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Monday
Aug022010

Separatism: conflict amongst the ranks

We recently celebrated Pride here in San Diego, PrideFest, aka HomoFest. I went to the parade and stood with 150,000 others, cheering for our freedoms (and demanding even more), our hard-won self-esteem and for the sheer joy of hanging out with friends. When I marched with the kids in 1990, the parade was all of forty-five minutes long. This one went on for a couple of hours. 

Sarah and I had broken up for awhile in 1988. I was a crazed mess, so went into therapy and immersed myself into the lesbian community here in San Diego. I went to several lesbian support groups, but the one on Thursday nights turned out to be the most interesting of them all. 

Those weekly meetings at the (then) Gay & Lesbian Center, took me from the myopic, white, heterosexual, middle class mindset and introduced me to… nay, challenged me… to see from various vantage points and acknowledge that I was really just a self-centered, ego-driven, hypnotized woman who thought she knew what was going on in the world. I sat, spellbound, listening to women talk about oppressions I never knew existed. I grew up in the Deep South, so had an inkling of racial oppression, but sitting face to face with women of color was stunning. I endured finger pointing, enumerating the ways I, too, was oppressing women of color… saying things like “I don’t see color; I see people,” and not knowing the PC (politically correct) terms for the nuanced cultures of the women right around me. 

I learned about other marginalized cultures (“marginalized” was a word I heard many times in those days)… the bdsm (bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism) folks, the butch (more “masculine” energied) dykes, teens coming out, lesbian mothers (my people! …who were few and far between back then), migrant lesbians, etc. and the subcultures of each of the marginalized people. Those nights at Group opened my eyes to worlds I’d never imagined. It was there I realized that every topic, every person had their own subtext within them. And those subtexts were never-ending. None of that even begins to examine the “isms” of the day, including classism and sizeism (another group I embodied). 

It’s like this in birth, too, isn’t it? Under the umbrella of human procreation, there exist an infinite number of choices women can make (or are forced to endure). Depending on where you live and even the political atmosphere of the day, the choices are rounded up like a huge net grabbing fish in the ocean. Whoever does the throwing can alter the birth’s path and outcome. Birth in the hospital? At home? With a midwife? Alone? Or, if we live in a Third World Country, does the mother feel safer with her family or the local Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA)? Do we risk losing our safe hiding place to transfer to the hospital because of a hemorrhage? (And, please know, this is an area I do not have much information about… the different choices women have in other, less mechanized, cultures. I welcome the education.) 

And then we move down the flow chart, each choice above having an infinite number of options, or, if not options, an outcome that is different for every single woman… maybe not in the live baby/live mother, live baby/dead mother, dead baby/live mother or dead baby/dead mother, but each woman carries her own experience, some in the body, others in the heart and some even deep in their souls. 

At the Festival, I ran into a couple of women from those long-ago rap groups and the flood of memories prompted me to write this. The analogy was so striking, the things that are going on in birth; I just couldn’t ignore the beckoning sirens. I hope I don’t crash amongst the rocks. 

When Sarah (who was in the Army) and I were in Germany, we’d found an underground group of gay men and women (Friends of Dorothy) and one of those women called herself a Separatist. Not having the Internet, I learned through context what that meant. 

Kathy Belge describes Separatism like this: 

“Lesbian separatism is the feminist political act of choosing to be around only lesbians or only women. In the early years of the Feminist Movement, some lesbians chose to avoid interacting with men as a way to remove themselves from male-dominated society. Their belief was that even well-meaning men were sexist and influenced by the patriarchy. They chose to be around only women in order to understand what womanhood and sisterhood is really all about. Some women moved to the country, bought land and created women-only societies. Avoiding all men was impossible, but they chose to have all of their significant relationships with women. The idea was that women could never truly understand themselves as powerful beings if they were immersed in the dominant, sexist culture. From lesbian separatism the idea of women-only space came into being at concerts, conferences and festivals.” 

This particular woman we met in Germany was so much of a Separatist, she gave her son to his father because she couldn’t abide by having a penis in the house. 

Historically, it’s important to note the connection between the Black Separatist movements of the sixties, acting as models for the women who came after in the seventies. Other societies have also chosen to remove themselves from the mainstream, too; the Amish and the Shakers, for instance. 

Any of us who’ve been in the birth world for any length of time have watched the same happen. Doctor? Obstetrician? Doctor of Osteopathy? Family Practice MD? Registered Nurse? RN with or without a BSN? Certified Nurse Midwife? Certified Midwife? Licensed Midwife? Certified Professional Midwife? Unlicensed/Direct-Entry Midwife? Religious Midwife? Overseeing organizations are created, a board elected, rules written (and continuously debated); exclusivity is a hallmark of any patriarchally-oriented organization.

