Woman Culture and the Gendering of Pregnancy

Got to be honest not 100% sure what’s going on in those wrappers

Lecturing in gender studies I have spent a lot of time talking about how children are exposed to processes of gendering, how these operations are intensely social, and that learning about gender does not happen in a parent-centred vacuum. This happens immediately from birth (with the declaration “it’s a boy!” etc), and as Judith Butler (1990) usefully points out, the distinction often made between sex (the biological: including genitalia, chromosomes and other sex markers) and gender (assumed as the cultural interpretation of those markers) is blurry:

“…perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all”

This gendering can even start pre-birth, at the ultrasound, or with blood tests to determine chromosomes. Once sex is designated, an intense process is kicked into gear that involves expectations of how a child will act, what they will wear, and what their future holds (primary assumptions being, for example, that a baby designated female will be feminine, grow up to be a woman, and will one day partner with a man). As I have also discovered being pregnant, there are a whole set of gendered assumptions made between the physical experience of childbearing and the child itself – for example the idea that craving sweets means you are having a girl [*eye roll forever*]!

While I have often thought about gendering in childhood, I have attended less to how pregnancy itself is enrolled in a process of gendering adulthood. What I have experienced as a pregnant person this year has given me some insight into how intensely pregnancy is tied to the category “woman”, and in turn bound up with extremely fixed notions about biology, gender and destiny.

From vitamins to pregnancy tests, the pink and blue coding is inescapable

While I am a bisexual/queer person I am also for all intents and purposes cisgender: I am feminine presenting, use she/her pronouns, and that matches up with the expectation of being assigned female at birth (or, as I am told the pronouncement at my birth was “it’s a feminist!”…something to unpack another time). And yet, I have found the “woman culture” – or what might be more accurately termed “female culture”, emphasising biology – of pregnancy profoundly disorienting.

My first real confrontation with this (aside from the pink and blue aesthetics and white smiling women and babies of pregnancy tests and pregnancy vitamins) was at an early ultrasound. The clinic, like basically everything around pregnancy, emphasised that it was for “women” not only in its name but in every clinical detail. This included the fact I could only find a women’s bathroom there and was made to put on a smock pre-exam that was less neutral gown than actual v-neck lined puffy-sleeved purple dress. The main reception room featured a photograph of a huge pair of high heels with a caption (I’m paraphrasing here): “When the shoes didn’t fit her daughter, the mother simply reminded her she wouldn’t need toes when she was a princess”.

There is a huge emphasis on nature and the natural in pregnancy (never mind how many people used to die in pregnancy and childbirth pre-modern medicine…)

My partner, a man (*constantly* referred to in my pregnancy books and apps as my “husband” despite the fact we are unmarried…), was not allowed to come to the clinic with me and has not been allowed to any of my appointments so far, even with me crying and pleading on the phone about it after some complications, or when I had to go in for an emergency scan. While this has ostensibly been due to COVID-19 restrictions, it has not only intensely reinforced the sense that the responsibility of childbearing is mine alone, but that I am doing this as a (cis) WOMAN whose “body was made to do this” (a saying repeated over and over again to me). It has been distressing for both me and my partner to be separated in this process, and I can only imagine the homophobic layer that partners of the same gender would feel with one parent being constantly cast out.

I am not so disoriented by the physical transition of pregnancy when it comes to gender, despite the discomfort and pain – for me personally it is fun and interesting to have a growing belly, larger breasts, a body full of more blood, and I often think about how not everyone that wants to have this experience gets to. I feel very privileged. I just cannot stand the grate of being told this experience is about divine femininity that connects all (cis) women, that a (cis) woman’s identity is forged through the fires of childbirth, and that pregnancy and labour is some kind of secret business that only (cis) women can discuss with one another.

