We as a nation just can’t seem to trust women to make their own choices, especially when their reproductive organs are involved.
It’s not earth-shattering to point out a good deal of language tossed around by our nation’s lawmakers, major media presences and religious institutions, is detrimental to the agency of women. The wave of laws restricting abortion rights in 49 states often portray the woman as nothing more than a vessel for a fetus from the point of conception
But recently, rhetoric has taken the issue even further. Current public education campaigns imply that we have a civic duty to tell women when they should get pregnant and reinforce the idea that pregnant women’s bodies are public property.
Pregnant women have long dealt with strangers examining their every habit—especially their drinking. Enforcement of criminal punishments against pregnant women who used drugs while pregnant or want to have vaginal births despite the advice of doctors further contribute to the troubling idea that people other than the pregnant woman should be able to tell her what to do with her body.
Into this environment comes the the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s report “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America.” The report declares there is a “success sequence” to life. This sequence involves achieving a certain level of education, getting a job, getting married, then having children, in that order. Backed up by extensive data and painting itself as representing the best interest of society as a whole, there is something fundamentally off in what this report suggests.
First, there’s the idea that there is a singular prescription for success—one that involves a straight shot from high school graduation to children and a white picket fence.
The report tells men and women what age is the most “successful” to have children. This goes beyond mere statistical observation— it’s a point that tells women when it is appropriate to do what with their bodies. The report isn’t just telling women what to do to keep healthy once they’re pregnant, it’s telling them how to live their lives.
If we don’t challenge authoritative suggestions like those presented in the study, which intends to be helpful and well-meaning, they slip through the cracks. They snowball into larger, scarier issues. Like a public ad campaign telling single mothers they’re doomed.
Recently, New York City began running controversial ads targeted at young women with the aim of discouraging teen pregnancy. One ad portrays a young child saying: “Honestly Mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” This ad, likely intended to spark a strong reaction, deserves its bad rap for several reasons.
For one, the woman’s agency—her free will as a thinking person rather than an object to be acted upon—is entirely absent in this scenario. The hypothetical mother is impregnated and then left high and dry with no say in the matter but all the responsibility of cleaning up the mess.
The mother needs the mayor’s office to step in and hand her back her free will. Statistics about teen pregnancy aside, it helps no one to shock and shame young women by telling them they are—and always will be—the victims and objects of men.
To borrow a term, the real “success sequence” to challenging gender inequality begins with calling out language that diminishes a woman’s perceived ability to make her own smart decisions.
If we want to implement real change with regard to women’s perceived peoplehood, we have to learn to stop telling women, in even the most subtle and unconscious ways, what to do with their bodies.
Photo of Washington DC’s teen mom ad campaign via RH Reality Check.