Dear Serena Williams, childbirth will NOT make you a real woman


Dear Ms. Williams,

I was shocked to read that you — a feminist icon — have fallen prey to sexism.

Speaking about the impending birth of your first child, you told Herald Sun’s Stellar:

I am about to be a real woman now, you know? It’s going to be something incredibly impressive to go through.

Of course, the backlash has been swift and predictable, pointing out that many women don’t want or can’t have children and they are real women, too.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Sadly, you are promoting the sexist view that women are only “real” and valuable if they are using their reproductive organs.[/pullquote]

I suspect that you know that and never meant to imply otherwise, but the real problem with your statement is not that it is disrespectful to childless women (though it is). The real problem is that it is deeply retrograde and anti-feminist.

For most of human history, women were reduced to their reproductive organs — breasts, uterus and vagina. Their brains, their talents and the contents of their characters were deemed irrelevant or worse: unwomanly. Women were expected to seek fulfillment in mothering; until that day they were expected to keep themselves busy with “womanly arts” like needlework. Intellectual efforts, artistic endeavors and, obviously, physical competition in athletic pursuits weren’t merely off limits; they were considered “mannish.”

By implying that you aren’t yet a real woman, despite being a powerful, talented, brilliant and obviously womanly woman, you are reverting to the sexist view that women are only “real” and valuable if they are using their reproductive organs. It is an insidious form of sexism, but one that has become increasingly popular since the advent of the legal, political and economic emancipation of women. It is insisidous because it dresses up sexism as praise; but it is no less sexist than judging women by the size of their breasts instead of the size of their accomplishments.

As someone who has given birth to four children and raised them to adulthood I feel qualified to tell you what giving birth will and won’t do for you.

Childbirth WILL make you a mother.

Here’s a few other things childbirth will make you:

A woman with a torn vagina, leaking from just about every orifice, in pain and hoping that none of the changes are permanent. No glamor here!

It is no more impressive than being able to breathe, digest food or walk; pretty much any woman can do it. In contrast, no one can play tennis like you can.

It’s not empowering. Here’s a little tip: If it doesn’t empower a 15 year old Afghan girl giving birth in a hut in agony and at high risk of death due to lack of medical care, it’s not going to empower you.

It’s a process, not an outcome and it is the outcome of childbirth — a new, unique human being — that will change your life in ways that you haven’t even dreamed about.

Until you have a child, you have no idea what the love of a mother for her child really means. You think you are fierce now; wait until someone poses a threat to your child; you’d battle a wild animal with your bare hands and no hesitation.

Until you have a child, you have no idea what the fear of a mother for her child’s wellbeing really means. I guarantee you will obsessively check your sleeping child to be sure that he or she is still breathing. Even the idea of losing that child will be shattering and unfathomable.

Until you have a child, you have no idea what mothers are willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives; you have no idea how much more painful your child’s disappointments will be than yours ever were or how sweet your children’s smallest accomplishments will be even compared to your greatest accomplishments.

Until you have a child, you have no idea what unselfish love means. Finding out will be one of the greatest joys of your life.

Being a woman makes it possible to have children, but it’s hardly the only way. Don’t imagine that mothers who adopt are lesser women because they didn’t give birth. Honestly, one thing has nothing to do with another beyond basic biology and even then you have it exactly backwards; being a woman makes it possible to give birth; giving birth doesn’t make it possible to be a woman.

In truth, childbirth will make you something you have never been before, a mother; but you’ve been a real woman all along.