Report From the Women’s Liberation Front Action at the Midwives Alliance of North America Conference
November 17, 2015 by
Last year the board of directors of the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) chose to amend its core competencies for midwives document to prioritize gender identity over biological sex, effectively eliminating the words “woman” and “mother” and replacing these with “pregnant individual” and “birthing parent.” In response to this change, WoLF board members Michelle Peixinho Smith and Mary Lou Singletondrafted an open letter to MANA expressing concerns about female erasure from the language of birth as well as the medical, ethical, and cultural implications of choosing to view human reproduction through the lens of gender theory rather than biology. You can read the open letter here:
Michelle and Mary Lou are both midwives and both have served on the MANA board at different times over the past 20 years. Many prominent women in the midwifery movement signed the open letter. Signers were met with the now-usual backlash received by women who dare to question gender. Pro-gender midwives slandered one of the founding mothers of the modern home birth movement, Ina May Gaskin and even set up a petition to ban her from speaking at future conferences.
Mary Lou was the target of a libelous article in the Huffington Post.
MANA itself refused to respond to the concerns addressed in the letter, choosing to ignore the letter and its signers. A pro-gender group calling itself Birth for Every Body did write a queer theory based response to the open letter, and MANA later adopted this letter as its official stance on the issue.
WoLF presence at MANA conference
Even before they became aware of the changes in the MANA core competencies document, Michelle and Mary Lou had planned to represent the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) at the annual MANA conference which was being held in their home state of New Mexico. Reproductive sovereignty is a core tenet of WoLF and WoLF supports autonomous midwifery and birth choices for all women. WoLF also works to combat the patriarchal violence endemic in our culture’s brutal birth practices. The MANA conference seemed like a perfect place to spread the word about radical feminism and recruit for WoLF. Mary Lou sent MANA a check for $500 for the exhibitor fee along with the exhibit hall application. One month later, she received an email from MANA Vice President Sarita Bennettexpressing concerns about whether it would be appropriate for WoLF to have a table at the MANA conference. Over the course of many frustrating phone calls and emails, Sarita Bennett explained that MANA disagreed with radical feminist analysis, denied that a global system of male supremacy exists, and stated that women who believe that a system of male supremacy oppresses female people around the world are “dysfunctional” and have a “victim mindset.” Sarita Bennett even told Mary Lou that from her perspective of a mother with sons, she believes that patriarchy oppresses males more than females. At the end of these heartbreaking discussions, MANA sent an official letter stating that WoLF could not have a table at the conference exhibit hall because the presence of WoLF would make people feel unsafe.
Rather than be deterred, Michelle and Mary Lou chose to follow the historical tradition of banned radical groups and hold a radical feminist shadow conference. They were joined by WoLF members from around the continent. Carol Downer, Kathy Scarbrough, Kathy Mandigo, and Laura Pérez flew in to represent WoLF at the event. The conference was a huge success and helped mobilize the formation of a New Mexico WoLF pack.
The leadership of MANA used the conference as a venue for promoting gender theory. The MANA board refused to meet with any members of WoLF to discuss the issue, choosing instead to ignore WoLF’s presence at the event. MANA made it clear that discussion of the issue was forbidden in the conference area, posting signs promoting “safe space” all over the conference site. The signs stated that people would be expected to behave respectfully toward people regardless of “race, class, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, gender expression, religion, language, and more.” This sign perfectly reflected the MANA board’s earlier statement to WoLF that sex-based oppression does not exist. Apparently, in the MANA world view female people are no longer oppressed on the basis of sex. MANA also printed hundreds and hundreds of buttons promoting the erasure of women and the codification of gender identity as the way we should view human reproduction. Like the “safe space” signs, the buttons used the language of the genderist response to the Woman Centered Midwifery open letter, and read “A Midwife for Every Body.” Anyone who has been active in midwifery politics over the past decades should be able to recognize the political coup that has happened as evidenced by these buttons. For the past 20+ years, MANA has promoted the slogans “A Midwife for Every Mother” and “Midwife Means With-Woman.” Buttons with these slogans were routinely handed out at MANA conferences but glaringly absent from the 2015 gathering. Women and mothers have been erased. Midwives now take care of bodies, and gender-neutral bodies at that. Witnessing this change has been emotionally and politically heart wrenching.
