Paying someone to be a surrogate mother, or ‘renting a womb’ is legal in the United States, but in the United Kingdom, surrogacy is legal, but parents are only allowed to pay the surrogate expenses related to the pregnancy, rather than paying them a fee for actually carrying the child.
The reason Kim Kardashian and Kayne West have opted for surrogates recently is because Kim has a medical condition which means that becoming pregnant again carries a higher than usual risk of her dying, so this isn’t just a lifestyle choice, but an interesting ethical/ sociological question is whether or not paid for surrogacy should be legal in the U.K. (NB – there’s a chance that it will be, as the surrogacy law is currently under review.
From a liberal feminist point of view, renting a womb should be acceptable because it would enable career-women to avoid taking time off work to pregnancy and child birth, and thus prevent the kind of career-breaks which put them at a disadvantage to men.
In fact, as far as the couple hiring the surrogate are concerned, this puts them on an entirely equal footing in relation to the new baby, meaning that it would be practically possible for them to share maternity/ paternity leave equally, rather than it ‘making sense’ for the woman to carry on taking time off after she’s done so in order to give birth.
Paid for surrogacy also provides an economic opportunity for the surrogate mothers, an opportunity only available to women.
From a marxist feminist point of view renting a womb is kind of paying women for their labour in one sense, however it’s a long way off providing women a wage for ‘traditionally women’s work’ within the family, such as child care and domestic labour.
Ultimately renting a womb does little to address economic inequality between men and women because it’s only available to wealthier couples, meanwhile on the supply side of the rent a womb industry the only women likely to enter into a surrogacy contract are those that are financially desperate, i.e. they have no other means to make money.
From a radical feminist perspective renting a womb does nothing to combat patriarchy more generally. If paid for surrogacy was made legal in the UK, the only consequence would be to give wealthy couples the freedom to pay poor women to carry their children for 9 months.
This does nothing to combat more serious issues such as violence against women.
While it’s an interesting phenomenon, renting a womb, rather than just voluntary surrogacy, will probably do very little to further the goal of female empowerment. However, it will obviously be of benefit to potentially millions of couples (in the long term) who are unable to have children.
In The Hidden Face of Eve (1980), Nawal El Saadawi considers the role of religion in perpetuating female oppression in the Arab World. She offers an Egyptian Feminist perspective on the role of religion and thus broadens our understanding away from the typically white female voices of feminism.
El Saadawi is a women’s rights activist, who has herself experienced oppression within Egypt. She has campaigned vigorously for women’s rights in the Arab world and has been imprisoned for her activism.
She was forced to undergo female circumcision as a young girl, without any warning or explanation and points out that male violence against women within the family is common in many Arab cultures. Young females are frequently the victims of violence at the hands of their fathers, uncles or brothers. In addition, women are also victims of forced prostitution and slavery which provide further evidence of patriarchal dominance of Arab men over Arab women.
However, despite the prevalence of female oppression across the Islamic world, El Saadawi does not believe that female oppression is caused by Islam.
She points out that male female oppression exists in many non-Islamic cultures and is in fact just as common in Christian cultures. A classic example of this is in the 14th century when the Catholic Church declared that women who treated those who were ill, without special training, could be executed as witches.
(Possibly our fixation with the oppression of women in Islamic cultures is a result of a broader anti-Islamic prejudice?)
For El Saadawi, the oppression of women is caused by ‘the patriarchal system which came into being when society had reached a certain stage of development’. It just so happened that Islam developed in those areas of the world which already had extremely patriarchal social structures. Over the centuries, Islamic doctrine was thus shaped by men and reflected their interests, with women’s voices being effectively unheard in this process.
Ultimately, El Saadawi believes that where religion evolves within patriarchal cultures, men distort religion to act in their own interests and to help justify their own privilege and the oppression of women.
The Origins of Oppressive Religion
El Saadawi argues that religion became patriarchal through the misinterpretation of religious beliefs by men.
She uses the Greek myth of Isis and Osiris as an example of this in which the evil Touphoun overpowers the male Osiris. His body is cut into small pieces and dispersed in the sea, and fish eats his sexual organ.
