Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women's Work

Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women's Work

by Jenny Brown


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When House Speaker Paul Ryan urged U.S. women to have more children, and Ross Douthat requested “More babies, please,” they openly expressed what U.S. policymakers have been discussing for decades with greater discretion. Using technical language like “age structure,” “dependency ratio,” and “entitlement crisis,” establishment think tanks are raising the alarm: if U.S. women don’t have more children, we’ll face an aging workforce, slack consumer demand, and a stagnant economy. Feminists generally believe that a prudish religious bloc is responsible for the fight over reproductive freedom in the U.S., but hidden behind this conventional explanation is a dramatic fight over women’s reproductive labor. On one side, elite policymakers want an expanding workforce reared with a minimum of employer spending and a maximum of unpaid women’s work. On the other side, women are refusing to produce children at levels desired by economic planners. With little access to childcare, family leave, health care, and with insufficient male participation, U.S. women are conducting a spontaneous birth strike. In other countries, panic over low birth rates has led governments to underwrite childbearing with generous universal programs, but in the U.S., women have not yet realized the potential of our bargaining position. When we do, it will lead to new strategies for winning full access to abortion and birth control, and for improving the difficult working conditions U.S. parents now face when raising children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629636382
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 386,075
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jenny Brown is a women’s liberation organizer and former editor of Labor Notes. She was a leader in the grassroots campaign to have morning-after pill contraception available over-the-counter in the U.S. She is co-author of Women’s Liberation and National Health Care.

Read an Excerpt



Talk in the 1960s of a demographic time bomb has now turned to fears of a worldwide baby bust. "Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next fifty years," reports the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The Wall Street Journal claims stagnant economies will be the result. "Simply put, companies are running out of workers, customers or both. In either case, economic growth suffers."

In an article called "Breaking the Baby Strike," the Economist reports: "As birth rates decline, more countries are turning pro-natalist (not long ago, Iran and Turkey worried that their populations were growing too fast, and handed out free contraceptives). And the baby-boosting is becoming fervent, even desperate."

All the largest economies, as defined by the value of their economic output, have seen below-replacement birth rates: the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and the UK. (To be clear, I'm not saying this is a crisis for ordinary people. My point is that employers and governments are alarmed.)

Here in the United States, it's regarded as a fringe idea that the ruling class concerns itself with the birth rate. But political leaders in dozens of other countries openly discuss their low birth rates and promote policies to raise them, publicly deliberating about birth control, abortion, and family policies such as childcare and paid parental leave.

Perhaps those countries have a problem we don't have in the United States. Isn't our birth rate higher than theirs? Among developed countries, we do have a high birth rate, but it's not substantially higher, and lately it has become lower than some countries where politicians are publicly agonizing about low birth rates (see chart). Since these United Nations estimates, the U.S. total fertility rate has dropped to 1.76.

Perhaps, then, the nation's secret is that we have a high immigration rate — working-age adults who are alleviating any demographic crisis. Still, Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Sweden have more immigrants as a percentage of population. And our immigration rate is much too low to compensate for the deficit in births. (I take up immigration in chapter 7.)

In some places, like Turkey and Poland, leaders attack reproductive rights with the open goal of raising the birth rate. In others, with stronger feminist movements and institutions, governments promote policies that support parents to encourage more childbearing. Some countries, like Russia, are doing both, increasing maternity leave and monthly government payments to parents while they gnaw away at access to abortion and contraception. In all cases, the reasons for the policy are in the open — how can we get women to make more babies?

That question has led some to an answer that echoes feminists: equality at work. Steffen Kroehnert, a researcher for the Institute for Population and Development in Berlin, explains: "For a long time, politicians said that the high participation of women in the labor market is responsible for the low birth rate, because when women go into the labor market, they don't have children anymore. But interestingly, when you look at ... western European countries, the fertility rate is higher in countries with a higher labor market participation of women."

As an example, French demographer Laurent Toulemon listed the obstacles Japanese women face. "A [Japanese] woman entering into a relationship must also accept marriage, obey her husband, have a child, stop working after it is born and make room for her ageing in-laws. It's a case of all or nothing. In France the package is more flexible."

"Ask Turkish women about work and motherhood, and the response is a torrent of grievances. Husbands do little housework. ... Employers are unsympathetic," reports the Economist, explaining the falling birth rate in Turkey. "In short, mothers are generally still expected to stay at home. ... Until that changes, Turkish women will perceive a sharp choice between work and parenthood, and often [go] for the first."

U.S. journalist Stephanie Mencimer puts it more bluntly: "Conservatives thought that if they only made it harder for mothers to work, women would stay home. Instead, women stopped having kids."

"The question today is not if women will work," says Kroehnert. "The question is if they will have children."


The Washington Post frets that the entire global economy is being put at risk by the low birth rate in Japan, which has the world's third-largest economy after the United States and China. "The Japanese economy is in serious enough trouble that it could set the rest of us back," the Post warns, citing Japan's stagnant growth and large debts. "And the biggest source of that trouble is demographic: Japanese people aren't having enough kids to sustain a healthy economy." By healthy, the author means healthy for employers and businesses.

Japanese women face overwhelming pressure from their employers to quit their jobs when they get married. As a result, many refuse to get married, further driving down the birth rate. Sexists label women who continue to work after they get married oniyome, "wife from hell." Japanese women have set up Angry Women Clubs to strategize against rampant job discrimination, and women are suing employers for firing them rather than accommodating their pregnancies.

Female resistance to lousy child-rearing conditions has put the ruling conservative government in a tight spot. Because of the falling working-age population, the government is trying to press more women into the workforce, to ease a tight labor market that threatens to drive wages up. The ruling party "used to be the defender of the housewife," noted Haruko Arimura, the government's minister for women's empowerment. "Now it is sticking up for working women."

But at the same time, they want women producing more children. So the government has slowly taken measures to increase the availability of childcare. The Japanese childcare system is plagued with long waiting lists and a shortage of teachers willing to fill the low-wage positions.

Some Japanese politicians have proposed more coercive methods. In 2013, Seiko Noda, a member of Japan's House of Representatives, proposed banning abortion and increasing adoptions. In the country's biggest newspaper, she wrote: "With 200,000 pregnancies being terminated per year, if we are to counteract the falling birthrate, then we must begin there. I intend to have this reviewed in the party's Special Committee on Population Decline in Society following the upper house elections. We will not only prohibit abortion, but ... we must also create laws [to mediate] child adoption."

In the face of labor shortages, Japanese politicians, long wary of immigration, have even started to crack open doors to foreign workers. Central Bank governor Haruhiko Kuroda warned in 2016 that to sustain growth, foreign labor would be essential. A "training program" for unskilled foreigners has grown to 200,000 workers, becoming in effect a guest worker program, while new policies announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe encourage skilled immigration with a fast path to citizenship.


In China, uprisings of workers against factory owners have been the main factor in recent changes in population policy.

China's famous one-child policy, implemented in 1979 after revolutionary leader Mao Zedong's death, was introduced to slow the birth rate so that "the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth." It was connected to the "Four Modernizations" program led by Deng Xiaoping, which opened China to capitalist trade and markets.

The government's announcement of the policy in 1980 said: "As far as the country as a whole is concerned, as long as the rate of labor productivity in industry and agriculture is still rather low ... the rate of population growth will directly affect the accumulation of the capital funds necessary for the construction of modernization. A much too rapid growth of population will mean a reduction in the accumulation of capital funds, while a slowdown in population growth could mean an increase in the accumulation of capital funds."

The government generally allowed urban couples to have one child, rural couples to have two (spaced five years apart), and ethnic minorities to have three. Abortions, birth control — mostly IUDs — and sterilization were provided free. The limits were enforced with fines (called "social compensation fees") and, although it was against official policy, instances of coerced or forced abortions or sterilizations.

As China developed a capitalist sector and became the largest manufacturer in the world, employers took advantage of China's giant labor force. Workers resisted this exploitation, resulting in a massive strike wave starting in 2008. One organization counted 1,171 strikes and protests from June 2011 to the end of 2013, mostly in manufacturing but also among bus drivers and teachers. The strikes have resulted in higher wages, the scourge of employers everywhere.

Desiring an increase in the labor supply, China loosened its one-child policy in 2013, allowing two children if one of the parents had been an only child — and many had, since they were born during the one-child policy. Then in 2015 the government scrapped one-child limits in favor of a two-child policy. China's National Health and Family Planning Commission reasoned that more children would "increase labor supply and ease pressures from an aging population" and "benefit sustained and healthy economic development."

Western media, too, say the low birth rate could hamper China's economic growth, warning that as a result of the one-child policy "a plentiful supply of workers will suddenly be in short supply and a population that has grown used to improving living standards might fall on hard times." They warn of the expenses of a "granny state."

The media are calling China a granny state when 10 percent of the population is sixty-five or over, and 15 percent will be by 2027. Meanwhile the U.S. proportions are 15 percent now, and 20 percent by 2027, so we are at least as much of a granny state as China. Corporate media arehappy to link flagging economic growth to aging populations in China, especially if they can blame a communist policy. But you won't often hear them discussing U.S. population policy in that way or even admitting that we have a population policy.


The Soviet Union became the first modern country to legalize abortion after its 1917 socialist revolution, giving the explanation that illegal abortions were widespread and dangerous, and should be replaced with safe, legal ones. The law went into effect in 1920, and most abortions were free. With Adolf Hitler in Germany threatening to make parts of Russia a colony, the government outlawed abortion again in 1936. Official documents cited a need for repopulation after several years of war and emphasized a doubling of the budget for childcare and maternity hospitals to ease the burden on women of increased births. "We need men," wrote Joseph Stalin at the time. "The Soviet woman has the same rights as the man, but that does not free her from a great and honorable duty which nature has given her: She is a mother, she gives life. And this is certainly not a private affair but one of great social importance." Nonetheless, women complained, and abortion was still widely practiced. After 1955, abortion was again made available free or cheap to all women on request. (Meanwhile, abortion was illegal in the United States and much of Western Europe into the 1970s.)

After the USSR was dismantled in 1991, a rampaging capitalism resulted in economic collapse and abrupt drops in life expectancy, with unemployment and poverty hitting a population that had previously enjoyed secure jobs and decent retirements. Between 1992 and 1994, average life expectancy dropped four years, unprecedented outside of war, famine, or epidemic. As people faced poverty and insecurity, the birth rate also plunged. The fertility rate in the USSR had hovered around 2.0 for most of the post–World War II period, reaching 2.2 under Gorbachev. By 1999 it had plunged to 1.17.

In 2006, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared the demographic crisis the main problem facing the country and announced incentives for parents in the form of increased monthly allowances for each child and bonuses on the birth or adoption of a second child of $12,500. Mothers can deposit the money in their pension account, pay for education, or use the money for living expenses. Paid maternity leaves would be extended to eighteen months and childcare would be subsidized. After the 2007 incentives were introduced, the birth rate rose to 1.7 children per woman, just above the European average of 1.59. Some states have pitched in with their own incentive programs. The government of Ulyanovsk instituted a half day off for "conception day." Women who applied for the day off and gave birth nine months later could win refrigerators and cars.

In 2011, Putin again focused on demography, pledging, "First, we expect the average life expectancy to reach seventy-one years," and "we expect to increase the birth rate by 25–30 percent in comparison to the 2006 birth rate." In his 2012 state of the nation address he said, "Demographers affirm that choosing to have a second child is already a potential choice in favor of a third ... it's important that families make that step. ... I am convinced that the norm in Russia should become a family with three children."

That year the government also enacted restrictions on abortion with the explicit reasoning that more population is needed. Russia banned abortion after twelve weeks, with some exceptions, and required a waiting period of two to seven days. Ads for abortion were also restricted.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, addressed the Russian parliament in January 2015, saying that abortion was "infanticide," but he also discussed demography. "If we manage to cut the number of abortions by 50 percent we would have stable and powerful population growth," he said. It was the first time a religious leader had ever addressed the body, according to Moscow-based medical journalist Fiona Clark.

Abortion is currently legal and free up to twelve weeks. But further legislative attacks in 2015 sought to stop public funding as well as institute compulsory ultrasounds before abortions. They also seek to make the morning-after pill a prescription drug (it's currently over-the-counter). Sound familiar?


Turkey is another country where leaders explicitly link the birth rate to birth control policy. Government officials began to worry aloud about Turkey's flagging birth rate in 2008. Turkish prime minister and later president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called on women to have at least three children and charged that "birth control advocates sought to weaken Turkey." He lectured a couple at their wedding, saying, "For years they committed a treason of birth control in this country, seeking to dry up our bloodline. Lineage is very important both economically and spiritually." (Turkey's fertility rate, at 2.05, is higher than that of the United States.) Erdogan has also denounced the morning-after pill. In 2015, Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu "caused uproar by saying women should prioritize the 'career' of motherhood."

Abortion is legal on request up to ten weeks in Turkey; married women must get their husband's permission. In 2012 Erdogan attacked abortion "as a secret plot to stall Turkey's economic growth," and his health minister proposed banning abortion after four weeks, effectively banning it altogether. Outrage from feminists stopped the change, alongside a medical establishment worried about deaths from illegal abortions. The Istanbul Feminist Collective sat-in at Erdogan's office and thousands of feminists protested in the streets — one woman's sign said "State, take your hands off my body" — until the proposal was withdrawn.

Turkey has also started instituting incentives. "The government fears that an ageing population could eventually lead Turkey down the same path as more developed economies in Europe, towards a shrinking workforce and rising welfare spending," writes Jonathon Burch in a Reuters article. Among the incentives considered are free fertility treatments, payments upon the birth of children, and increasing maternity leaves (unpaid) from four months to six months. They're also considering special commemorative gold coins for first-time mothers — apparently they think women's work can be bought with bling.


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Table of Contents

Introduction Global baby bust highlights necessity of reproductive work 1

Chapter 1 International Comparisons 15

Chapter 2 Small Government, Big Families 29

Chapter 3 Is It a Birth Strike? Women Testify 42

Chapter 4 Comstockery to the Baby Boom 60

Chapter 5 Population Panic to the Baby Bust 70

Chapter 6 Longevity: Crisis or Blessing? 81

Chapter 7 Immigration: "Instant Adults" 95

Chapter 8 Reproduction and Race 104

Chapter 9 Cheap Labor 120

Chapter 10 Cannon Fodder 133

Chapter 11 Controlling the Means of Reproduction 143

Appendix Consciousness-Raising Questions 161

Acknowledgments 165

Notes 169

Bibliography 198

Index 210

About The Author 226

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