A response to Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family (Verso, 2019)
At the heart of Sophie Lewis’s 2019 book, Full Surrogacy Now , is the argument that gestation, or pregnancy, is work. Much like advocates of wages for housework, who she refers to extensively, she argues that, by reproducing the workforce (very literally), pregnancy and childbirth are a fundamental part of value-creation; of capitalist accumulation. Pregnancy and childbirth should, therefore, (a.) be considered ‘labour’ in the Marxist sense and (b.) be viewed as an urgent site of struggle against capitalism.
The analogy continues when Lewis raises the demand ‘wages for gestators’. This, she explains, is not an actually desired outcome, but a “provocation”. She writes:
"we aren’t literally totting up a bill when we utter our stick-’em-up, claiming the wages due for centuries of baby making... We are demanding everything. That - not some pragmatic state-implemented basic income program for families - is the point of “serving notice” to the expropriators; “Wages for all gestation-work” is not a petition and it does not describe an exciting destination… It describes a process of assault on wage society. It’s a noir joke, a provocation, an insurgent orientation intended to expose the ludicrousness of treating work as the basis for receiving greater or smaller amounts of the means of survival...”
Going on 'strike'
Lewis underpins her argument with an uncontroversial assessment of the commercial surrogacy industry. Commercial surrogacy, unlike unpaid housework or unpaid pregnancy, directly makes profit for the employer and surrogates are straightforwardly exploited workers. They receive a wage, which is less than the product of their labour is worth, and their conditions are dictated by their contract of employment.
These wages and conditions are very often especially poor. Lewis describes how surrogates are expected to adhere to strict health routines and to live in housing away from their families. They often don’t bring the baby to term, but are booked in for a caesarian section at the convenience of the clients.
If gestation is work, then how do these workers go on strike? The answer, Lewis argues, is simple: abortion. Surrogates ultimately have the power to ‘withdraw their labour’ by terminating their pregnancies. Lewis gives examples of surrogates threatening to abort unless they are given permission to see their families.
At this point, however, readers are expected to make a rather extraordinary leap and accept that, if commercial surrogates can strike for better conditions, then so can any pregnant person. Gestators, in general, can ‘strike’ to better their lives - and when they do, they strike a blow against the oppressive constraints of the nuclear family under capitalism.
The women's strike
On 24 October 1975, ninety percent of women in Iceland went on strike to protest the gender pay gap and discriminatory employment practices. They did not go to their paid jobs and left housework and childcare to the men. Fathers were forced to take their children into work and employers ended up providing crayons and sweets. Certain industries, such as fish factories, shut down entirely for the day. Iceland passed a law guaranteeing equal pay the following year.
Inspired by this action, the Women’s Strike has been adopted by activists in a number of countries around the world, most successfully in Poland and Argentina. A limitation of the women’s strike is that, for very obvious reasons, an all-out, long-term strike just isn’t possible. Children need looking after, and women tend to want to look after them, at least some of the time. Nevertheless, one can still see how direct actions like the ‘women’s day off’ in Iceland or the Black Friday protests in Poland can be very effective, especially when taken up on a large scale.
However, given that, generally speaking, people have children because they want to and would presumably be unwilling to have an abortion for a token action, Lewis’s notion of ‘gestational strikes’ ends up as little more than a rhetorical device.
Perhaps I have taken Lewis too seriously on this point. Afterall, she explicitly says that wages for gestators is a “noir joke”; the same may be true of ‘gestational strikes’. But that is precisely the problem with an otherwise thought-provoking book. One of its central arguments is a (not particularly convincing) “provocation”; an intellectual exercise that offers us very little for the real-world project we have before us: overthrowing capitalism and its related systems of oppression.