Since my blog is a running book review of various memoirs that I am reading, and since I am reading Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed, I thought I'd turn to her to help answer the question: What does trusting women mean? Strangely, eerily, Gilbert and I were psychically linked for this exercise because last night I finished her chapter entitled "Marriage & Women." This chapter is precisely about the societal choices women have gained over the last century. Gilbert looks at her own family for examples. Her grandmother, Maude, was born with a cleft palette that left her face disfigured (although it was repaired as best as it could be in 1920s rural Minnesota). Her parents never thought she'd marry because of her facial scars, so they let her pursue education and a career. But love found her and Maude gave up her career to marry a farmer. They moved back to his farm and she cared for him, his brother and father, then bore 7 children! Gilbert's mother was one of the oldest children, who married in 1966 at the beginnings of the New Wave of feminism. In the early 1970s she began to work for the fledgeling Planned Parenthood in central Connecticut, where her nursing skills came in handy. This career was very fulfilling for Gilbert's mom, but it was unfortunately cut short when her two daughters both fell ill in the same week. Her mom asked her father to take off of work to watch the girls, but he refused. Her mom felt she had a choice to make: career or family. So, she quit her job and stayed home permanently with the kids. Gilbert asks her mom in a phone conversation about this decision: were there regrets? Of course! She was irate with her husband and she sorely missed the work she was doing, but she felt that she had made the best decision she could at the time for the health of her family and marriage. The fact that Gilbert's mom believed she HAD a choice is significant. She didn't have to be the sole bread-winner and she wasn't being forced to stay home by her husband. She was free to make this decision, no matter how painful. That is trusting women!
Gilbert goes on to talk more historically about the connection between marriage and motherhood. "We all know the refrain, right? First comes love, then comes marriage, then come baby in the baby carriage? Even the very word 'matrimony' comes to us from the Latin word for mother. We don't call marriage 'patrimony.' Matrimony carries an intrinsic assumption of motherhood, as though it is the babies themselves who make the marriage . . . " (p. 185) She goes on to detail her own lack of biological clock-ticking like a tale-tell heart in her chest and proves that historically speaking, every culture throughout history has seen at least 10% of women in that population not bearing children. This was due to many historical factors: infertility, infant mortality/miscarriages, spinsterhood, disease, and lack of available men. But, women in these populations also CHOSE not to have children, whether they avoided sex with men or used "what the Victorian ladies once called 'the precautionary arts.'" So, she concludes, childlessness is not so modern a concept or practice and choosing to not bear children is equally not a 20th Century construct. (p. 191) Gilbert calls this group of women the "Auntie Brigade," a league she proudly joined after the collapse of her first marriage, and which enlisted the distinguished ranks of Florence Nightingale and Jane Austen.
The choice of whether or not to have children became more transformative in the latter half of the 20th century when women had access to safe and legal contraceptives. That is why Gilbert's grandmother had 7 children and her own mother had only 2. The reason Gilbert's mother went to work for Planned Parenthood revolved around the sexual hypocrisies she saw growing up in rural Minnesota: girls who got pregnant out of wedlock were forced to get married or sent away; they lived with the shame forever. What about the boy who got the girl pregnant? "He was generally allowed to be seen as an innocent or sometimes even as the victim of seduction or entrapment." (p. 179) Gilbert's mom was disturbed by this reoccurring scenario and believed that something had to be done to ensure "societal sexual fairness," so she began working for Planned Parenthood. Sadly, I believe, the question of sexual fairness still lingers in the 21st century. Women have gained the legal right to an abortion, yet individual states chip away at this 37 year-old Supreme Court ruling. There are even abortion restriction clauses in both the House and Senate Health Care bills. Women are harassed as they enter clinics for this legal, medical procedure. New laws are put in place, state-by-state, insisting that women receive counseling, watch films about fetal development, make multiple trips to clinics before being allowed the procedure, thus making the procedure riskier as the time ticks by throughout the trimester and harder to procure for poor and working class women. Women have always found ways to end unwanted pregnancies. Before the dawning of post-Roe v. Wade era, women used coat hangers, knitting needles, splayed themselves on kitchen tables for unlicensed, opportunists to dig around their uteruses. Many of these women died hemorrhaging on those kitchen tables or later with staph infections. I find it ironic that 21st century Western women have so many choices open to us now in terms of career, education, marriage/partnership, and health, but fanatics still want to take away choices about the most personal decisions we could possibly make, decisions that should only be discussed with our doctors and our partners. These same fanatics argue for smaller government, yet they want Big Brother laying between the sheets in our bedrooms.
Gilbert doesn't linger on politics. Her opinion about the choice of motherhood is clear, but she subtly understands the contradictions every woman must wrestle with in making the decision to have or not to have children. Her mother told her that she didn't regret quitting her job and staying home with her kids, but she also confesses that she wasn't truly happy until the girls moved out to go to college. I, too, struggle with this contradiction. I never thought I'd get married or have children and here I am married, with 2 kids, and a stay-at-home-mom to boot! Sometimes I look around me and wonder what the hell happened! But I chose my husband. I chose to have kids. I chose to stay home with them. I trusted myself. And . . . I had the luxury to choose not have children earlier in my life when I couldn't have supported them financially or emotionally. And I'm also lucky that my birth control always worked. Some women aren't so lucky, but they still deserve the right to choose their own course.
Long live Dr. Tiller's legacy. Trust women.