The Powerful

I felt powerful when I was pregnant. It wasn’t what I expected to feel. I’d been taught that pregnant women were fragile: Balloons about to pop, eggshell-thin teacups that would shatter if you dropped them. People certainly treated me like I was fragile. They gave up their subway seats for me at least 40% of the time, more if I sighed and heaved my balloon belly around; once, when I puked after taking two incompatible supplements together, five or six people rushed over to tend to me and offer to take me to the hospital. But they also treated me as public property. For the last three months, in particular, male strangers kept stopping me on the street to say “I bet it’s a boy!” 

Hope. They hoped it was a boy; they assumed that I hoped for a boy, too, which is why they thought they were paying me a compliment. I couldn’t argue with the reasoning. A few hundred years ago, that would be my whole purpose: Get married, get pregnant with a boy, maybe get pregnant with another boy in case my husband needed a backup, and then I’d be cleared to die. We’re supposed to be past all that, but in 2017, men who wanted to be nice still assured me I would bring my husband an heir for his land and name. 

There were moments like that, when the world crashed in on me; I saw myself as others saw me, A Pregnant Woman, and felt the full weight of history descend. But when I was alone with my pregnancy, I felt the opposite of helpless. I was putting on weight, growing large, beginning to take up space in ways I never had before. My body was curving out of anything you might call feminine, and into some primordial, animal shape, shedding its decorative value to become pure function. I felt like the brontosaurus in Jurassic Park, large and marvelous, making passersby stop and stare in awe: When I walked, my step was heavy. When I moved, people moved out of my way. I was directly responsible for the continuance of the species; I was part of nature, I was nature, in fact, because if people like me stopped doing this, humanity would cease to exist. 

I don’t know what to make of that sense of power. It could have been hormonal. Or maybe I just felt good because pregnancy forced me to quit living on cigarettes, wine and Chinese takeout. I could have been in touch with the wellspring of all life, but I also could have been in touch with adequate nutrition. But I think I was right; I think there is some power, terrible and primordial, in childbearing bodies. If we didn’t have that power, men wouldn’t spend so much time trying to take it away. 

The Georgia abortion ban feels new, but it’s only the culmination of something that’s been happening for years. Not even a culmination: A new high-water mark, a new Biggest Outrage, which is sure to be erased in a month’s time by something worse. 

Other total abortion bans have passed elsewhere — in Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, and my home state, Ohio — and like Georgia, they’ve used the language of “fetal heartbeat” to disguise what they actually do. (By the time a doctor can detect a “heartbeat,” at six weeks, the patient is about two weeks late on her period. At that point, many people don’t even suspect they’re pregnant.) Newer and nastier legislation is already on the way in Alabama. All of it is intended to trigger the overturn of Roe v. Wade, in which case, restrictions just this bad or worse will be instated in half the country. What makes Georgia stand out is not its aim, but its sheer punitive viciousness. This bill makes it exceptionally clear that banning abortion is not about limiting doctors’ ability to practice, it is about controlling and punishing women.

You’ve probably heard some or all of the implications already: Women who self-administer abortions — either safely, through medication, or through the bloodier methods that we had before Roe — may receive life in prison. Women who miscarry can be investigated and charged with second-degree murder if it’s found that they were “endangering” their fetuses (read: themselves) through drug use or other “irresponsible” behavior. This is a state ban, but pregnant women are not allowed to leave the state; “if a Georgia resident plans to travel elsewhere to obtain an abortion, she can be charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” writes Mark Joseph Stern. The same sentence, and the same 10-year prison term, will apply to anyone who helps her cross state lines. 

I’m using the terms woman and she, here, because that’s who the lawmakers were aiming at — some imaginary cisgender woman, who’s pregnant, and who must be stripped of control over that pregnancy. A woman who must have her power ground out of her, and her body taken away from her, even if it means investigating the loss of a wanted pregnancy; even if it means locking her in prison for eating sushi or soft cheese or having a glass of wine at her sister’s wedding. 

Cis women aren’t the only ones to have their bodies or power stolen by patriarchy. Trans men who are required to sterilize themselves before transition also experience this invasive, degrading control. (And, of course, some American trans men will need abortions, or be jailed for them.) Trans women live with being defined down to their genitalia every day of their lives, not just for the nine months of a pregnancy. But there’s a specific kind of hatred in laws like these, and it helps to place that hatred in its ideological context: A worldview in which human life and civilization is male, and women are not people, but the faulty tools men use to create more men.

I bet it’s a boy! Yeah, buddy. I bet you do. And if it weren’t a boy, I bet you wouldn’t quite see the point. As a woman, I am presumed to be a pause between two men; the one I must marry and the one I must raise. My body is a conduit through which men transmit names, money, history, property, lives. Who I am doesn’t matter. A road doesn’t have feelings about the cars that travel along it. A faucet doesn’t consider the water.

There is power in pregnancy. But rivers are powerful, and men dam them. Electricity is powerful, and men use it to run microwaves and razors. Childbearing people are powerful, and men damn us, too. They use us, because we are part of nature, in fact we are nature, and “nature,” in modern capitalist society, is just a collection of resources for men to acquire and exploit. One of the ways men maintain the upper hand is by passing laws in which it is illegal for us to use our own bodies. They take all that power, and turn it into a weapon they can use to keep women in line.