To El Saadawi, this story clearly implies female superiority, but men have interpreted it quite differently. They have emphasised the superiority of Osiris because he was created from the head of the god Zeus, who was greater than Osiris, according to Homer and other writers, because he was more knowledgeable.
However, the above is a narrow interpretation which conveniently leaves out the next link in the ‘creation chain’: all male gods were created by or given the ability to move by the greatest deity of them all, the goddess Isis.
Similar distortions have entered the story of Adam and Eve. Males usually portray Eve as a temptress who created sin in the world. However, if we read the original story as described in the Old Testament, it is easy for us to see clearly that Eve was gifted with knowledge, intelligence and superior mental capacities, whereas Adam was only one of her instruments, utilized by her to increase her knowledge and give shape to her creativity.
Monotheistic Religions and Female Oppression
El Saadawi argues that forms of religion that were oppressive to women developed as monotheistic religions (believing in a single god). Such religions were interpreted in the context of patriarchal societies, primarily by men. For example, male representatives of early Judaism interpreted Abraham as a patriarchal figure which served to justify the patriarchal family in which wives and children came to be under the uncontested power of the father.
Islam similarly developed patriarchal doctrines because it was established in the context of a patriarchal social structure: Authority in Islamic society belonged ultimately to the political ruler (the Khalifa) or the religious leader (the Imam), and then down through a small male minority who had power due to their ownership of herds of horses, camels and sheep, and finally down to the level of the lifeworld via the male head of household.
As a result, the enforcement of many laws in Islamic culture remains highly unequal. For example:
Although the Qur’an states that both men and women can be stoned to death for adultery, this fate rarely befalls men.
Men are permitted many wives, but women are not permitted many husbands
Husbands can divorce their wives instantaneously.
Fighting back against religions which oppress women
El Saadawi concludes that female oppression is not essentially due to religion, but due to the patriarchal system that has long been dominant. She is not hostile to religion, but only to the domination of religion by patriarchal ideology.
‘The great religions of the world uphold similar principles in so far as the submission of women to men is concerned. They also agree in the attribution of masculine characteristics to their God. Islam and Christianity have both constituted important stages inn the evolution of humanity. Nevertheless, where the cause of women was concerned, they added a new load to their already heavy chains. (El Saadawi,1980.)
She believes that the only way for women to free themselves from oppression is to themselves fight for their own liberation.
Thankfully, there is a long tradition of religious radicals doing precisely this, probably the best-known example being Jesus Christ himself who El Saadawi describes as a revolutionary leader who opposed oppression. She also points out that early Christianity tended to have codes which enforced the equal treatment of men and women.
Finally, El Saadawi believes that revolutions are generally beneficial to women and so can thus be regarded as a Marxist Feminist as much as a Radical Feminist.
Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn 8th edition 2013
Simone de Beauvoir theorized that religion oppresses women in much the same way as it oppresses the proletariat in Marxist theory.
‘There must be a religion for women as there must be one for the common people, and for exactly the same reason’ (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949).
According to de Beauvoir, religion is used by men to oppress women and to compensate for them for the second-class status.
De Beauvoir argued that historically, men, who have traditionally controlled most institutions in society, also control religion. It is men who control religion beliefs, and they use God to justify their control of society.
De Beauvoir writes:
‘For the Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians, among others, men is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefor repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female.’
However, in modern societies, religion is more of a tool of deception than of direct control. Religion deceives women into thinking that are equal to, or even better than men, despite their inferior status in reality.
For example, the role of mother is given divine status in most religions, and thus encourages women to accept the role of ‘mother’ in society. Religion also provides psychological rewards for women who content themselves with being ‘good mothers’: simply being a ‘good mother’ is ‘divine’, and this effectively carries its own psychological and status rewards for women who accept this role.
However, according to radical feminist theory more generally, the motherhood role is one of the most oppressive for women: it means that women become financially dependent on men and end up doing a lot more work in society, especially in reproducing the next generation.
In fact, de Beauvoir says that those women who accept their religiously sanctioned roles as mother actually benefit religious institutions. This is because they socialise them into religious belief: thus reproducing power inequalities.