Again, under each of the above monikers, factions develop, pulling together and, at the same time, pulling apart, oftentimes creating a whole new category. 

In the late 1970’s, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was born. Note the spelling of “womyn” (alternately spelled “wimmin”) – any derivative of the word “men” in it was changed to a different, “womon”-centered word. (We find this same mindset in birth with the renaming of the vagina to yoni or contractions to surges.) While I didn’t come out until late 1986, the Music Festival, and many others like it were still going strong, this one in particular continuing today. 

 If you poke around, Googling MWMF, you’ll see an on-going discussion, years long, about whether to allow transgender folks to attend. Lisa Vogel, one of the founders of the yearly event says: 

“Since 1976, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has been created by and for womyn-born womyn, that is, womyn who were born as and have lived their entire life experience as womyn. Despite claims to the contrary by Camp Trans organizers, the Festival remains a rare and precious space intended for womyn-born womyn.” 

Interestingly, this wasn’t a concern back in the mid-late 80’s. Instead, then, it was the battle between allowing male children to attend or not. Some didn’t want any males there… no penises at all. Others were okay with nurslings and there were women who said kids under five. They picked five years old because they were still heavily influenced by their mothers, but after that they were in school and being influenced by the patriarchy. I see now, they’ve got two delineations: five and ten. They are segregated, but still permitted to attend. Why the five to ten-year olds? They were in school, but before puberty hit, when they would be considered real men. 

To some of us, this might sound absurd. People are people! How are men supposed to change without women around to show them the way? My eleven-year/fourteen-year/seventeen-year old son is not a man yet. But, I promise, to these women, Separatism was a grave and intensely crucial topic that required an opinion, one way or the other; black or white – choose or you were dismissed (physically and emotionally). Gray simply did not exist. Whole groups (and clubs) revolved around defining the word “Separatism” and who “qualified” as a real Separatist. In a fantastic article in the New Yorker, Ariel Levy says: 

“Different groups had different definitions of separatism, ranging from a refusal to associate with men to a refusal to associate with straight women to a refusal to associate with gay women who weren’t separatists.” 

The most idealistic/dogmatic womyn transformed their lives into a world where they rarely, if ever, had any contact with men. Some moved to womyn-owned land, allowing only womyn to live or visit there, excluding even male-born children; meaning mothers were required to divorce themselves from their sons. 

Does any of this sound familiar? 

Looking around, can we see parallels in the birth community? Groups form and morph depending on the cause célèbre. Should fathers be present at births? (Interestingly, while this was a big issue in the seventies and eighties, it’s come around again with Dr. Michel Odent’s belief that men should not be at births after all.) Which childbirth classes should women take? Bradley? Lamaze? None? Of course, the gulf widens as we add in Natural Birth, Normal Birth, Cesarean Birth and Unassisted Births. 

We also see this in the politics of birth even as I speak. Whether it is women who schedule a cesarean, get an early epidural or have an Unassisted (child)Birth (UC), proponents and detractors tend to be rabid about their choices. It’s very hard to find some gray. Sometimes I wonder if it even exists. 

John MacAdams of the Marquette Warrior, says “It’s a chronic problem in the rarefied world of political correctness -- and that world has spread out of academia into the mainstream media. Members of designated victim groups are allowed to be offended at the barest slight, but feel perfectly free to express rank bigotry toward those who disagree with them, or even merely adopt a different lifestyle.” 

We see any discussion deteriorate, almost as they begin, into accusations, hurt feelings and an absolute insistence on the rightness of the speaker. Isn’t there something, anything, we have in common? How do we find it amongst the sludge we all seem to be slogging in?

 Occasionally, the thought rises to the top, “What is this doing to benefit women?” On-lookers turn their heads back and forth as if they were at a tennis match; but where’s the ball? Is all this in-fighting hurting our causes (if you will)? Or is this the normal push and pull of a larger entity, clamoring to break off and live on its own. 

The latter stages of (the larger) Separatism movement found the lesbians raging against the heterosexual women, each “side” having ghastly epithets to heave at each other. “Breeder” came from that time. 

