Tennis star Serena Williams is expecting her first child this September and recently bared her belly on the cover of the Australian Stellar magazine. In the cover interview, she made some comments that triggered the angry women’s brigade: “I have so much respect for so many women [for giving birth],” she said. “I am about to be a real woman now, you know? It’s going to be something incredibly impressive to go through.”
You can already guess how upset equating childbirth and feminine achievement made some people. Cue the “I haven’t had a baby, so you’re saying I’m a fake woman?!” whiny social media complaints.
— RoseFire (@native_amaris) August 8, 2017
@serenawilliams last time I checked having a baby wasn't a prerequisite for womanhood. What a divisive statement.
— Liz Smith (@Wordscene) August 9, 2017
These complaints put the worst construction on the speaker’s motives, then attack it, rather than charitably construing Williams’ words. If one starts with the assumption that Williams is not a horrible person who thinks childless women are phantoms or fakers, or other dehumanizing things, one can easily come up with a positive interpretation of her words that matches reality.
This reality may be difficult for women who have not given birth to understand (I certainly didn’t beforehand), but many women describe childbirth as one of the most empowering experiences of their lives. And not just humanly empowering, like perhaps being the world’s top tennis star would be, but uniquely empowering as an aspect of one’s womanhood.
After all, giving birth is the culmination of the unique capacities of a woman’s body. Men can be tennis stars, but they can’t incubate and bring forth human life. Child incubation and nurturing is necessarily, uniquely a female process, and there is indeed glory in it that coincides with the pain. For me, a relatively non-physical kind of person, even my most difficult birth left me feeling afterwards like a superhero. I had just pushed a live human being out of a small space, after hours of exhausting work, with no painkillers. And then my husband and I had a new precious person to continue loving, now face to face. It was awesome.
I will never do anything athletic at a high level of performance. I probably won’t ever do anything professional at an Olympian level of performance, either. So for me, as for the majority of women who are blessedly able to conceive and bring babies into the world safe and sound, childbirth (and the subsequent mothering) is about as close as I’m ever going to get to Superwoman. It is indeed an accomplishment, a uniquely feminine accomplishment, and people who haven’t done it are wrong to tell me or any other mother otherwise—just like we non-athletes would be wrong to jealously protest that Serena’s athletic accomplishments diminish our human worth.
Indeed, the defensiveness displayed toward Serena’s remark, rather than a rush to celebrate her body’s uniquely female creative work, implies that women who don’t have children agree that they are missing something. Notice how the women responding did so from an anti-human, anti-woman perspective: “There’s nothing special about women’s bodies or babies.” Feel free to think so, but I disagree, and so do most humans. Women’s bodies are awesome. Babies are awesome. The ability to gestate a human life from a few tiny cells into a fully developed human being merely by virtue of eating a little bit more food and doing a lot of work for 12 hours is miraculous, difficult, and wonderful. Anyone who thinks otherwise is rather a prune. Fine, be a prune, but I’m not shriveling up with you.
Now, I do agree that Serena might want to think twice before using that specific phrase again, because it can give inadvertent pain to women who struggle to conceive, carry to term, endure childbirth, and recover afterwards. This is truly a big life event and it can be fraught and even impossible for many women. They are no less genuine women than those for whom fertility is less a struggle, and many grieve over the loss of their reproductive capacity. It is a true loss, and their grief deserves acknowledgment and empathy. The fact of their grief is yet another acknowledgement that we know, deep down inside, that fertility is wonderful and good. Some sensitivity about people’s fertility sufferings would be charitable and appropriate.
But we all live in a world where millions of people can do awesome things, even “the epitome of humankind” kinds of things, that we ourselves cannot. Such as playing tennis at a world-class level, for example. Our dismay at not being able to achieve something good should not morph into sour grapes. Some things are good and excellent and therefore deserve recognition and celebration, no matter whether we personally can achieve them. That includes creating human beings inside one’s body. That is a good thing, it is a woman thing, and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing those truths.