At Slate, Kerry Howley talks sense to Michelle Goldberg about the doubtful feminist wisdom of using population panic as a pretext for putatively “feminist” policies. Goldberg has clearly neglected Howley’s powerful Reason feature on natalist policy from which I offer this concluding excerpt:
But as pro-baby policies are inevitably sold as pro-mother, and by extension pro-woman, it’s worth recalling the sentiment behind the Australian birth premiums and Singaporean matchmaking schemes. At the heart of any fertility incentive lies an attempt to encourage a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way. Every pro-fertility policy is an effort to slow cultural transformation, to stabilize a society’s ethnic composition, to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation. From Poland to Singapore, swollen wombs are a bulwark against change.
There is a reason we speak of “Mother Russia” and “Mother India.” Feminist sociologists such as Nira Yuval-Davis refer to women as the “boundary markers” of a state or society. While men may leave, fight, and be compromised, women represent purity and continuity. Yuval-Davis points out in her book Gender and Nation that the Hitler Youth Movement had different mottos for girls and boys. The boys’ motto was: “Live faithfully; fight bravely; die laughing.” For girls: “Be faithful; be pure; be German.” Girls simply had to be. They were the collective.
In times of great social anxiety, we see new calls for women to return to home and hearth—calls alternately cast as a return to tradition and as a progressive leap forward, but efforts, nonetheless, to enlist women in a national project while defining the boundaries of national inclusion. Depopulation is not a given, but ideologically fraught and scientifically questionable debates about gender, race, and culture will be with us no matter which way the population swings. “To know what demography is, we need to know what a population is,” the French social scientist Herve Le Bras wrote in The Invention of Populations. “That is where the trouble begins.”
[Full disclosure: K.L. Howley and I co-own a rumbustious vizsla.]