Jill Johnston says, in “Lesbian Nation,”: (emphasis mine) 

“Women wanted to remove their support from men, the ‘enemy’ in a movement for reform, power, and self-determination. A revolutionary prototype existed in their midst. But the prejudice against women within the ranks of women, much less loving women at the intimate level, was so great (still is, of course) that feminists could only act against their own best interests and trash the women who modeled their beliefs. The split between straight feminists and lesbian feminists was extremely damaging, and will no doubt continue to be in any future wave, to the cause of women’s liberation. The internal damage within the lesbian feminist ranks was also lethal.” 

I worry the same thing will happen in birth. Will the in-fighting be so intense we will only appeal to the most radical of those interested? Will women who are simply curious be so disgusted with our polarized beliefs, they couldn’t care less if we had the answer to the riddles of the Universe because it’s impossible to hear over the roar of anger? 

In those rap group days, I worked on the San Diego Lesbian Press, the local magazine/newspaper, obviously geared towards dykes who live here in San Diego. Working on SDLP was my first experience 1. working with only women and 2. using consensus to problem solve. Working with women is a whole blog post on its own. (Sarah should write it; she has extremely strong feelings about it.) But, can I tell you now how much I HATE consensus?! I mean, seriously. Could there be anything more time-consuming and more manipulative than trying to come to a consensus? Blech. I will no longer participate in groups that use consensus as their method for problem solving. (And I know others love consensus, think it’s the only way to come to “fair” answers, but that is not the way I see it. At. All.) 

I was ignorant then, a joiner and a newly self-discovered writer, so I became a part of the SDLP Collective

The defining moment came when there was a discussion about accepting an ad from a company owned by a man. There wouldn’t be any man in the ad, no penis would subliminally peek through, but this discussion turned into a humongous, weeks-long “discussion” (and I use the term loosely). You see, SDLP needed money something fierce; could they/we afford to turn away money… even though it did come from a man? The separatist side vociferously refused to even consider accepting money from The Enemy; the ad was absolutely not to be in the paper. Just as emphatically, less rigid, though still feminist, women could see the benefit of taking the money. Wouldn’t it be using a man’s money for a good cause? Wouldn’t we be bettering our women’s lives by being able to put out a paper? (Something we very likely would not be able to do otherwise.) When using consensus, everyone has to agree, no dissenters at all. I remember occasionally making a comment, but it was obvious I was a neophyte and no one cared what I said. I was probably asking basic questions like, “What are we fighting about again? I can’t even remember anymore!” 

I ended up leaving the SDLP to fight themselves to death; and they did, too. SDLP died shortly thereafter. I snarkily say dogma killed them. 

Is this our fate as well? Are the two extremes going to kill themselves off, leaving nothing but the center? 

Thinking about myself personally, I participate in this Us vs. Them as much as the next gal… maybe more sometimes. I’ve been implored to keep my mouth shut about certain issues, to try and make peace with all the birth sisters around me, no matter how much I disagree. But, you see, I wasn’t mature enough to ask the right questions back in early 1990. However, today, with many years of birth work under my belt, I feel qualified to defend my position and to speak, if not somewhat eloquently, at least pretty darn clearly about what I see and why. I’m an old crone of a midwife now (even though my midwife years are nothing compared to many of my peers), sharing the stories of those around me. Most are gloriously beautiful, wondrous births. But, too many of the stories aren’t fabulously perfect births; they have ended in tragedy and pain. I tell those stories, too. If it angers some women, then so be it. Their stories piss me off, too, so I guess, in some alternate-universe way, we’re even. 

When I stand back and see the parallels between the two Separatist movements, I know they are but two of a billion other arguments/discussions/opinions going on simultaneously. From husband vs. wife, Catholic vs. Protestant and the United States vs. everyone else to Wall Street vs. stockholders, Unions vs. employers and organic vs. commercially grown food… thinking there are just two sides is absurd. The same way couples go to therapy, employers go to mediation and we get to choose our food by which ones we buy, there have to be other ways of bridging the gaps we have in birth besides blowing each other up with bombs. 

I think about the song “From a Distance” that Bette Midler sings. 

“From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves,
it's the heart of every man.” 

I promise to remind myself, in the heat of those moments when I am standing toe to toe with another woman, that even as I speak my mind and tell my stories, I will remember she is a sister, she does have valuable things to say and I will keep an open heart and mind to what she is saying. I would only wish the same from her.

 

Me (and my big butt) marching in the LGBT Parade in the early 90's. Look! Polarized views even about marching with kids!

