves. She could be anybody’s great-great grandmother. Whenever I talk to my students about the figure of the Mammy, I give a very brief lecture on “how breasts work,” because I’ve discovered that many of them (especially the men) don’t understand the conditions under which women produce milk and continue to produce milk, even if they are not with their children (i.e., at work). In the case of the Mammy, her work often involved being a wet-nurse to someone else’s children, and before the Civil War, some of these were the children who would later inherit these women who nursed and raised them, as property. But what if these women could have controlled their own reproduction, and hence, their own lactation? At the very least, they would not have been exploited in exactly the same way, and that may have made a difference for their lives, and the lives of their children.
(not really #8) Me
(No children; but I did finish my PhD, so that’s something)
I feel kind of weird including myself here, but reading Sarah Mesle’s excellent post, one of the things I realized is that I have benefitted immensely from access to birth control. This is not only because of my own access, but also because of my mother’s. Both of my parents come from large families, but I am an only child. My parents were married six years before I was born, and if I had two or three older siblings (which seems to be the average, according to these lists), I know that my parents’ limited economic resources, time, and effort, would have had to be differently allocated. While I’m one of those annoying only children who claims that “of course I’d LOVE to have had brothers and sisters!,” I know that my education greatly benefited from the fact that my parents had only me to teach to read, to drive to extracurricular activities, and to help pay for college. My PhD has been a long time coming. I spent the years between 2000 and 2012 in graduate school. The first six of those were in Master’s degree programs, during which I also worked full time. Something tells me that having a kid or two would’ve made that a lot more difficult than it already was, which seems to fall somewhere between “damn near impossible” and “I’d STILL be in graduate school right now, OMG.” Most of my friends have children and, honestly, they’re quite lovely. I’m not even opposed to having children, myself. But the fact that I can choose when to have children and how many to have is something that I don’t want to take for granted, because this fact has drastically affected my life for the better.
The stakes of reproduction for women of color is far more complex than described by my own experience or these women’s possibilities, however. In a nation in which whiteness has been both a dominant and a normalized position, women’s decisions to have non-white babies might be viewed as a radical act. As the population of non-white people (which, in American racial ideologies also includes people who are racially-mixed) increases, white supremacists view this increase as an encroachment upon the majority-white population. Having non-white babies works, at some level, to combat a national economy that now figures African American bodies as “excessive,” in competition with white people for the nation’s resources. It seems kind of odd to think about the choice to reproduce as a political decision. But for African American people, their reproduction becomes political in the sense that wresting the power of reproduction away from its role in the slave economy that built the United States becomes a radical act of empowerment. And when women’s ability to make reproductive decisions for themselves comes down to matters of governmental legislation, that’s pretty political, too. What is at stake here is women’s ability to reproduce according to their own terms. Continuing to birth black babies is one way to resist the construal of non-white children as “excess” in the (white) national economy, but the distinct ability to choose when, where, and under what conditions one’s children are born has been a luxury that has been disproportionately denied to women of color. One thing to remember in this discussion of birth control is that access to it has not been universal. As places like Planned Parenthood have worked toward making birth control more widely accessible, what we are more likely to see in the event of a step backwards from reproductive freedom is not the complete elimination of birth control, but its relegation as a luxury, unavailable to many people who need it – especially women of color, who are disproportionately impoverished or lack access to health care. In the argument for Obamacare, one of the important things we must remember is not only that birth control ought be available to women, but that it oughtn’t be a luxury.