Finally, for de Beauvoir, the compensations women receive from traditional religious institutions for accepting their inferior status are not adequate.
Adapted from Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.
Inequality between men and women is universal and the most significant form of inequality
Gender norms are socially constructed not determined by biology and can thus be changed.
Patriarchy is the main cause of gender inequality – women are subordinate because men have more power.
Feminism is a political movement; it exists to rectify sexual inequalities, although strategies for social change vary enormously.
There are four types of Feminism – Radical, Marxist, Liberal, and Difference.
Blames the exploitation of women on men. It is primarily men who have benefitted from the subordination of women. Women are ‘an oppressed group.
Society is patriarchal – it is dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class, and women the subject class.
Rape, violence and pornography are methods through which men have secured and maintained their power over women. Andrea Dworkin (1981)
Radical feminists have often been actively involved in setting up and running refuges for women who are the victims of male violence.
Rosemarie Tong (1998) distinguishes between two groups of radical feminist:
Radical-libertarian feminists believe that it is both possible and desirable for gender differences to be eradicated, or at least greatly reduced, and aim for a state of androgyny in which men and women are not significantly different.
Radical-cultural feminists believe in the superiority of the feminine. According to Tong radical cultural feminists celebrate characteristics associated with femininity such as emotion, and are hostile to those characteristics associated with masculinity such as hierarchy.
The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and Matrifocal households. Some also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”
Capitalism rather than patriarchy is the principal source of women’s oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries.
Women’s subordination plays a number of important functions for capitalism:
Women reproduce the labour force for free (socialisation is done for free)
Women absorb anger – women keep the husbands going.
Because the husband has to support his wife and children, he is more dependent on his job and less likely to demand wage increases.
The traditional nuclear also performs the function of ‘ideological conditioning’ – it teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.
The disadvantaged position of women is seen to be a consequence of the emergence of private property and their lack of ownership of the means of production
They are more sensitive to differences between women who belong to the ruling class and proletarian families. Marxist Feminists believe that there is considerable scope for co-operation between working class women and men and that both can work together
In Communist society, Marxist feminists believe that gender inequalities will disappear.
Nobody benefits from existing inequalities: both men and women are harmed
The explanation for gender inequality lies not so much in structures and institutions of society but in its culture and values.
Socialisation into gender roles has the consequence of producing rigid, inflexible expectations of men and women
Discrimination prevents women from having equal opportunities
Liberal Feminists do not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure.
The creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act.
Liberal feminists try to eradicate sexism from the children’s books and the media.
Liberal Feminist ideas have probably had the most impact on women’s lives – e.g. mainstreaming has taken place.
Difference Feminism/ Postmodern Feminism
Do not see women as a single homogenous group. MC/WC ,
Criticised preceding feminist theory for claiming a ‘false universality’ (white, western heterosexual, middle class)
Criticised preceding Feminists theory of being essentialist
Critiqued preceding Feminist theory as being part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project
Postmodern Feminism – concerned with language (discourses) and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities’
Helene Cixoux – An example of a postmodern/ destabilising theorist
Criticisms of Feminist Theories
1. Radical Feminists – ignores other sources of inequality such as sexual violence.
2. Patriarchal systems existed before capitalism, in tribal societies for example.
3. The experience of women has not been particularly happy under communism.
1. Based upon male assumptions and norms such as individualism and competition, and encourages women to be more like men and therefor deny the ‘value of qualities traditionally associated with women such as empathy.
2. Liberalism is accused of emphasising public life at the expense of private life.
3. Radical and Marxist Feminists – it fails to take account of deeper structural inequalities
4. Difference Feminists argue it is an ethnocentric perspective – based mostly on the experiences of middle class, educated women.
1. The concept of patriarchy has been criticised for ignoring variations in the experience of oppression.
2. Some critics argue that it focuses too much on the negative experiences of women, failing to recognise that some women can have happy marriages for example.
3. It tends to portray women as universally good and men as universally bad, It has been accused of man hating, not trusting all men.
Walby, women are still oppressed by objective social structures – namely Patriarchy
Dividing women sub-groups weakens the movement for change.