In her latest book, author Laura Briggs makes a convincing argument that reproductive labor is at the heart of all public conversation and policy over the past several decades. “The massive changes in the economy since the late 1970s—stagnant real wages, shrinking government support for everything from schools to roads to welfare, ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘moral hazard’ as the reasons for vast public policy changes—were driven in significant part through a demonization of the reproductive labor of people understood to be women, particularly women of color, and all people who do care work,” writes Briggs in How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump.
And if we want to move toward a more equitable society, she explains, we need to understand those connections and how it has all led to a Trump regime.
Briggs, professor and chair of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is an expert in the interconnectedness of gender and empire. As Loretta Ross, co-author of Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, explained in a statement promoting the book, “Books that offer a comprehensive intersection of reproductive politics and nonbiological public policies are rare. Laura Briggs offers an extensive examination of how all governments use and misuse reproductive bodies, a critical and timely analysis for all reproductive justice activists and scholars.”
And she manages to pull off this extensive examination in just 212 pages, using language that is accessible to those who are new to the material, while also creating crucial new understanding for those who consider themselves informed on gender and politics and/or people who are examining ways to use public policies to create change as part of broader justice movements. The book leads the reader through the years neoliberalism—“the political movement among the 1 percent to shrink government, unions, and wages and redistribute wealth upwards”—was created and sold by the GOP to the masses in order to shrink the social safety net. It also has led to fear-based campaigns for power, like the one run by our current president.
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“This neoliberal privatization of care has been the core question at the back of nearly every other public policy issue, including the election of Donald Trump, who campaigned with the old racist promise to white people: White working people’s pockets are empty because of people of color (immigrants and Black criminals); put your faith in the white ruling class (we’ll keep your wages low but you’ll get to feel superior to nonwhite people).”
Certainly, this wasn’t a new tactic. “For decades,” writes Briggs, “the neoliberal movement accomplished its political goals in particular through race-based shaming of supposedly irresponsible reproductive behavior—an account of Black ‘welfare queens’ and Latina ‘breeding machines.’”
These false tropes have been used to pit middle class and poor white folks against immigrants (particularly the undocumented) and poor people of color. The desire to not be at the bottom rung made it extremely easy to blame “irresponsible” people of color for a whole host of things, including the mortgage crisis. While some readers may not think of the mortgage crisis as a reproductive issue, what could be more foundational to our ability to raise families, care for dependents of all types (children, disabled adult siblings, aging parents, etc.) than the need for a stable, functional place to live? Briggs has a talent for making these connections clear, tying them to the overall movement to fully privatize caregiving and support, and highlighting who is most affected.
For example, she explains that “Black and Latinx borrowers, systematically dispossessed of land and assets across generations, were unlikely to have family resources to turn to” as the housing market crashed in 2008. In particular, households led by single mothers were disproportionately filing bankruptcy all the way back to 1999—almost a decade before others would feel the effects of lending practices.
Marginalized groups always get blamed first both to justify neoliberal policies and as the reason those policies don’t solve systemic problems, whether or not people of color, the LGBTQ community, the poor, people with disabilities, immigrants, and so on actually contributed to the issue candidates and commentators are bloviating on. “[N]ot all families count,” as Briggs writes in her introduction. The campaign to lead welfare “reform”—begun before Reagan, but brought into distinct focus during his presidency—created a particular dichotomy where some families mattered and others were depicted as stealing resources from them.
“‘Welfare reform’ was both a symptom and a cause of changes in the middle-class family: nobody could stay home with the kids anymore and there could be no expectation of public support. The anti-welfare campaign, more than any other single thing, ushered in the neoliberal movement .… Households are where we have most acutely felt the changes of neoliberalism, its shocks and disruptions.”
Trump further divided the country during his campaign by playing up this notion that resources and jobs were being stolen from the families that mattered—that is, white, “legal,” heteronormative, Christian households. He may not have invented the dog whistles or overt language used to motivate his base, but—as Briggs makes clear in her book—he is the (possibly inevitable) culmination of the politics of the past two generations.
These politics have had widespread effect; even movements that the progressive community thinks of as generally positive have been tainted by or grounded in neoliberal thought—including marriage equality.
As Briggs explains, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (2003), which ultimately made same-sex marriage legal in Massachusetts, didn’t decide for the plaintiff on freedom or equality grounds.