WoLF members were policed by MANA at the conference. Security teams followed us around and immediately removed any fliers or information we placed in the venue about our shadow conference. Conference officials came by WoLF member Carol Downer’s Women’s Health in Women’s Hands table daily to take pictures and make sure Carol was not displaying any WoLF materials or information critical of the gender industry. On the second night of the conference, Carol’s table was raided by unknown people and much of her radical information was removed.
Michelle and Mary Lou found it easier to remain in the WoLF suite with their feminist sisters rather than face shunning and silencing by their fellow midwives at the MANA conference. Up in the radfem suite, a steady stream of interested women came to learn about radical feminism. We offered food, chocolate, articles on radical feminist topics, free notepads, stickers, and other propaganda. We also put on a full alternative conference with speakers from around the country addressing contemporary feminist issues.
Reproductive biologist Kathy Scarbrough gave the first WoLF shadow conference presentation which was attended by thirteen women. Kathy spoke on the topic “Women’s Liberation is Based on Sex, Not Gender.” In wonderfully scientific detail she taught participants the difference between sex and gender, debunking the myth of any scientific evidence supporting female brains and male brains existing separately from female and male bodies. She clearly explained human sexual dimorphism and cautioned against viewing anomalies as proof that sex is not a binary. Providing a class analysis of reproduction as labor, Kathy explained how the roots of patriarchal oppression lie in males attempting to control the means of human reproduction, i.e. female bodies. Males exploit the reproductive labor of female people all over the world. This is labor that can only be done by females and should be compensated and honored. The exploitation of reproductive labor leads to the exploitation of other forms of labor relegated to women and usually not monetarily or culturally valued: child-rearing beyond birth and breastfeeding, emotional caretaking, domestic chores, etc. When we lose the ability to discuss sex-based oppression, we lose the ability to effectively fight it.
The WoLF suite was packed to capacity for the next session of our shadow conference. Eighty-two year old WoLF member Carol Downer dynamically recounted the history of the women’s self-help movement she helped found in the late 1960s. Carol told us about the bad old days when women risked their health and lives ending unwanted pregnancies. Women of this generation were kept uninformed of their own bodies and placed their trust in male abortion providers who often provided dangerous and degrading services. Carol helped form a woman-supervised underground abortion service where women stayed with each other for the procedures and made sure no one was being raped and abused by the abortionists. While working at one of these clinics, Carol (who had given birth six times but knew very little about her own body) saw a cervix for the very first time. She had a lightbulb experience, realizing “that’s it! It’s only a few inches away and has an easy opening. We can do this ourselves, women!” She stole a plastic speculum from the clinic and proceeded to show other women her cervix and explain that early suction abortion was a simple procedure that women could safely perform on each other. Carol’s friend Lorraine Rothman, who had a science background and worked in a biology lab, invented the Del Em device using a mason jar, some aquarium tubing, a stopper with two holes in it, a 50cc syringe, and a one-way valve. Carol, Lorraine and their feminist consciousness raising group practiced cervical self exam, uterine size checks, and menstrual extraction on one another, safely performing thousands of procedures.
Carol and Lorraine founded the Feminist Women’s Health Center network and also packed up their speculums and Del Em equipment and went on tour of the United States spreading the good news about women’s health in women’s hands in various cities around the country. Carol’s controversial work eventually attracted the attention of patriarchal authority figures who tried repeatedly to stop her. In 1972, an infiltrator attended a self help group and reported back to law enforcement on Carol’s activities. Carol was arrested for practicing medicine without a license because she helped another woman in the group insert yogurt into her vagina to treat a yeast infection. This incident inspired Carol to go to law school and she became an attorney focusing on reproductive rights. She continues to travel around the country teaching cervical self-exam and the history of the self-help movement today and remains a powerful voice in re-radicalizing the fight for abortion rights.
