I recently sat down with esteemed feminist critic Laura Briggs to talk about her new book, How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump. Briggs is Professor and Chair of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
I thought I would start with an obvious question. How are all politics reproductive politics?
What I am trying to do in this book is to show how the economy and public policy lands in our households. Neoliberalism is a term used to refer to the radical shift in the U.S. economy over the last 40 years that has decreased real wages, thrown more and more people into the workforce and reduced government supports for families like subsidized housing, elder daycare programs and childcare. And so what do all those things add up to in our daily lives? Mostly it looks like stress. People are working longer hours with less support to care for dependents. Our greedy jobs that are competing with the time we have to do household labor—what sociologists call the crisis of care labor. The neoliberal shift in the economy has radically transformed our reproductive lives. And the burden falls especially hard on women.
How are employers contributing to the burdens on families?
The high point of the value of minimum wage was 1968, and by the early ’90s it was worth 40% less. So it was becoming less and less possible to support a household on minimum wage, and nobody knew that better than businesses did. There was a push to shame people for taking welfare, saying it was creating a cycle of dependency. In the debate over welfare, though, by “dependents” people didn’t mean elders, children, people with disabilities—they mean the women who cared for them. In the welfare reform debate, there was this big push to get caregivers into the labor force in minimum wage jobs at places in like the fast food industry or Walmart, employers that now employ a ton of people who used to be on AFDC.
The conversation about welfare in the mid-’90s was about shaming certain families – saying welfare queens are driving pink Cadillacs to the liquor store to cash their welfare checks or they are engaging in fraud to get many more checks than they should, or that they’re having more children to get bigger checks. The purpose of all of these kinds of statements that were widely repeated was to create an image of who was receiving AFDC. Sixty percent of welfare recipients in the early ’90s were white but the pink Cadillac and liquor store details were clearly meant to evoke urban Black communities. One of the primary users of AFDC was women who were in abusive relationships or women who were getting divorced who were not in the labor force. And so the effort to create the image of the welfare queen that was really different from who was receiving it was an effort to force all sorts of caretakers who didn’t have a ton of job skills into the labor force at low wage jobs. This was a really deliberate effort by businesses to cut wages so they could make more profit.
You talk in your book about gay marriage. Can you say more about how that connects to reproductive politics?
In the book I ask how is it that gay marriage came to be the gay reproductive politics issue—it wasn’t at all obvious. In the ’70s, the question was collective households, all kinds of wild possibilities for reproduction – borrowing sperm, lesbians sleeping with a man, or other kinds of “do it yourself” ways of getting pregnant. It was about how do we care for lovers who become ill or disabled. It was about a politics of love and households refusing the heterosexual, nuclear family and moving ever more widely into experiments and collective living and other alternatives to the nuclear family. Beginning in the ’90s, and by the decade after 2010 for sure, it’s all about gay marriage. What happened to change the politics of queer communities from experimenting with forms of households to gay marriage?
One of things that I’m tracking across this book, starting in 1980 with Ronald Regan, is how government and business policies led to the privatization of care work and the privatization of wealth, which resulted in the upward distribution of wealth and a growing wealth gap. The privatization of care and wealth landed on gay folks in particularly harsh ways. Throughout the ’70s and the ’80s, lesbian moms were losing their kids in custody fights and gay dads were losing the right even to have visitation with their kids after the breakup of heterosexual marriage because of claims that gay people were dangerous to children and were sexual predators, and the only “safe” places were families created by law and marriage—the officially sanctioned private spaces. The Sharon Kowalski case, which is little remembered now, was incredibly important in queer communities, especially lesbian communities, through the 1980s. When Sharon Kowlaski was horribly injured in a car accident and her lover, Karen Thompson, was not able to take care of her because when Sharon’s parents found out that they were lovers they were disgusted and horrified and insisted that they were going to be the ones to have custody of Sharron and make decisions about her healthcare. For more than a decade, Karen Thompson was addressing gay pride parades and all sorts of rallies about the politics of caring for lovers and what everybody needed to do—what kinds of legal protections we would need to prevent this from happening in our own households. The AIDS crisis was the same, only for gay men mostly, where lovers weren’t able to care for their partners or even have a say in where they got their care or where they were buried if birth families wanted to intervene.
So systematically, over the course of the last 40 years, the politics of family rights became more and more about the law and about the right to protect dependents or people who might become dependent. And as the social safety net evaporated, the only place you could count on getting care was in the privatized family, and so gay people were compelled by the privatization of care. So gay politics got pushed more and more, inevitably, toward “crap, we have to fight for gay marriage.” And then healthcare was, obviously, the other huge issue. If the only other way we get healthcare in this country is through our employers, well you have twice as good a chance of getting healthcare if you can get healthcare from who you’re sleeping with, which is to say, if you’re married to who you’re sleeping with, then you can get on their health plan. And so that too is one of the carrots that was held out for gay folks in choosing nuclear families and conjugal couples as the unit that we would fight for.
How did reproductive politics contribute to the rise of Trump?
