Labour / Le Travail
Issue 86 (2020)

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Jenny Brown, Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work (Oakland, CA: PM Press 2019)

In Birth Strike, Jenny Brown provides an analysis of the declining birth rate in the United States, an area that has not received much attention from feminist scholars in their discussions of the struggle over reproductive rights. Brown argues that the conflict over birth control and abortion has less to do with culture or religion and more to do with economics, that is, corporate and establishment interests in “an ever-expanding workforce raised with a minimum of public spending.” (11) Brown argues that the “ruling group” is interested in women having more babies to ensure a steady supply of workers whose labour the “powerful class” can exploit for increased profits. As Brown demonstrates, in recent years, government planners have become increasingly concerned that the low US birth rate would lead to economic stagnation. Instead of following in the footsteps of comparable countries, such as France or Sweden, who have introduced pro-natalist policies (subsidized childcare, paid parental leave, universal health care) to help raise the birthrate, the government planners in the United States have made it more difficult to afford having children, while at the same time creating barriers for women who want to control their reproduction by limiting their access to birth control and abortion. This means that the cost of childbearing and childrearing falls on the family, especially on women, whose domestic labour is undervalued and unpaid. Brown suggests that the slowdown in the birth rate represents a “strike” by women responding to poor conditions associated with having and raising children. (43)

Birth Strike is divided into eleven chapters that focus on topics including abortion and contraception in the United States since the late 19th century, concerns over overpopulation, the debates over social security, reproduction and race, immigrant labour, discussions about unpaid work, and other issues associated with the relationship between population and state. Generally, these chapters are used to further Brown’s argument that reproductive debates have always been about economics as much or more than anything else.

The greatest contribution that Brown makes is in broadening the discourse on what women’s reproductive labour is, what it means to society, and how this is an underappreciated aspect of ongoing women’s reproduction struggles in the United States. Brown conveys in vivid detail in what is the strongest chapter in the book, the experiences of ordinary women who chose to have children and those who did not. Through testimonies from seventeen women, the reader is exposed to the decisions that many women are forced to make about having children when they lack adequate support to raise them. Later in the book, Brown offers a blueprint for how women can use their reproductive power to call for change, including participating in consciousness-raising groups that allow women to compare their experiences but also to think about, for instance, who benefits from their pregnancies and their unpaid work; exposing the reasons for the low birth rate; and demanding better programs that give women support when they decide to have children, for example universal childcare. Highlighting the poor conditions for bearing and raising children in the United States, emphasizing women’s reproductive power, and providing a path to improving their circumstances is when Birth Strike is the most convincing.

However, Birth Strike suffers from significant shortcomings. The book lacks cohesion as the chapters cover enormous, complicated, and multi-causal topics which the author relates sometimes unconvincingly to their central thesis. Brown’s emphasis on the concerted actions by a “ruling elite” in some chapters is borderline conspiratorial and ignores better explanations for these complicated dynamics. For example, the chapter, “Cannon Fodder” depicts a war mongering elite callously and cynically harnessing reproductive power to fight their wars. A better analysis might explore the changing relationship between the state and its populace, and in what context the citizenry became viewed as a national resource that could be used to increase the power and capacity of the state (through, for example, increased labour, superior public health, and administrative bureaucracy). In addition, this chapter could have been better integrated into the book, as it is unclear how it connects to the preceding chapter on cheap labour and the following chapter on women’s leverage regarding reproductive work. Other chapters detract for Brown’s overall argument. For example, in “Reproduction and Race,” Brown discusses the racist population control policies aimed at African American women, including involuntary sterilization and birth control campaigns, but Brown’s claim that the “ruling class” wants all women to have more babies to ensure a future workforce is difficult to reconcile with the evidence that Brown presents. Lastly, the book would benefit from a conclusion that would tie different chapters together and strengthen Brown’s central argument. Overall, Birth Strike is an effective re-evaluation of women’s reproductive labour and a timely call to action, but the sheer breadth of issues that the book attempts to cover and relate to reproduction means that some chapters are unconvincing and end up weakening the author’s overall argument.

Erna Kurbegović

University of Calgary