“The court argued that marriage, straight or gay, ‘provides for the orderly distribution of property, ensures that children and adults are cared for and supported whenever possible from private rather than public funds.’ Marriage serves to free the state from certain kinds of responsibilities (and costs), and so gay marriage could be understood to be a public good. It was about the privatization.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy reinforced this in the majority decision for United States v. Windsor, the federal case overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), by arguing that harm was being done to the children of queer folx. DOMA “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples,” he wrote, creating language that would echo through the circuit courts. Also in 2013, a federal district court in Utah found: “Like opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples may decide to marry partly or primarily for the benefits and support that marriage can provide to the children the couple is raising or plans to raise.” Support, of course, that should come from the primary family unit, never from the state. Legitimizing more families meant conservatives and neoliberals of all stripes could expect this newly included group to fend for themselves.
For all their talk about children, conservatives (read: neoliberals) don’t bother to even pay lip service to an issue Briggs spends significant time on: Black infant mortality and racial disparities in miscarriage rates. The author includes research that definitively puts to bed the notion that “bad maternal behavior” is to blame, and ties the wholly ignored mourning of Black families who bury their children at four times the rate of white families to the sympathy paid to those white families using reproductive technology because they chose or were forced by capitalistic structures to wait to have children.
And then she ties them to neoliberalism and our cultural breakdown more broadly.
“Infertility, ARTS [assisted reproductive technologies], later childbearing, pregnancy loss, and infant mortality are more than ‘just’ reproductive issues; they are how we are living racially differentiated transformations in the economy, public benefits, and the wider culture,” she writes.
Briggs asserts that the ways in which women have been forced into the workplace without any replacement resources for the jobs they had been doing in the home, along with the demonization of Black families and complete disregard for the environments in which many must live, are connected. Neither middle class white families who delay having children nor Black families whose community-wide mourning is broadly ignored are able to create the lives they want.
“We have been debating abortion, birth control, and the means of preventing unwanted pregnancies vigorously and at length for two generations,” writes Briggs, “but while we were looking there, many people lost the ability to have the children they wanted, not only through the involuntary sterilization of people of color and those of any race with disabilities, as activists have been protesting for generations now, but also through involuntary, structural infertility as a result of economic changes and unsafe jobs.”
Tying all these initially disparate-seeming issues to reproductive politics serves an important function. It is nearly impossible to dismantle a system without understanding first how it was built up and sustained. Also, understanding that the failures of these systems have root causes makes seeing through and breaking down the political arguments on which they’re founded simpler. The possible solutions to what at first glance appear to be a group of disconnected issues have so much more overlap when you see the ways they are intrinsically tied together.
While Briggs doesn’t claim to have the complete solution to our broken systems, her epilogue suggests a set of places to begin plugging the holes in our social safety net and cultural expectations around caregiving:
- A true 40-hour work week with paid family leave;
- “An actual social safety net—including food stamps that don’t require waiting a day in line, SSI/SSDI [Supplemental Security Income/Social Security Disability Insurance] that doesn’t automatically deny people the first time, a return of AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] for single mothers with small children and no job—that can support people who are struggling and also take a burden off the extended family network that may be trying, and failing, to support family members who are not making it”;
- Preschool for all, an end to expelling students with disabilities or “behavior issues,” school schedules that match the typical 40-hour work week, and free higher education;
- “Less policing and more support for people leaving abusive relationships”;
- Living wages—e.g. the Fight for $15 campaign—and an end to discriminatory lending and policing;
- “Cleaning up toxic environments—psychological and physical—that cause miscarriages, infertility, asthma, cancer, and other chronic diseases.”
And her final suggestion, which has special relevance to me and everyone who has created a family-by-choice support network that takes the place of “traditional” family structures: “Family rights for all households where people provide care and share resources with each other.” This could look like paid sick leave that includes non-blood relatives, legal and cultural respect for polyamorous families, and any network where people have come together and commingled time and monetary resources—both out of necessity and life preference.
Briggs sees the fight for these policies as more than just working toward providing the practical needs of our country’s families; they are necessary for changing the direction of our politics and social programs, so that they may begin to meet the needs of all people in this country, rather than solely the top 10 percent of earners.
“The withdrawal of support for reproductive labor by business and government (alongside comparable shifts in paid labor, including the offshoring of manufacturing) is also what makes racial resentment available for use as a political force to divide working- and middle-class people,” she writes in her conclusion. “We can’t understand the rise of Trump, or combat the forces he represents, without attention to reproductive politics.”