The next event on the schedule for the WoLF shadow conference was a WoLF presence at MANA’s presentation of gender-promoter Sam Killerman, the man who says he invented the meme of the GenderBread Person (evidence exists that Killerman plagiarized this meme from other genderists). Six WoLF members and supporters attended Killerman’s question and answer session on gender. Audio of their contribution can be heard here:
MANA members attempted to silence Maritza/Mark Cummings, a gender critical transman. EVEN though Maritza/Mark is EXACTLY the kind of person who might become pregnant while not “identifying” as a woman, she was told that because she chose to live as a man she had no right to contribute to the conversation. The hypocrisy of changing the language of birth in deference to female bodied people who don’t identify as women and shutting down Mark was almost enough to drive a rational radical feminist mad!! WoLF member Shoshana Handel summed up the Sam Killerman event beautifully, telling us, “Don’t eat the genderbread. It made me really sick.”
The next morning Transition Radio hosts Mark and Lynna Cummings gave a powerful talk called “Confronting the Gender Industrial Complex.” The talk can be accessed here:
Mark (Maritza) & Lynna (Paul) spoke from the heart
and shared personal stories and reflections on the root causes of adult transgendering, updated information on the eugenics aspect of the trans industry, overviews of the economic factors driving the trans trend, and the reasons why medical transgendering of children is child abuse. Two pro-gender midwives wearing Birth for Every Body buttons attended the talk and seemed genuinely interested in the perspective that body hatred and misogyny are being marketed to children and adults by powerful interests that are making billions of dollars by medicalizing gender.
Mary Lou Singleton gave the next scheduled talk, “Women’s Bodies for Sale: the growing market in eggs, wombs and breastmilk.” Mary Lou started her discussion of the growing trade in women’s eggs, milk and wombs with a personal story. After taking the standardized test to enter graduate school Mary Lou began receiving solicitations to pay her for donating some eggs. She said she was quite poor and considered this.
To collect eggs from a healthy young woman, the egg-donor must be “super-ovulated,” that is, shot up with drugs that will cause 10 – 20 eggs to develop and ripen during her cycle rather than the usual one mature egg. Super-ovulation is painful and carries the known risks of ovarian cancer and premature ovarian failure. These risks are not mentioned by the companies trying to buy eggs when they solicit young women to consider egg donation. Egg donation is not at all easy and not at all comparable to sperm donation.
Surrogacy, or the renting out of one’s womb to gestate a child, is a booming market. In 2014 Time magazine named pregnancy as one of the 10 best jobs to outsource!! The idea is to pay a poor woman from another country to bear your child conceived via In Vitro Fertilization and laproscopic impregnation. Ever since a surrogate refused to give up a baby she had conceived and gestated, care has been taken to make sure that the surrogate has no genetic claim on the child. Eggs from women separate from the surrogate are used in the IVF procedures so the surrogate is seen as gestating a baby not “her own.” Surrogates are often required to live away from their families in an environment where their diet and everything else can be controlled.
There is also a market for breast milk. In 2013 Bloomberg ran an article with the title “Bodies Double as Cash Machines With U.S. Income Lagging” where this is mentioned. Mary Lou said the Clinton Foundation is setting up “milking stations” all over the 3rd world. They sell the idea that women with more milk than their baby requires can help another woman who doesn’t make enough milk but they actually take this donated milk and sell it (after pasteurizing it!). Some men get off sexually by drinking breast milk so there is a sexual fetish market for it, too. And there are reports of “johns” wanting to nurse on prostitutes’ breasts.