I knew this, in an abstract way, before I had a baby. So does everyone who knows the meaning of the word “reproduction.” But it wasn’t until I got pregnant that I actually felt it, held the truth of it in my body: Humanity depends on me, on bodies like mine, consenting to carry it forward, one baby at a time. 

The fate of the entire species rests on the bodies of people we’ve been trained to see as less than human. In fact, we may be trained to see those people as subhuman because of how important they are; because of how dangerous it would be if they recognized their leverage. If women and AFAB people stopped having children, or stopped having them with cis men — since, after all, a lot of women could plausibly serve as sperm donors — then cis men would be irrelevant. There wouldn’t be a point to them any more. If sufficiently provoked, women could end the whole human species; without a large number of pregnant bodies, humanity just sputters out, doomed by our collective refusal to cooperate. The power I felt in pregnancy wasn’t fist-pumping, go-girl, feel-good power. It was supervillain power: We could end the world.

Of course cis men respond to women’s reproductive agency violently. It’s an existential threat. So is queerness, so is gender transition and legal recognition of trans people. Patriarchy is a system wherein cis men have assumed control of a biological process in which they play no truly necessary role. The service they offer, “protection” — from poverty, with their higher wages and better career tracks; from sexual exploitation or male violence, on the theory that men won’t touch another man’s property — is only necessary under conditions of male domination. If we end wage inequity and male violence, the protection racket dissolves. We only “need” men because of problems men have created to make themselves feel needed. It’s brutal, but it’s true.

Of course want is not the same as need. Plenty of women will still want cis men around, even when they don’t need them, myself included. Sex strikes are no-one’s idea of a good time. But many cis men are not okay with just being wanted. Everything in patriarchy is set up to place women in positions of crushing dependence, to gain “security” at the cost of being sequestered in the home, or to be destitute, even criminalized, if they live and raise children without a man. Under these conditions, as Andrea Dworkin could tell you, “want” is a lot more complicated than it looks. Do you want the man, or do you just want to live? It’s okay to want either, but it’s a problem that women can’t treat sex and survival as separate drives. 

Yet, strange as it sounds, women could destroy men. In fact, women are destroying men, albeit very slowly, and while meeting lots of resistance. Any feminism worthy of the name has the destruction of manhood — the idea of a “man” as we’ve inherited it, the ideals of success and dominance and authority we’ve packed into “masculinity” — as its ultimate goal. Cis men often seem to recognize this better than women do; they work to legislate our power out of existence, or they terrorize and intimidate women into a state of learned helplessness, which means they understand they have something to fear. Men brainwash us and belittle us and raise us to take their side. They tell us there are no sides to take, that we’re all on the same team. They demand solidarity. All the while, that primeval power rests beneath the surface, more visible in the things done to contain it than in any use women have made of it. For now. 

You would think, having just written a whole book about this dynamic, that I would have a clear idea of what to do about it. But it’s tricky, trying to claim the power I felt in my pregnancy. Defining womanhood down to the ability to bear children leaves a whole lot of women out, and not just trans women. Assigning motherhood an elevated moral status, or trying to claim it as a source of political insight, neglects the fact that many mothers are neither moral nor feminist, and some are just as heavily invested in systems of male domination as the men themselves. There are systems of power that are not merely reproductive; black men are not more powerful than white cis women. Then again, white people have committed plenty of atrocities in the name of controlling black women’s fertility, or preventing black men from having children with white mothers.

In the past, whenever feminists have tried to tap that chthonic, Jurassic-Park power I sensed in childbearing bodies, it’s turned into TERFiness and mysticism, which — though I happen to like the mysticism — doesn’t leave me with much in the way of practical, on-the-ground suggestions. I know the power exists. Whether I can tell you what to do with it is another thing. 

But if sex strikes won’t work, childcare strikes might. (They already have, elsewhere.) Voluntary single motherhood or communal parenting, for those who can afford it, might; so might universal childcare and universal basic income, everything that makes living with your co-parent a choice, a want rather than a need. Celebrating and supporting trans parenthood and queer parenthood will work; helping pregnant people end their pregnancies when necessary, no matter what the laws are, will always work. What works is an ethos of disloyalty; when we realize that our individual bodies and lives and choices exist in service to the system, we can start to betray and sabotage that system, whenever the chance comes to hand.

The system, when it is working perfectly, produces a nation of Georgias. A place where the power of childbearing bodies is placed out of reach, and turned into their greatest vulnerability, over and over again. But even under those conditions, cis men’s vulnerability remains open. Because their vulnerability is us. They just have to hope we don’t realize that, or act on it — and the more they push us, the more likely it gets that a reckoning will come.

Happy Mother’s Day, by the way. It would be pretty sad if I let the day pass without offering you something, so — since we’re almost to the number of subscribers I need before I can friends-lock this baby — here is a coupon that will give you, or anyone you forward this email to, a month’s subscription for free. It’s good until May 18.

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Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention (again) that I just wrote a book about reproduction and power, and that it’s coming out this August. It’s called Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, it’s very metal, and you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound.