Reflections on Fertility and Gender


Mrs Vassilyev, a Russian Peasant, had a mind blowing 69 children
A basic aspect of the human existence is passing on our genes to the next generation. The interesting thing is that our society seems hell bent on not perpetuating the human species. This is so against nature that it is shocking.  Therefore, our discussion on gender cannot be left without discussing fertility. For most of history there was a natural birthrate that most cultures had. Women, in general, had between 4-6 children over the course of their child bearing years. This was not always the case. There is evidence that, for example, ancient Rome had plummeting fertility rates in the early centuries after Christ. Rodney Stark argues that one of the reasons that Christianity rose from an obscure sect to an influential and powerful religion in Rome is that Christians opposed abortion and infanticide and banned the use of prostitutes and homosexuality. 

But for most of history, having a lot of kids was the natural thing for a woman. Most women in most cultures had at least enough kids for the replacement rate (2.1 children per woman) most had many more. Traditional cultures commonly average 5-6 per woman. This all changed with the invention of the birth control pill in the mid 20th century. In June of 1957, the FDA approved Enovid 10 mg for menstrual disorders and two years later it was approved as a contraceptive as well. This may be one of the most significant things to happen in human history. Its effects are just starting to be known world wide but the fertility rates among women around the world started dropping soon after. Starting with the most affluent countries but moving to poorer countries soon after, fertility rates started to drop dramatically.

In 1950, the fertility rate worldwide was approximately 5 children per women. It is now approximately 2.33 – just barely above replacement rates and the trend indicates that the crossover will happen soon. If the fertility rate drops below 2.1, we will see something unique to human history – a drop in population due to lack of fertility. Today, almost half the world is living in cultures with sub-replacement fertility. 



How does this affect gender roles?
My primary interest here with regards to fertility is not whether it is good or bad but how it affects gender. The purpose of gender, biologically speaking, is reproduction. Males and females both contribute DNA, the woman then brings the baby to viability through the nine months of pregnancy. Humans, unlike many other animals, take a long time after being born to be able to survive on their own. I remember watching my two year old walk around a living room and mess with things, climb on things, and generally put himself in danger. Without my constant watching, he would be dead in hours. Watching a child is pretty much a full time job, watching 5 or 6 kids, as traditional families have done for most of history, is a ridiculous amount of work. 

It was a difficult but incredibly important role. What is more important to the human race that protecting, teaching and guiding the next generation?

I have written before on why men and women are physically different. Men are born with physiology that enables fighting, difficult and dangerous work, and acts of strength. Men are also born with mental tendencies more given to take risks. And because of the genetic differences, in traditional societies, men would be sent to hunt, chop down trees, and pull hoes through dirt, and go to war. The natural historic division of labor was that women tended to manage the home while men tended to be in charge of protecting the tribe, providing shelter, and getting the food. In a traditional society the differences between men and women were clear. The term, “that is women’s work,” may sound like a misogynist statement but there was a time when 'men's work' and 'women's work' were necessitated by circumstance and physiology. 

And both roles were honorable roles. Women usually were surrounded by other women. Each woman would have two or three sisters, two or three sisters-in-law, and two or three daughters. And these groups of women would work together to accomplish 'women's work' - an incredibly important part of traditional societies. They would protect and train children. They would make sure that the house was in order. They would prepare the food that the men brought back from their labor. 

Everyone had their role. Life was difficult but meaningful for both men and women.

But what happens when we suddenly say that women no longer have 4 to 6 children but 1 to 2? Women with one or two children are suddenly left without this traditional role. Men go out and do what we always did. Sometimes that work is in a traditionally physical role in the trades but often it is in the less pleasant cubicle instead but there is still a solid vestige of what men were built for. We go out, compete for salaries, challenge coworkers, and act in some ways just like men have always acted. But the traditional role for women is almost completely gone. The one child is put on a bus and sent to free public schools (also a modern invention) and then the woman has nothing particularly important to do. She does not have two sisters nearby. She does not have two sisters-in-law. She is at home alone without kids to watch, modern tools to make caring for the house easier (vacuums, washing machines, etc). The urgency, necessity, community, and meaning of "women's work" is gone. Women could stay at home, vacuum meticulously, and become gourmet chefs for their husbands but that is a poor exchange for the vital, communal, and difficult work that was once required.

And so, starting about the time of birth control’s introduction, women have increasingly entered the work force. Men, after all, seemed to be fulfilled doing this sort of work, why shouldn’t that be good for women as well?

Changing workplace dynamics
But the entrance into the workforce created a problem for women. First off, traditional workplaces for women were to be surrounded by other women. Men and women are different. Jokes are different. Men tend to be more confrontational. More competitive. And the workforce that women were entering had been built for men. They entered a world of bawdy jokes, rough and tumble office politics, long hours, and cut throat competition. While this environment might make some women happy, for many this was a very unsafe space. It is not a surprise that as women first started to entere the traditionally male dominated workplaces, the dynamics were difficult to say the least. Sexual harassment and abuse were common. The male culture rewarded confrontation and competition along with male “locker room talk” but this sort of talk was, traditionally, not the sort of talk that men did in front of women. Women protested and over time, the harassment of women in the work place has been reduced by shaming, firing, and suing men who violate good standards of behavior.

Women have also successfully changed the work place to be much more female friendly in other ways. They have added flex time, worked to pass legislation mandating maternity leave, and encouraged ‘diversity’ hires to make it more advantageous for corporations to hire and promote women. But despite these changes, women still struggle to keep up with men. After 50 years of cultural, legal, and tax incentives pushing for diversity, as of 2017, only 32 of the Fortune 500 corporations have female CEOs. There is an ongoing wage gap, with women earning about 80% as much as men for similar jobs. This wage gap, despite claims that it is just due to bigotry, is instead due to the fact that women make choices that are good for women but bad for corporate advancement. They choose to have children, they choose to take time off to raise them in the early years, and they choose to work fewer hours as a result. In short, they choose to maintain some vestige of the traditional role they once had. Which makes sense. 

And in addition to the time that women take maintaining some shadow of the traditional role, there are other advantages men have in the workplace. Men are naturally more competitive so when it comes to salary negotiations, pushing for promotions, and going the extra mile to get noticed, men are more willing to do this. They are more willing to cause waves in the office to get what they want. This is the same instinct that helped men survive in a more tribal life and it works well in the industry that men set up over the past 1000 years of capitalism.

So, we are left with the question, why do we as a culture ask men to do something similar to what we have been built for but ask women to do something similar to what men were built for? The answer is that we do this because of birth control. In other words, the pill far from being the liberator of women, has forced women to take on roles and work in environments that were built for men.

But, what about the woman who does not like the traditional role? It has to be acknowledged that many women say that birth control gives them options. They could have five or six kids if they wanted but they do not. They like going and working in the workplace. In a world without birth control, they would have no option but to take the one role given to them. 

I have a couple of thoughts. First, options do not always bring happiness. Sometimes, knowing what we are called to do and finding a way to do it is actually better for our mental health than endless options and no right answers. Second, it is hard to say you like or do not like something you have never experienced. Unless you have lived in an Amish community or a traditional society from another country, you do not know what it is like to live in a context where almost every woman has as many children as God gives her. You do not know what it is like to have that sort of societal and family support and culture. Women who say they do not like the traditional role likely are picturing the 1950s or 1960s mother who puts her kid on the bus and then is home alone to vacuum all day. Few have experienced a community of women doing meaningful work building the next generation together. My guess is that on the whole many who say they do not want that role might find it better than they expected. The household historically speaking was much more chaotic and women often worked in groups of women to do a wide variety of roles. If a woman does not like changing diapers, she might be sent by her sisters to cook. If she did not like cooking she might be sent by her mother to go garden. If she did not like gardening, she might be sent to help make clothes. In short, the traditional society offered many options for women that are not in the 1950s or 1950s 'Leave it to Beaver' understanding of 'women's work'. 

So what do we do as a society?
So, in the 20th century, we conducted a massive social experiment. We changed many of the male-female dynamics that existed since the dawn of humanity. The hubris of science (and humanity in general) just assumed that all of the results of our experiment would be great. But two generations in, and we are starting to see that the results are mixed at best. We have women that still feel undervalued and mistreated in the workplace. We have a society where no one knows what it means to be male or female anymore. Much of the social upheaval around LGBTQ issues, feminism, and abortion all go back to the fact that the traditional role for women is gone. We are trying to navigate this as a society and it is not going very well. And we do not yet know what other dynamics will change thanks to birth control. The aging population, next to the affects on gender, is sure to have some dramatic effects that might be less than good for everyone involved.

So what do we do? For better or worse, birth control is here. It seems impossible to put that genie back in the bottle. I don't think there is a clear answer but I do have some recommendations:

1) Stop pushing it on traditional societies
Sub-Saharan Africa still has 5-6 kids per woman. But the benevolent elites from the US and Europe know that they are doing it wrong. We are now flooding them with condoms and birth control pills. We should stop this. We don't yet know the results that birth control will have on our own society, the results we have so far are mixed, and yet we are going to tell them they should do it? Stop it. 

It amazes me how many get upset because missionaries "pushed" their faith on these traditional societies but are doing the exact same thing with their social policies. Stop it. 
 2) Develop a theology of birth control
Religion, like it or not, affects how society runs. Over the long term, religion shapes morals, laws, and our outlook on life. The problem with birth control is that it is so new that the amount of religious reflection on the subject has been paltry. 

When the birth control pill was invented, the pope prohibited it and also condemned other forms of birth control. He listed a number of reasons and many of these were prescient and important. But throughout the 20th century, Protestants became more and more open to birth control and when the pill was invented, there was a general acceptance of it. Soon, if you had a big family, a common joke was to ask, "are you Catholic?" But Catholic birth rates have dropped as well now and there is little difference between Protestant and Catholic family sizes. 
But family size and religious views are not unrelated. It is widely recognized that the more  religiously observant (ie conservative) the family is, the greater number of children they will have. Devout Catholic families still have lots of kids. But so do devout Protestants. The highest birth rates are found in fundamentalist corners of the Christian world. The Amish average almost six kids. 
It is almost as though when Christians do not care about being socially acceptable in other ways and when they take the bible literally, they start having a bunch of kids. Which sort of makes sense. The bible has multiple commands to "be fruitful and multiple." It may be that Western theologians are succumbing to the secular culture in accepting birth control.

It is time that the theological thought leaders of the Christian world rethink that tacit and unthinking acceptance of birth control.

3) Praise and help big families
One of the reasons that many do not have large families is that our society is not built for large families anymore. Because both mother and father have been working since the 1960s, the lifestyle associated with two incomes is inflated from where it would be. People have a lot more stuff because mom works. And this makes it socially difficult for the large family. Kids are expensive. Diapers. Toys. Food. Clothes. Space. All of it adds to the cost of running a household and then take out one of the two salaries and you have a financial situation that is dramatically more difficult than the family next door that only has one or two kids. 
As a society, we should help. Give them stuff. Give diapers. Give clothes. Give space.  

But also give time. Traditional societies were gave women social context that was full of other people. Kids, in-laws, retired grandparents, sisters, and mothers. Now, the stay at home mother is isolated. She might have five kids under ten years old and that is it in her life. As a society, we need to help her. Other mothers should visit. There should be a network of mom's with large families. Churches should have ministries to give time to mom's and families.
The social situation worsens when we tease, mock, or even condemn large families. When I had my second kid, a childless friend jokingly said, "you know how to control that right?" A mother having to watch 5 kids is not going to have as much time to clean or do her make up or money to buy fashionable clothes. It is easy for mother's in large families to feel judged by the broader society. And often they are. Many do not see the value of large families and think that having too many kids is a bad thing. We need to stop this sort of judging. As a society, we need to offer praise to someone doing something important. Raising five kids is a heroic and wonderful thing. We should give credit where credit is due. 

I  started off by noting that one of the most basic aspects of the human existence is passing on our genes to the next generation. Let's encourage families that take this charge seriously.

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