To get there I need to talk about the foreclosure crisis. The foreclosure crisis was really, really important in that it put millions of people out of their homes, but it didn’t affect everybody equally, obviously. One of the causes of the foreclosure crisis, or the economic meltdown of 2007 to 2011 or 2012, was predatory loans by banks and the financial services industry that specifically targeted certain people. In fact, one former financial services industry employee told a reporter that sub-prime came to be a demographic category rather than just the name of a certain kind of loan. And that demographic category was disproportionately likely to be female, Black and Latino/Latina/Latinx, and especially the people who were at the middle of that Venn diagram—Black and Latina heads of households—single moms. So these were the people who were overwhelmingly the most likely to first be targeted for a predatory or sub-prime loan that were written to be so confusing that nobody could understand them. This looked an awful lot like the narrative of welfare reform in who’s targeted. And then as these loans became more and more unpayable, the economy started to crash and the housing market hit a death spiral where the more homes were foreclosed on, the more homes would be foreclosed on because people were losing jobs, because the economy was sinking and homes were becoming worth less and less and nobody could sell their homes for what they had paid for them.
In the middle of all that, Rick Santelli, who was a commentator on CNBC, was standing in the Chicago commodity pit, and he launched into this rant against the Obama administration which he claimed was going to help out these homeowners. The Obama administration was never going to help these homeowners. They didn’t do it. But he was like “These are losers’ mortgages. This is America. People, do you want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage?” He claimed that immoral people were gonna default on their loans so that they could get cheaper loans which the Obama administration was going to give them. This rant launched the Tea Party. It was not very subtly racist. This was a time when the business press was going off on Blacks and illegal immigrants being the holders of these mortgages and being stupid and irresponsible, unable to understand what these mortgages were and then unable to pay them. This Rick Santelli rant went viral on You Tube and was replayed on the evening news and on financial shows, over and over again. It was called the rant that launched the Tea Party, and became the nucleus of the coalition that elected Trump. So just like under Reagan and then Clinton, the claim was made that the economy was sinking as a result of this 1 percent of the budget, AFDC. These folks who were much more sinned against than sinning were held to be responsible for the financial collapse of the late 2000s. And they were put out of their homes in horrendous numbers and we also got out of that a right-wing formation in the Republican Party that was explicitly racist, explicitly organized to trash government. This was the wing of the party was responsible for electing Trump.
It sounds like what you’re saying is that white supremacy is behind this kind of privatization of caring labor because of fear that if you offer government benefits women of color might take advantage of them.
Absolutely. More than a century ago, W.E.B Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction that white supremacy was about being duped, about working class white folks agreeing to ally themselves with rich whites rather than with working class Black folks and together resisting their collective impoverishment. This worked exactly like that. These were all narratives about the immorality of people of color, of households of color. And white people who benefited from these programs or who certainly benefited from higher wages were lulled into hating people of color—or agreeing to loathe the supposed immorality of people of color—and out of that, essentially, agreed to have government programs that helped them stripped and have wages continue to go down. Middle class white people got persuaded to, essentially, vote against our own interests, starting with Reagan. Because of his incredible ability to persuade us that it was only or primarily Black women who were benefitting from government programs.
What motivates the architects of this economic system of neoliberalism? Is racism motivating them or are they just using racism to increase their wealth? Is it greed that motivates them?
The Republican coalition is complicated. There’s the white nationalist right for sure which, in the current moment, we associate with Brietbart and Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon. There’s Wall Street which doesn’t care very much about either morality or racism. They don’t care if we’re all in conjugal couples or not. They don’t care about racism except so far as it increases profits. It was the particular marriage of the conservative religious right, the white nationalist right and Wall Street that produced this configuration.
So the nationalist right was motivated by racism; Wall Street was motivated by greed; and conservative right was motivated by sexual morality?
Right. The desire to stick us all in nuclear families.
What do you hope to achieve by framing politics in terms of reproductive politics? How does this help you see things you otherwise might not see?
Feminists have known forever that the public and the private are not opposite things, right? We know that that’s why “The personal is political” was such a good feminist slogan. What happens in our households is political, and I’m just turning that formulation on it’s head and saying what happens in our public policy is living also in our households. Our households are the place where we live our economic situation. And so I want other people to be able to see that in order to be effective in opposing something that is really in nobody’s best interest except the 1 percent.
What do you want your readers to take away from this book?
I want people to be mad because they were duped. Because our lives don’t have to be this hard. We can work fewer hours. We can have more time for our households if business profits weren’t so big. We can have more government programs if people weren’t persuaded to hate feminists, hate queer folks and hate people of color, in particular. When we see that, we can be more effective in building movements for human freedom.
What do you want people to do?
I want people to oppose neoliberalism in all of its forms. I want people to oppose racism in all of its forms. I want people to recognize that our households have been pushed into straight-jackets of both form and time and be able to imagine something else. I want people to join a face-to-face organization with someone and figure out what resistance means in this moment and in this time and help us build a different kind of country and different kinds of policies throughout the world. I want business to be defeated in its efforts to give more and more wealth to the 1 percent and less and less to the majority of people. I want a different kind of United States and world, where everybody has what they need and schools are not scrambling for resources, both K-12 and public universities. I want everybody to have access to a safe neighborhood where their children aren’t under threat of being killed by the police. I want people to have real reproductive justice.