I watched Trump’s inauguration address along with, according to him, trillions of other people. I was pained by the vitriolic rhetoric and us-versus-them mentality, and then I wasted an hour sinking deeper into misery scrolling through other people’s responses to the event. (See our very liberal, very smart friend’s response to Trump here.) Some were funny. Some were depressing. One, however, really scared me.
I can’t be sure that the post was real, but the woman’s confusion and fear seemed to be viscerally genuine. She wrote that she had been trying to have a baby and had just been to the doctor and been told she was pregnant. She was overjoyed—until she realized that it was Trump’s inauguration day. “Now I’m torn,” (and I paraphrase), “I don’t want my baby associated with that horrible man, so I’m considering getting an abortion.”
I was floored. I am not pro-Trump; I remember telling my husband through tears late on Election Night, “you PROMISED me he wouldn’t win!” as if it were his fault. With David, I understand the fear and pain and worry about the future of the country when someone counter to your views gains political preeminence. But even if we’d elected Big Brother or Hitler or even Dracula to be president, I would never consider having an abortion just because the announcements coincided. Maybe it’s my stubborn Irish heritage, but I could never concede the fight like that: he may have won the presidency…
But I will win the war.
I’m not talking about a partisan war, or even a political one. I’m talking about the fight for goodness, morality and human rights. Women, especially, have a superpower in the war we are all fighting—but it’s not one we generally think about.
Has anyone else noticed the recent proliferation of female Amazons whaling and whacking, slicing and hacking their way through action films? I saw Rogue One when it came out. I noticed that in newest adaptation of the far away/long time ago universe, the Rebel forces have female fighter pilots. This seems like a Big Win for a universe in which women have been weirdly absent except for Princess Leia, Aunt Beru and that other lady with lines (“Mon Mothma,” my brother informs me). We all know that women are dramatically underrepresented in film, and even more rarely portrayed as heroes and not victims. (Check out this article from WIRED, this TED talk, or a google search on the Bechdel Test). The film industry wants a medal for every woman they put on screen who doesn’t have to lose clothing to stay there. Let’s be clear: I have daughters, and I want strong, heroic, imaginative women in film for them to grow up on and look up to and dress up as on Halloween.
I have an issue. Call it a nit-picky, English major-y, internal-consistency-Nazi issue, but an issue it is. It’s an problem with believability: in the galaxy far far away, can we really have female fighter pilots who, like nearly every X-wing pilot ever, pretty much immediately get blasted or crashed into space dust? Hang with me. I’m not saying women can’t fly X-wings into death rays just as well as the male pilot next to them (imagine those Title VII lawsuits). It’s the same problem in nearly every movie wherein a tiny rebel force (Zion, Rebel Alliance, humans, Gondor) is fighting a huge dystopian enemy (the machines and Agents, zombies or aliens, the Empire, the Eye) with female fighters on the team.
In that dystopian reality, if you actually want to win, you’d never send Trinity or Eowyn or Julie into the fray. This has nothing to do with chivalry or sexism, it’s just practical (and historically proven) common sense. Your female citizens are much too valuable a resource to spend flippantly on tiny battles (unless, admittedly, it is your last last ditch effort). In the bigger war against this overwhelming enemy, you have one way to win:
You out-baby them.
Consider the etiological account of the ancient Jews in Egypt. If it’s been a while since Exodus for you, let me refresh: the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt and eventually delivered by Jehovah through His prophet Moses (and a bunch of nasty plagues). But before Moses was even hanging out in the bullrushes, Pharaoh was getting antsy about the Israelites’ potential secret weapon: their proliferation. They were “fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.” Dang. In the Biblical account (and the great adaptation Prince of Egypt, scarring children since 1998), eventually the new Pharaoh commands that the Israelite sons be thrown into the Nile.
Seems harsh, but a similar effect has happened throughout history when the nearly homogeneous country welcomes the “outsider” minority until they start having lots of babies. Then the citizenry get nervous and turn to oppressing the “invaders” who have done nothing more aggressive than multiply. This is usually paired with religious persecution, as with the Irish immigrants to America, the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, the Mormons in Missouri, or the current populist movement in some European countries.
Turns out whole cultures are in jeopardy as we speak—not from tanks or missiles or any active attack, but from a slow decay from within. Most of the western world has a decreasing birth rate and increasing average age, effectively aging out of its own existence with no regenerating population to fill the spaces. Remember the news about Italy being a “dying country” (and then the uproar about the controversial ads Italy put out trying to turn around its population crisis)? Japan is now the oldest country in the world—a setting, rather than rising, sun.
Let’s go back to the story of Exodus. Picture yourself there for a minute—it turns out it might be pretty easy. You’ve been made a slave, the new ruling authority hates you, life seems to be going to pot. Pretty good reason for hunkering down in your clay pit and whining to your fellow slaves about the price of bread and the huge brick quota. Plenty of reason to decide you’ve brought enough kids into this god forsaken desert and so let’s take a break when you’re fertile, honey. Plenty of reason to surrender to the powers that be.
But the Israelite people had a covenant with God: He promised deliverance. So there had to be a Deliverer.
The big clincher, the game changer, the “chosen one,” is born a slave. Moses was the third child and the only one vulnerable to the Pharaoh’s baby boy death decree. The Jews call Moses “The Prophet,” but his life started out just the same as any other. Mewling, pitiful, red and wrinkly. Crazy fact: EVERY great man and woman, from Ghandi to Anthony, started out as a newborn. Completely reliant on parents or caregivers who would feed and dress and change and rock it—or let it die. In Moses’ case, the fate of the nation rested, at first, not with Moses, but with the three heroic women who made his existence possible—mother, adopted mother, and sister.
His mother Jochebed’s courage and love defied tyranny (“and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes… put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink”). She chose to fight back, risking everything. Pharaoh’s daughter “saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Her “womanly weakness” makes her the one spark of humanity in the otherwise alien ruling class of the narrative. Finally, his sister Miriam’s quick thinking connected baby Moses back with his Hebrew heritage (“Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?”).
Israel’s hero story is first and foremost a heroine story… just like every hero story. Not because we, like the film industry loves to do, fabricated a kick-butt, leather-clad female fighter who slaughters the Egyptian overlords, but because we get the incredible backstory. For once.
Sonal Chokshi of the earlier-linked WIRED article asks for a new Star Wars universe: “a world where the other half of the human race is not only visible to movie-goers of all genders and ages, but equally capable of astonishing and inspiring feats of heroism.” I agree with Sonal—but I think she’s missing something vital. We don’t have to make up some trial for women warriors to obliterate, some constructed adversity for women to conquer. There is already astonishing, inspiring, incredible but nearly invisible heroism happening every day—so daily, so mundane, so universal that to laud it seems saccharine.
Women all around the world and for millennia have endured—working, taking care of children, and generally going about their quiet heroism without fanfare or medals or titles or movies made. The quotidian nature of this sacrifice and courage has dulled it in our view—and we think, like Sonal, that we have to manufacture some other way for women to look heroic. We all sort of get that pregnancy sucks, but we rarely consider it courageous or valiant. Let’s think about the evidence. Several women I know personally were morning sick—even puking to the point of needing ER rehydration—nearly all 266 days of their pregnancies. One cousin had painful carpal tunnel for weeks. A good friend had grinding pelvic and back pain from three months on. A few couples we know spend thousands on infertility treatments. Normal pregnancy symptoms include hemorrhoids, constipation, back pain, muscle spasms, swelling and, of course, Cetacea-itis (feeling like a beached whale). These are just physical symptoms. Many pregnant women experience increased anxiety, depression and panic attacks. Another pregnant friend of mine had terrifying dreams every night where her family was burned, drowned or tortured in front of her eyes.
The heroics continue—we haven’t even touched on birth, nursing, fostering/adopting, or rearing the kids!
The mundane nature of the tasks of motherhood causes us to overlook the herculean efforts it takes to bear and raise the next generation, and instead decry the lack of the flashy, strong but feminine, ruthless but sexy Hollywood heroine. The solution to a man-centered heroism isn’t more female X-fighter pilots or zombie killers or Mummy hunters. It’s recognition. It’s waking up to what’s in front of us. Women don’t just have kids—especially now, with abundant birth control options—without good reason. Women (and families, of course) make the sacrifice for children because they believe in a higher cause. Hopefully it’s a good and virtuous higher cause… but no matter what, eventually the baby-havers will have the final say.
William Ross Wallace wrote the famous line, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” The entire poem is less well known—here’s a vital stanza.
Infancy’s the tender fountain,
Power may with beauty flow,
Mother’s first to guide the streamlets,
From them souls unresting grow–
Grow on for the good or evil,
Sunshine streamed or evil hurled;
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.
Let’s give new meaning to, “make love, not war.” Fight for your cause by ensuring it survives to the next generation. Raise amazing people who will change the world. Don’t give in to despair; live with hope. Stick it to the man. Have a baby.