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The trouble with choice

Beggars and Choosers:
How the Politics of Choice Shapes
Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States

By Rickie Solinger
Hill and Wang, 2001

One of the central issues of motherhood as a twenty-first century social problem is how the illusion of “choice”— particularly when it’s applied to the ability of some women to combine paid work and motherhood in a way that matches their financial needs and personal expectations— obscures systemic conditions and cultural forces that reinforce the social, political and economic inequality of all mothers. In Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States, historian Rickie Solinger argues that the rhetoric of “reproductive choice”— as opposed to recognition of women’s reproductive rights— positions women as “consumers” of fertility and divides mothers along races and class lines into “legitimate” or “illegitimate” choice-makers in a marketplace where babies are the principal commodity. As Solinger writes, “I am devoted… to making the argument that simple “choice” actually underlies the very popular (although much denied) idea that motherhood should be a class privilege in the United States— a privilege appropriate only for women who can afford it. I am convinced choice is a remarkably unstable, undependable foundation for guaranteeing women’s control over their bodies, their reproductive lives, their motherhood and ultimately their status as full citizens.”

In her opening chapters, Solinger traces the history of abortion in the United States from the criminal period through the post-Roe v. Wade era. She notes that affluent women have always had greater access to safe surgical abortion than poor women, but particularly after 1976 when federal legislation prohibited use of Medicaid funds for the procedure. Ultimately, Solinger suggests, the strategic shift by reproductive rights activists to the softer and more persuasive language of privacy— “My Body, My Choice”— served to solidify the social stratification of mothers based on their race and economic status. “Choice turned out to be a term and an idea that reflected and foreshadowed the commodification of reproduction and a new, hard set of financial qualifications for motherhood.”

The middle section of Beggars and Choosers (“Claiming Rights in the Era of Choice”) addresses the complicated politics of adoption from a perspective that is both illuminating and profoundly provocative. Solinger— who also authored Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe V. Wade— records the heart-wrenching stories of loss recounted by women who, when young, unmarried and pregnant in the 1950s and 1960s, were pressured by their families, social workers and other authority figures to surrender their babies for adoption. “Based on what I’ve learned about the experiences of birthmothers in the United States,” Solinger writes, “I want to suggest that the conventional understanding of adoption should be turned on its head. Almost everybody believes that on some level, birthmothers make a choice to give their babies away. … I argue that adoption is rarely about mothers’ choices; it is, instead, about the abject choicelessness of some resourceless women.” This is no less true as the present-day shortage of healthy white babies in the U.S. adoption market forces more adopting parents to seek international options. Beggars and Choosers also chronicles the emergence of the birthmothers’ movement in the 1970s and the subsequent (and ongoing) campaign to unseal adoption records.

In the third and final part of her book, Solinger offers a brief historic overview of welfare policy in the United States and focuses on the political construction of poor women as illegitimate consumers of motherhood. Solinger charts the timeline for the grand entrance of the “Welfare Queen,” a “folk villain” who “absorbs and reflects social, cultural, and political ambivalence— hostility— toward women in trouble.” While the unsavory specter of the Welfare Queen is typically associated with the punitive and misleading rhetoric of the Reagan-Bush era, Solinger notes that America’s antipathy toward poor women who make “bad choices” about sexuality and motherhood had earlier origins: “In the early post-war years, a poor, resourceless mother, even an African-American one, particularly one with an illegitimate child, would generally have occupied a low, marginal status in the United States. Her status as a mother may have marked her as a slattern or slut, but probably would have protected her from classification as an aggressor, a villain, and an enemy of the people. But with the expansion of welfare eligibility [in the 1960s], this was to change.”

Solinger argues that the tactic of vilifying poor mothers— and specifically poor, unmarried mothers of color— was a political strategy aimed at gaining public support for the reduction of social spending and fails to address the core causes of women’s and children’s poverty. She observes that once abortion was made legal, “Americans got used to thinking of pregnancy and childbearing in terms of choice,” and the image of poor mothers as bad mothers and bad choice-makers was firmly fixed in the public mind. Interestingly, Solinger reports that welfare rights activists countered this stereotype with language that will have a familiar ring to contemporary mothers’ advocates; as one welfare rights activist boldly stated, “Only a mother knows if her family will run reasonably if she is gone for fifty hours a week. She should never be forced to work away from home.”

The central dilemma that winds thought the recent history captured in Beggars and Choosers is how the fateful intersection of motherhood and choice effaces the humanity of some mothers and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, while protecting the privilege of others who have greater access to resources and social power. “Judging by the level of support for ‘welfare reform’ rhetoric, most Americans would look at the bank balances of both the mothers on welfare and the ones at low-paying, dead end jobs and determine that neither group had the right to be mothers because they couldn’t support children adequately on their own steam. By inference, it seems, most Americans embrace the proposition that is profoundly problematic in a democratic society, that motherhood should be a class privilege. Motherhood is appropriate, it seems, only for women with enough money to meet the financial test.” This means that the only “good” choice for many millions of women— who may deeply desire a life that includes loving and raising their own children— is to remain childless. This formulation of choice cannot be reconciled with cultural ideals of motherhood as one of purest and truest forms of female self-expression, as well as one of the most important things a woman can do with her life.

As Solinger concludes:

That is the problem with choice. In theory, choice refers to individual preference and wants to protect all women from reproductive coercion. In practice, though, choice has two faces. The contemporary language of choice promises dignity and reproductive autonomy to women with resources. For women without, the language of choice is a taunt and a threat. When the language of choice is applied to the question of poor women and motherhood, it begins to sound a lot like the language of eugenics: women who cannot afford to make choices are not fit to be mothers. This mutable quality of choice reminds us that sex and reproduction— motherhood— provide a rich site for controlling women, based on their race and class ‘value’.

Solinger’s analysis unearths many vital questions about motherhood as a social issue: Does the right and responsibility of a woman to control her own fertility also guarantee a woman’s right to conceive, bear and raise her own children on her own terms? If so, how do we protect that right? If not, what restrictions are we, as a society, willing to impose on women’s fertility, and who decides? How would such restrictions be enforced, and what would that mean for the prospect of women’s equality? Beggars and Choosers is a must read for anyone seriously interested in advancing the social and economic status of mothers, as well as anyone with growing suspicions about the limitations of the popular and political rhetoric of “choice.”

Rickie Solinger has also co-curated a companion exhibition to Beggars and Choosers, which will travel to locations around the U.S. through 2006.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
October 2004

Also of interest:

MMO interview with Rickie Solinger
author of Beggars and Choosers

Beggars and Choosers exhibition web site:

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