A few weeks ago, Apple and Facebook announced a new benefit for women employees: if you are a woman with functioning ovaries and would like to freeze your eggs to hold off having biological children while you prioritize your job, the company will pay for the procedure. (I know there are a lot of qualifiers and adjectives in that sentence, but those are important qualifiers that often get overlooked: not all women have ovaries, not all children are biologically related to their parents, etc etc).
Jenny wrote about this when the news first broke. There, she argued
All reproductive technologies carry politics of gender and power, and in the U.S., these gender-power politics are embedded in the logics of capitalism. It is therefore only within an unequal gendered system of capitalist logic that we can evaluate the political agenda of particular technologies and their implementation.
She’s absolutely correct. In this post I want to flesh out Jenny’s argument a bit and think about the specific “gendered system of capitalist logic” this policy both reflects & reproduces.
This policy is an extremely clear example of the shifting relationship between (a) gender as identity and (b) patriarchy as system of social organization. Traditionally, Western patriarchy uses a hierarchical, binary, sex-based gender system to group society into two (internally heterogeneous with respect to race/class/sexuality/etc) categories and to position those categories in relationship to one another: men on top, women on bottom. The kind of sexed body you have determines the kind of gender you ought to exhibit, and your position/role in society. Male body = masculine gender = full member of patriarchal society, on the one hand, female body = feminine gender = not a real or full member of patriarchal society, on the other.
But today this airtight sex→ gender→ patriarchial role logic is getting loosened up. People with women’s bodies are being granted to “masculine” gender privileges that used to be reserved only for people with men’s bodies. For example, the physiological process of pregnancy prevents women who choose to get pregnant from fully meeting what are considered normal expectations for full-time employment: at some point, you gotta take some time off for prenatal care, maternity leave, and so on. Or, the fact of having a body that reproduced via pregnancy was what excluded women from full, “normal” participation in the workforce. Institutions and expectations are structured so that having a woman’s body is a barrier for participation and success.
What the Apple/FB policy does is remove that traditional barrier…for some people with women’s bodies. It gives some people with certain kinds of female bodies access to the privileges of masculine gender in patriarchy. In this case, it’s the privilege of both reproductive and economic self-determination. Women’s embodiment is no longer necessarily an impediment to masculine privilege and full membership in patriarchal society. This policy does nothing to help trans women address the specific kinds of gendered oppression they face: it only helps women with the most ‘normal’ bodies (bodies that are destined for pregnancy). And that’s the point: only some women benefit.
But what kinds of people, with what kinds of women’s bodies can and do take advantage of this leveling of the sexed-body playing field? Well, think about it: this is a benefit for full-time employees working middle-class jobs–you know, people who already have a lot of access to other kinds of privilege, the kinds of privilege that land you a really great job. (What percentage of Apple’s or FB’s female employees are black women?) If you don’t have access to these other forms of privilege, then having a woman’s body is still something that denies you access to things like reproductive and economic self-determination. Women’s embodiment makes you susceptible to feminization, that is, to patriarchal marginalization, domination, and harm.
Remember, it’s not that these businesses have changed to accommodate different kinds of bodies and embodiment, but that they’ve allowed some people to better and more completely adapt to the (patriarchal) norms they’ve already set. In other words, policies like this allow some women to adapt their bodies to be more perfectly in synch with the demands capitalism makes on workers. The egg-freezing policy exempts the most privileged women in our society from the harmful effects of feminization. It does nothing to de-center masculine privilege or challenge patriarchy. It just helps some women with certain kinds of bodies behave more like masculine members of patriarchal society. And if feminism is about destroying patriarchy, then that ain’t feminism.
Contemporary patriarchy grants some women (with certain kinds of gendered bodies) full access to patriarchal privilege to trick us into thinking patriarchy is over and that we don’t need feminism anymore. The egg-freezing program is just one tiny example of this much broader, deeper shift in the “gendered system of capitalist logic.” Increasingly, we’re putting in place policies and practices that exempt some “women” from the harmful effects of feminization. But this also has a side-effect: it intensifies the harm that feminization does to those it still affects. Often, this intensification takes the form of victim-blaming, of making individuals appear to be responsible for structural phenomena: if you still feel the negative effects of feminization, it must be because you didn’t make the right choices, the choices that would put you in a position to access the benefits of patriarchal masculinity. Patriarchy, as the institutionalized system of masculine privilege, recedes behind the veil of “individual responsibility” and “choice.”
Disarticulating (some kinds of) women’s bodies from the negative effects of feminization in patriarchy, patriarchy can disingenuously claim “#notallwomen”: not all women are marginalized, not all women hit the glass ceiling, women as a class aren’t oppressed. And as we know, “notall[X]” discourse is really just about preserving the status quo by failing to interrogate the institutionalized character of oppression.