Friday, March 21, 2014
The Great Age Issue: Reproductive Equality in Marge Piercy
“So We All Became Mothers”:
Reproductive Equality in Marge Piercy
By Mala Ghoshal
One of the facets of science fiction which is particularly valuable to feminism is its ability to conceptually separate elements which are, in our society, nearly inextricably bound together, in order to consider each element individually. An excellent case in point is the distinction between sexual difference and reproductive difference. This paper focuses on Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time, which preserves the existence of two sexes but does away with the distinction between a birthing sex and a non-birthing sex. Furthermore, Piercy argues that sexual difference in and of itself doesn’t preclude the creation of an egalitarian society; reproductive difference, on the other hand, must be surmounted before true equality can be achieved.
The story’s protagonist is Connie, a poor institutionalized, Mexican-American woman, who is contacted by a woman who lives in a community called Mattapoisett 150 years in the future. While Connie is increasingly impressed by Mattapoisett’s tight-knit community, concern for individuals, lack of hierarchy, and overflowing joy and creativity, she is initially horrified by their system of reproduction and child rearing. Babies are brought to term in a uterine replicator, and raised by a trio of co-mothers (who may be either male or female, and who bear no genetic relation to the child). Connie protests, “How can men be mothers! How can some kid who isn’t related to you be your child?” (105). Luciente, her host in the future, responds,
It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in relation for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. (105)
Connie’s initial reaction to the Mattapoisett version of maternity is resentful fury, colored by her memories of the child who was taken away from her. She rages:
How could anyone know what being a mother means who has never carried a child nine months heavy under her heart, who has never born a baby in blood and pain, who has never suckled a child. Who got that child out of the machine the way that couple, rich and white, got my flesh and blood. All made up already, a canned child, just add money. What do they know of motherhood? (106)
The mothers of Mattapoisett don’t carry or bear their infants. Connie learns, to her increased outrage, that male as well as female mothers suckle. She reacts to the sight of a man nursing first with disgust, then with jealousy, and the with anger, reflecting:
[H]ow dare any man share that pleasure. These women thought they had won, but they had abandoned to men the last refuge of women. What was special about being a woman here? They had given it all up, they had let men steal from them the last remnants of ancient power, those sealed in blood and milk. (134)
The point that Piercy leads us to see is that there is nothing special about being a woman here – nor about being a man – nor does there need to be. Connie gradually moves from revulsion to acceptance of Mattapoisett’s revisions of biology. As she continues to watch the man nurse, she reflects that “[s]he could almost hate him in the peaceful joy to which he had no natural right; she could almost like him as he opened like a daisy to the baby’s sucking mouth” (135).
Much of the impact of Connie’s journey towards acceptance of Mattapoisett springs from its difficulty. By presenting biological motherhood as overwhelmingly beautiful and powerful, and then advancing arguments as to why aspects of it should be eliminated and other aspects shared anyway, Piercy compels her readers to grapple with the question.
Connie finally realizes that she has come to not only accept but also embrace Mattapoisett’s ways when she sees a child who seems the double of her lost daughter:
Suddenly she assented with all her soul to Angelina in Mattapoisett.… Yes, you can have my child, you can keep my child…. She will be strong there, well fed, well housed, well taught, she will grow up much better and stronger and smarter than I…. She will never be broken as I was. She will be strange, but she will be glad and strong and she will not be afraid. She will have enough. She will have pride. She will love her own brown skin and be loved for her strength and her hard work. She will walk in strength like a man and never sell her body and she will nurse babies like a woman and live in love like a garden, like that children’s house of many colors. People of the rainbow with its end fixed in the earth, I give her to you! (141)
All of Mattapoisett’s citizens are able to walk in strength like men and nurse babies like women; they are all free from participation in certain aspects of maternity and free to participate in other aspects of maternity. Thus, sexual differences lose meaning in the absence of reproductive difference; gender roles are completely absent from Mattapoisett, and Connie frequently has trouble distinguishing males from females. Indeed, she believes that her Mattapoisett host, Luciente, is male for the first sixty-seven pages of the book. When she realizes her error, her reflections emphasize how gendered the most minute aspects of behavior are in our society:
Luciente spoke, she moved with that air of brisk unselfconscious authority Connie associated with men. Luciente sat down, taking up more space than women ever did. She squatted, she sprawled, she strolled, never thinking about her body was displayed. (67)
Because we see Luciente through Connie’s eyes we also perceive her as male throughout the beginning of the novel. The fact that we see her first as a man and then as a woman contributes to Piercy’s successful depiction of Luciente as socially androgynous, unbounded by gender roles or expectations.
Another remarkably effective strategy of highlighting the centrality of sexual difference in our culture and convincingly depicting a society where sexual difference just isn’t seen as terribly relevant is Piercy’s use of gender-neutral pronoun, “per.” We never learn the sex of many of the minor characters, and the sex of other characters seems unimportant partly because it is not constantly emphasized in language. Piercy’s creation of a completely gender-neutral language has the result that her society is completely androgynous. Emerging from Woman on the Edge of Time, a reader returns with new eyes to a language and a culture that suddenly seem saturated with markings of sexual difference.
