[17 June 2008]
Via Will Wilkinson comes a link to this Reason piece about fertility fears by Kerry Howley. The upshot: social conservatives love to use demographic fears to try to roll back feminist advances, though any pragmatic effort to reverse low birth rates typically involves implementing the sort of social welfare programs that are anathema to conservatives.
Practically speaking, on the policy level, demographic panic is only useful for one purpose: the promotion of social welfare programs many social conservatives would oppose. From France to Poland to Singapore, governments are responding to low fertility with policies social democrats have always favored. Almost any aspect of the welfare state can be construed as encouraging procreation; more to the point, low fertility can be blamed on the lack of any particular social welfare program. A dearth of pregnancies is evidence that protections for workers are too few, social welfare allowances too small, public school days too short, mandated maternity leave too limited. Women want to fulfill their natural roles as mothers, goes the assumption, but dog-eat-dog capitalism stands in the way.
Howley points out that demographic fears are often stirred by xenophobia (a low birth rate is akin to “race suicide,” as Theodore Roosevelt termed it), which is then leveraged against women, who are forced back into traditional, limited domestic roles (though this does nothing to increase fertility), nicely knitting racism and sexism together.
Periods of anxiety over “race suicide” are rarely good times for women. Protestants who were worried about the rising tide of foreign Catholics passed anti-abortion laws in the 1880s that endured until 1973, when Roe v. Wade limited their scope. Embracing historical continuity with the nativists who came before him, Mark Steyn takes time in America Alone to blame women for aborting the generation that might have stood between us and the coming Islamification of the West. It’s not surprising at all that the single greatest social anxiety of our time has been reduced to crude demographic projections that pin the blame on empty wombs.
Like concerns about abortion, concerns about fertility rates ultimately come down to checking feminism and restricting women’s ability to control their own lives. Instead, their wombs are presumed to be owned by society collectively, and politically administered by the state.
Howley’s conclusion explores how this sort of sexism is buttressed by nationalism.
At the heart of any fertility incentive lies an attempt to encourage a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way. Every pro-fertility policy is an effort to slow cultural transformation, to stabilize a society’s ethnic composition, to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation. From Poland to Singapore, swollen wombs are a bulwark against change.
There is a reason we speak of “Mother Russia” and “Mother India.” Feminist sociologists such as Nira Yuval-Davis refer to women as the “boundary markers” of a state or society. While men may leave, fight, and be compromised, women represent purity and continuity. Yuval-Davis points out in her book Gender and Nation that the Hitler Youth Movement had different mottos for girls and boys. The boys’ motto was: “Live faithfully; fight bravely; die laughing.” For girls: “Be faithful; be pure; be German.” Girls simply had to be. They were the collective.
In times of great social anxiety, we see new calls for women to return to home and hearth—calls alternately cast as a return to tradition and as a progressive leap forward, but efforts, nonetheless, to enlist women in a national project while defining the boundaries of national inclusion. Depopulation is not a given, but ideologically fraught and scientifically questionable debates about gender, race, and culture will be with us no matter which way the population swings.
Depopulation is basically a stalking horse for deeper problems, which appear to be inextricably bound with one another. A reminder that one can’t attempt to remedy sexism without at the same time tackling other forms of bigotry.