 

Reader Comments (6)

as always very interesting.
sub cultures are everywhere i see-- the same in parenting groups. attachment parenting vs. mainstream, attachment parenting with no coersion or low coersion or positive disclipine etc...and if you differ in any way from the group, well then you're a "them" perhaps you are noticing one of the fingerprints of humanity in general. ...I had NO idea about all the womyn stuff, very interesting history... . something that popped into my head...bellydancing was created by women for women, used to be a girls only group...no penis' allowed.

August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Turpin Thiess

This is a great post. Love the little look into your past! This has been on my mind alot as well recently, and why I've kind of backed off the mothering/birthing/parenting community to some degree. I'm past getting off on calling other mothers/parents names and deciding on imaginary motivations behind their actions. Fear, laziness, ignorance, stupidity, evil, selfishness, greed, BLEH! How is it helping them, indeed. (Jill at Keyboard Revolutionary also just posted some similar stuff.)

August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStassja

Great, great post, as usual, Barb! So much to digest here...I think I need to re-read it at least a couple of times. These thoughts about polarization in birth have been on my mind, too. And it is so true that by polarizing, we end up alienating any person who might just be curious b/c they come away thinking we're a bunch of looney nut-jobs. Ugh. Trying to find my middle ground, too...

August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah B.

Great post. I agree with you. Changes, development and growth spin off into polarised places. That polarisation is part of the process. I love the Rumi statement that goes something like out beyond good and evil (etc - the dualities) is a meeting place, I'll meet you there. He said it much more elegantly and poetically than I have :-) but you get my drift?
In my 'hallucination', the only middle ground is what does this particular woman want and need at this time. and the next question? Am I able to meet her there. The vital aspect is that those questions are asked and the answers truly respected.
Thanks for the great read and exploration.

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Hastie

Barb, I've been reading your blog for about 6 months now and I have to say it has been enthralling. I'm not ready to have children yet (give me two or three years, though...), but I have always been fascinated by pregnancy and birth. I don't think I'd be selfless enough to be a midwife (based on the entry you wrote to aspiring midwives) but I envy you the experience of being with women during those moments and helping to create and hold the space.

With that introduction, I was driven to comment by Michel Odent's article about men being present (or not) during birth. You don't really say in your post what you think about it. What has your experience as a midwife shown you about the fathers being there?

I personally cannot imagine my husband not being present during the birth of our future children, and I think he would be flabbergasted and deeply hurt if I said I didn't want him there. My feeling about Michel Odent's position is that he is basing his opinion on the old style of marriage and gender roles, where men are men and women are wives and mothers. In my own relationship, gender roles are very fluid and I'd venture to say that my husband takes on more stereotypically female roles than I do. He is my support and my most trusted confidante and best friend--why would I not want him there to support me and share in our child's entrance to the world? We share everything else and are equal partners in our relationship.

I'd also be curious as to what Michel Odent would think of lesbian relationships in which one partner is giving birth. Should the non-birthing partner not be there because she might be anxious and stall the birth? Because she might no longer see her partner as a sexual being afterwards? I'd suspect he wouldn't think so--that he would feel differently about a female partner being present than a male partner (even if she hadn't given birth and didn't want to), which I think makes his argument inherently sexist.

I hope to see what your opinion is on this! I really respect your opinions and thoughts on birth (and the other things you write about, too!).

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

Thanks for the timely post. Timely because, 13 yrs and counting into my midwifery career (student to midwife) I am deeply exploring my own sense of professional solidarity and identity, as well as feeling alternately enraged and disgusted by the midwifery culture wars.

It seems to me that by saying what an 'authentic' midwife is is tantamount to saying what an 'authentic' woman is. Women are operating within the context of their own lives, it is when they feel judged and pressured that they are less their authentic selves. Turns out some women WANT hospital births (haven't we all had that mom that was able to relax and enjoy herself once we transported her to the hospital?). Some women, despite good IC WANT their babies cut out of their abdomens. Some women want to give birth ALL BY THEMSELVES. As far as I can tell, if these are honest impulses and informed decisions, they're all OK in my book.

I have a theory about UC and CSMD: they are two sides of the same coin, just as some midwives I know are the flip-side to Dr. Amy's coin. If her dogma makes you sick, there are midwives out there that are just as nauseating. So: over time it matters less and less to me who you say you are (midwife? Dr? CNM?) and more what you do. Are you able to be flexible in your thinking? Are you able to see where educating crosses the line into judging, from helping to hindering?

Lately I am gathering my tribe about me, and turns out there are just as many Dr's as midwives. I am truly blessed to know so many spectacular people who's actions speak louder than their words.

Thank you for the thought provoking blog.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah M

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