Piercy’s novel calls our attention to our concepts of identity and bodily experience. The issue of connection between mind and body, soul and flesh, occupies a pivotal place in both philosophy and feminism. Historically, systems of thought which see the mind and body as separate and separable have opposed the two in a hierarchical and antagonistic relationship which privileges the mind over the body. In such systems, the body has often been equated with women, nature, and racial others, who need to be subdued and controlled by those who equate themselves with the mind. Many feminists are understandably skeptical, then, of technologies which seek to overcome nature and “free” people from the constraints of physicality. Other feminists embrace the use of such technologies as a means of breaking down the equation between women and the body.
Piercy embraces the use of technology to eliminate reproductive difference. At first glance, Piercy’s society, which entirely replaces natural birth with artificial birth, seems more concerned with overcoming the constraints and discomforts of the flesh. Her society also renders the physical markers of race and sex culturally meaningless. Connie, a woman who experiences her race and sex as well as her experience of pregnancy and childbirth as central to her identity, initially reacts against these aspects of Mattapoisett: “She hated them, the bland bottleborn monsters of the future, born without pain, multicolored like a litter of puppies without the stigma of race and sex” (106).
Eventually, however, Connie and the reader come to see the citizens of Mattapoisett as both deeply embodied and cautious in their use of technology. Connie’s observation of a man experiencing the sensual pleasure of nursing is one place where the embodied experience is emphasized; when she asks Luciente why they don’t use formula, she responds, “But the intimacy of it! We suspect loving and sensual enjoyment are rooted in being held and suckling and cuddling” (135). Piercy’s novel reveals a closer sense of identity between the body and the self and more comfort with less pleasurable aspects of physicality. The citizens of Mattapoisett treat health problems largely through “inknowing,” or biofeedback; inknowing is not seen as a way of using the mind to control the body, but as a way of understanding the unity of the two. Thus, Piercy’s novel celebrates bodies as they are, be that fleshy, scarred, or aged. Surgical modification of the body appears only in the brief vision of a dystopic future against which Mattapoisett is poised, in which women are surgically “improved” to meet absurd standards of femininity and men are melded with machines to create more efficient and obedient soldiers.
Finally, Piercy’s society accepts aging and death. When Connie asks Luciente why her society hasn’t solved these problems, Luciente responds, “But Connie, some problems you solve only if you stop being human, become metal, plastic, robot computer. Is dying itself a problem?” (125). Though Piercy is concerned with minimizing the domination of nature by humans and eliminating the domination of women by men, she is also concerned with minimizing the domination of children by adults. Consequently, in Piercy’s novel, the nuclear family has given way to trios of comothers who agree to share the care of a child until age twelve or so. Comothers are generally not lovers, “[s]o the child will not get caught in love misunderstandings” (74). The notion of the nuclear family is further disrupted by living arrangements: each adult lives in a spec of “per” own, the children all live together in a children’s house, and all meals are communal. School has been replaced with learning by doing, and children accompany adults whose work interests them. Connie notes with surprise the fact that the community has the resources to provide children with art supplies and tools and complex scientific equipment, but toys are virtually absent. The explanation she receives provides a thought-provoking perspective on the contemporary utility of toys:
They play farming and cooking and repair and fishing and driving and manufacture and plant breeding and baby tending. When children aren’t kept out of the real work, they don’t have the same need for imitation things…. In that time…they had many toys for teaching sex roles to children. (138)
Along with sex roles, taboos against children’s sexuality have vanished. While touring the children’s house, Connie and her guides accidentally intrude on two seven-year-olds attempting intercourse; her guides are startled and amused by Connie demanding, “Aren’t you going to stop them?” (138). The relaxed attitude of the citizens of Mattapoisett towards children’s sexual activity mirrors that expressed in Theodore Sturgeon’s utopia Venus Plus X: “Questions: When are they old enough to do it? Answer: When they are old enough to do it” (145).
Even before puberty, then, children in Mattapoisett are perceived as much more capable of engaging in “adult” activities and decision-making than children in our society. Children do still have a distinct status; but this status is formally removed following an initiation ritual in which a child survives alone in the woods for a week, has visions, and chooses a new name. At this point the child (usually about twelve years old) returns to the community as a full adult. When Connie protests the danger involved in leaving a child alone in the woods, a mother explains, “We have found no way to break dependencies without some risk. What we can’t risk is our people remaining stuck in old patterns – quarreling through what you called adolescence” (116). The end of childhood is thus also the end of motherhood. Upon a child’s return, per mothers are not permitted to speak to per for three months: “Lest we forget we aren’t mothers anymore and person is an equal member” (116).
Piercy explicitly states her belief that children are capable of a much higher level of self-sufficiency and autonomy than they are granted in our society: in the most explicit instance, one of her characters tells Connie, “[Y]our young remained economically dependent long after they were ready to work. We set our children free” (116).
Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1976. Print.
Sturgeon, Theodore. Venus Plus X. New York: Foundation, 1988. Print.