Fighting stigma and shame around periods does not have to be achieved through emphasising “womanhood”

It reminds me of when I first got my period at 14 and I was happy to have reached the puberty milestone, but also did not think much of it. My mum got really angry at me for not taking it more seriously as the transition to “womanhood” that it represented. She wanted me to celebrate. Her approach was informed by a feminism aiming to reclaim bodily processes which had been shamed and repudiated by patriarchy for centuries. But I did not feel shame, I just wanted to get on with it, and did not want to hold a party for my “entry into womanhood”. There’s a lot of feminist emphasis these days on things like periods and pregnancy because of the stigma that has otherwise surrounded them. That is totally understandable. What is harder to compute is why this has to be enrolled into a “female culture” that emphasises one’s status as woman at every turn.

It would be so easy to use gender neutral language around pregnancy, like referring to “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”. It would not harm anyone, it would not “erase women”, it would simply make these spaces more inclusive, and unravel the hard knot of essentialism that pervades reproductive culture. I suspect that many cisgender women enjoy having womanhood emphasised in these spaces though precisely because the misogyny of patriarchal culture means women are rarely celebrated, and pregnancy is one of the few times where one becomes a kind of special icon (where people congratulate you, make room for you on the bus, etc). However the way to resolve this issue is not to double-down on the mother-woman-biology matrix, especially given that ever more queer, trans and non-binary people are bearing children. Given the “female culture” of pregnancy it really is no surprise that it is mother-forum sites like “mumsnet” in the UK that have become the epicentre of anti-trans discourse.

Last night my partner and I re-watched Jeanie Finlay’s (2019) documentary “Seahorse” about one trans man’s experience of pregnancy. I wanted to watch it as I been reading about labour and could not think of any other cultural representations of active labour (aka how it actually happens, not the Hollywood kind where a person gives birth lying on their back). Watching Freddie’s journey through pregnancy as a now pregnant person was so soothing to me, untethered as it was from the “female culture” that has soaked every other pregnancy text I have encountered so far. Importantly in the film Freddie emphasises that his experience is *not* the same as cisgender women, precisely because of the gender dysphoria and difficult social expectations he has to navigate as a pregnant man. There is a scene where Freddie goes through all of the documents from his midwife that emphasise “mother” and “woman” and “female”, and replaces them with words that match up to his experience. Today Freddie is still fighting in court to be recognised on his child’s birth certificate as “father” or “parent”, rather than “mother”. “Seahorse” is a reminder of the small things that we could change culturally that would make a huge difference to the myriad of people experiencing pregnancy, and to thinking about gender broadly.

For now I will keep trying to find a way to navigate this fraught terrain and trying to connect with my body while holding the intense gendering at bay. I suspect this will only become more difficult, in becoming “mother”, and all of the expectations carried with that. Thinking about how we can better support people going through the gamut of reproduction without insisting on rigid gender boxes is a must on the way to loosening the grip of gender expectations in adulthood.

1 thought on “Woman Culture and the Gendering of Pregnancy

  1. Yes Hannah! I have been waiting for you to write something about this arena for so long. As a midwife I can say that gendering is a major issue in our world, yet one that is not being discussed. In hospital practice, attempts to request colour-free or colour-neutral cot cards are ignored, attempting to write “male/female” instead of “boy/girl” on newborn ID bracelets are met with absolute nos and when I remind pregnant people that they may know the external genitalia or chromosomes of their unborn child that doesn’t mean they know the gender, they look at me like I am completely nuts. In academic midwifery this is also a massive issue. While we are understanding that we need to sometimes work with non-binary people, the idea of being focused on women is so ingrained in our professional culture that there is absolute resistance to changing “woman-centred care” to “person-centred care”. Talking about “birthing people” instead of “women” is seen as erasure of women, yet the fact that many of our computer forms literally do not let you enter anything other than female for the person who gave birth is not seen as erasure of non-binary or trans individuals. Even a recent, and applauded book called “give birth like a feminist” should actually be called “give birth like a trans-exclusionary feminist” because its author Milli Hill has many points of agreement with JK Rowling. In my field, gender is hardly being talked about or acknowledged at all. Papers and books need to be written and people need to start speaking because it is not changing – it is not even on most agendas. Keep doing what you’re doing. With love, Kai

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