So, the extraction of resources from female bodies goes from eggs, to uteruses, to breast milk. Prostitution can be viewed as the rental of a vagina and other female body parts. Do you feel like a commodity yet? Ugh!!
For our evening presentation, Laura Pérez and Carol Downer led a cervical self-exam workshop which was attended by thirteen women and girls. Participants were given their own new speculums for personal use and instructed on the basics of self-exam. Self-exam groups destroy patriarchal taboos that separate us from other women, empower women to take control of their own health, and help women know more about the huge range of normal in terms of female anatomy. Carol had applied to offer the self-exam presentation at the MANA general conference but was denied a spot on the program because feminist self-exam groups go against the current trend to professionalize midwifery.
Also that evening, MANA honored WoLF supporter and signer of the Woman Centered Midwifery open letter Barbara Pepper as the recipient of the Sage Femme award. The Sage Femme award is given annually to an elder midwife who has dedicated the majority of her life to serving women and mothers (now referred to by MANA as “pregnant individuals” and “birthing parents”). Barbara invited two WoLF members to accompany her onstage wearing their WoLF t-shirts when she received her award. She gave a powerful speech about the importance of taking a stand for the truth and nodded in the direction of the WoLF members when she said this. MANA had been live tweeting the awards ceremony and chose to omit all mention of Barbara in their coverage. Pictures of Barbara receiving her award have been disappeared from the MANA website and MANA social media sites, presumably because they featured images of the WoLF logo.
The last morning of the conference, WoLF hosted an informal discussion about the forced professionalization of midwifery and other traditional female reproductive services. MANA was founded as a grass-roots organization representing all women who called themselves midwives. In the past few years, MANA has become increasingly corporatized and now requires midwives to be certified by a state or federal regulatory body in order to be voting members. This is a huge change and runs counter to the entire history of the organization. Similar trends are being seen as birth and breastfeeding support become recognized by the capitalist health care system as professions, rather than services women have always provided for each other. Bills criminalizing the sharing of breast milk are also being introduced in state legislatures in response to breastmilk becoming a “for-profit commodity”. How do we resist the forced professionalization of women’s culture while simultaneously working for economic sustenance and freedom for women called to serve other women? A lively discussion without firm conclusion ensued.
While the WoLF presence at MANA was small, we believe what we did was powerful on multiple levels. We gathered in the face of suppression, refused to be silent, and helped women see the connections between gender, corporatization, capitalism, and the commodification of female bodies. We experienced what feminist Fran Luck has termed “the joy of resistance.” A strong new local WoLF pack was formed with this bonding experience as its foundation.
Looking forward, we don’t know if we will be able to turn this frightening tide. Will children in the 2020s be pushed even more strongly into conforming with gender, asked at young ages if they want to be the Barbie or the Army man kind of person? Will more and more women be forced to decide between the “empowering choices” of selling their eggs, being raped for money in brothels, or risking their health and lives as surrogates? This is already happening at a terrifying rate in some poor countries. Will MANA 2025 celebrate the progress of midwives removing babies from artificial wombs and handing them to their male-to-trans “mothers”? Or will people wake up from this nightmare and remember that biology (i.e. life itself) is sacred, that the class of people called women deserve honor, respect, and (yes) compensation for the reproductive labor only they can provide, and that beyond basic reproductive functions and anatomy, female and male people should be Free to Be You and Me?
These articles represent some, but not all, of the materials that were available at the WoLF table.
Are we women or are we incubators? An interview with MaryLou Singleton
By Susan Cox
Eggs, milk and sex: What else must women sell?
By Alexandra Pelletier
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
By Mary Lou Singleton
Interview with Radical Feminist Alicen Grey
By John Carico
Patriarchy, Black Listing, and the Language of Birth | Mickey Z.
(Interview with Mary Lou Singleton)
Reproductive Sovereignty or Bust!
By Carol Downer
Women’s Liberation is Based on Sex not Gender
By Kathy Scarbrough