Altering the system to fit women’s lives, for a change

The Christian Science Monitor ran a story last week, “Housing holds back moms in college”, about colleges starting to provide housing and other needs for student mothers (ht: Mother Talkers).

There’s a lot of good news here. It’s the kind of thing that Feminists for Life’s College Outreach Program has been working on for years — improving options for pregnant and parenting students by recognizing that their needs are just as legitimate as the needs of the childless, and fighting to get those needs met. (I was hoping that the College Outreach Program might be mentioned, but no luck. If you have experience with the program, I would encourage you to send a message to the reporter and/or the editors of the Monitor to let them know about your work for the advancement of student moms.)

Unfortunately, making college more accessible to mothers is seen by many as a sort of luxury or favor to mothers, rather than a matter of justice.

“Institutions should do whatever they can to aid in this process,” says Chelsea Toder, a co-president of VOX, a branch of Planned Parenthood. But, she asks, “If you provide housing to undergraduate mothers, how about married students? … [Or] students who have to care for family members? Everyone has things in their lives that limit them, and it is difficult to figure out when you must alter your own life and when a system should be altered for you.

This is exactly the mindset that pro-life feminists have criticized for years — that we have to alter ourselves and destroy our children in order to fit into a system that was made by and for people who can’t give birth.

Yes, it’s true that institutions can’t adapt themselves to each and every unique situation of people’s lives. But motherhood isn’t some exotic and unpredictable circumstance; over 80 percent of women in the U.S. have or will have children, and over four million women have babies each year. We recognize that it would be unjust to exclude people with physical disabilities from higher education, so colleges must accomodate them. We don’t seem to have come to that recognition with regard to mothers yet, even though motherhood is much more common.

Besides, I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of single fathers walking around on college campuses.

3 thoughts on “Altering the system to fit women’s lives, for a change

  1. Dear Jen R,

    I am Chelsea Toder and when I happened across your post I was compelled to respond:
    In your post, you liken motherhood to a physical disability, saying “We recognize that it would be unjust to exclude people with physical disabilities from higher education…We don’t seem to have come to that recognition with regard to mothers yet.” With this logic you implicitly recommend that mothers should be treated as if they were impaired. I, however, beg to differ. I believe a call for women’s empowerment must take into consideration that all women, especially mothers, are endowed with full capabilities and shouldn’t be treated as handicapped simply because they have children. It is the very courageousness and competence of the undergraduate mothers at Tufts University that makes me certain of this assertion. And part of believing that a woman is fully capable means that she has the ability to choose what you make analogous to a “handicap”: to have a child. It is true that not all pregnancies are planned or desired, but it is my strong belief that a woman always has the choice to have and keep a child. And in this choice, she acknowledges the responsibility, the sacrifices and the joys, that come with such an undertaking. In respecting the capabilities of this woman and the woman’s choice to have and keep children it is imperative (for the sake of the feminism you preach) that we not ask an institution to treat her as if she were simply a passive victim of an “accident.”
    In your post, you agree with me when you say “Yes, it’s true that institutions can’t adapt themselves to each and every unique situation of people’s lives.” However you go on to state “But motherhood isn’t some exotic and unpredictable circumstance; over 80 percent of women in the U.S. have or will have children, and over four million women have babies each year.” However, this critique of my position doesn’t take my argument seriously or to its fullest. In my comment, I acknowledge the difficulties of changing the system of undergraduate education in light of a wide range of varied circumstances. I ask “How about married students? … [Or] students who have to care for family members?” Not only do you not address these valid concerns but you offer the privileged response of someone who doesn’t seem to know what its like to have to care for sick family members or to be trying to pay for an undergraduate education while maintaining a marriage. Would they not benefit from college housing too? You seem to believe that young mothers should be given preferential treatment and, in doing so, you belittle the equally important and un-exotic circumstances of others (as the number of ill and dependent family members and married couples needs no statistics). Though this was posted under the heading of “feminism,” I feel that you are guilty of the very discrimination you for which you fault this male-dominated system (you write “a system that was made by and for people who can’t give birth). Rather, I believe that “feminism” must not simply be sensitive to the needs of women, but women as a minority themselves must be especially sensitive to the needs of all minorities.
    In short, we agree that the system is not ideal. Education is a hot commodity that not everyone has the privilege to receive—especially at such a prestigious and expensive university. But I believe that the problem has less to do with housing than a larger economic system that doesn’t hold education as a top priority not simply for undergraduate mothers, but for everyone. The system doesn’t provide enough financial and other options for people with varied special circumstances. But perhaps most importantly, it is the mindset that we women are helpless victims pushed around by a male system that I believe to be most detrimental to feminism and the young mothers themselves. These very capable and smart women chose to have sex, they chose to have their children, they chose to keep their children. And while I do not advocate that this means that they should not have the opportunity to pursue higher education (rather, I encourage they do), they can also choose schools that would better fit their circumstances, they can choose less expensive schooling, or they can choose to work jobs that would supplement their education; the operative phrase is that they can choose. Should they have to? No. There are a lot of choices that everyone has to make in an imperfect system—for everyone. And they aren’t the only ones that shouldn’t have to. But to separate them as helpless victims a system should treat as “special” is to question a female empowerment that I thought was fundamental to any notion of feminism.

    Thanks.

  2. Hi Chelsea,

    Thank you very much for stopping by and commenting!

    My point in talking about accomodations for people with physical disabilities as opposed to mothers was to highlight the way in which both have been structurally excluded from an educational system designed by and for able-bodied men. They have been kept from education not by any lack of intellectual ability or drive, but by the fact that their needs were simply not considered important or legitimate (or considered at all). Justice demands inclusion, even if it means changing the way things have always been done; our society has begun the process of recognizing that (hence, at least some accomodations for the disabled), but has a long way to go.

    I actually really dislike the language of “accomodation”, come to think of it, because it implies that the current holders of power are magnanimously doing the disabled or mothers a favor by giving them what they, in fact, deserve — the meeting of their legitimate needs. It grants the premise that able-bodied students without family obligations are the norm, the default, and everybody else is a deviation from that norm.

    There’s no law of nature that states that the One True Way to get a college education is to live in a dorm and attend in-person classes during the day and to never need childcare, etc. Our educational system is the result of certain choices and priorities, and different choices can be made and different priorities set. Why do so many colleges have lavish sports complexes but no day care? It’s not because sports are necessary for a college education; it’s because the people making the decisions about allocation of resources (including alumni donors) like sports and don’t need, or sympathize with those who need, day care. It is unjust that the people making the decisions overwhelmingly come from a specific social group, and structure things to perpetuate the continued dominance of their group. How many college administrators are mothers? How many were mothers when they were in college themselves?

    I’ll grant that I may have been overly dismissive of your point about students taking care of ill family members, married students, etc. And in fact, many reforms that would help mothers would also help these other non-traditional (there’s that normative terminology again!) students — flexible schedules, online course options, subsidized housing, etc.

    Finally, I cannot take issue strongly enough with your claim that I characterize mothers as “helpless victims”. I think what you’re saying is that colleges are run a certain way, and if women choose to have children, they therefore should deal with the fact that they’ve made themselves not fit into that model. And to expect otherwise is to treat women as though they’re not mature enough to accept the consequences of their actions. But what I’m saying is that I don’t accept the fundamental premise that colleges have to be run the way they are. Sexism and classism are built right into the system, and must be removed.

  3. Jen R, your blog and responses are eloquent and intelligent, and a joy to read. Well done :-)

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