Book Review: How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics by Laura Briggs

Protestor holds sign that reads "Reproductive Justice For All"

By Tannuja Rozario – At the heart of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics by Laura Briggs is the question: is there an outside to reproductive politics? Briggs contends that at the center of the laws and policies in the United States lies reproductive labor.

Briggs defines reproductive labor as “the work necessary to the reproduction of human life—not only having and raising children but also feeding people; caring for the sick, the elderly, and those who cannot work.” She acknowledges that this work is primarily done by women.

Throughout the book, Briggs illustrates the intersection of policy-making and reproductive labor in various fields—including welfare reform, advanced reproductive technology, gay marriage, the financial crisis, and immigration. In the case of immigration, she analyzes how the structural adjustment policies implemented by the IMF have led to a system in which impoverished women leave their home countries and often their own children to do reproductive labor in the U.S. as nannies, elderly caretakers, and housekeepers. Briggs calls this “offshoring reproductive labor.”

Briggs also argues that policies are informed by reproductive politics through not only a gendered lens, but also through a racialized one. A powerful illustration is the country’s historic approach to welfare. Black “welfare queens” and Latina “breeding machines” have long been used as sensationalized images that appeal to conservatives and are used to cut funding and support for welfare.

At the end of the book, Briggs argues that one can see a modern-day reincarnation of the welfare queen in the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Latinx and Black single mothers were targeted by banks to take out loans that they eventually could not afford, putting female single headed households on the streets and illustrating the “unworthy” family. Built into the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) were these assumptions—women had to promise not to have a baby or sign a letter saying that they would continue to work after a birth of a child so that banks would not ignore their earnings.

But when looking forward to social change, Briggs book comes up short. At the end of her book she discusses what needs to be implemented, including 40-hour work weeks, paid parental leave, and an actual safety net, but she does not discuss how we can get there. Throughout her book, she references movements that were crucial to reproductive politics in the twentieth century. But what are current movements doing to create change? Turning to socio-legal scholars can provide these answers.

In Law From Below: Women’s Human Rights and Social Movements in New York, Merry, et al. demonstrate how organizations advocating for social change can benefit from using a human rights framework. A human rights framework has three dimensions: law (multilateral conventions and treaties), values (equality, nondiscrimination, protection from state violence), and governance (institutionalization of democratic modes of governance). The ideology and values behind the human rights framework emphasizes equality, which can be useful to unite various organizations with different values and political ideologies, and which “affords feminists a framework more open to the intersection of race, class, and gender.”

Briggs’ book would have also been strengthened by the inclusion of the theory of the gendered state, as shown by Catharine MacKinnon, Wendy Brown, Lynne Haney, and others, as it highlights what processes are underlying reproductive politics and the political economy of the United States. Briggs does try to engage with some feminist literature, specifically when she discusses reproductive stratification, but it falls just short of enough.

Overall, however, Briggs’ compelling argument that all politics are reproductive politics is essential for us to understand our current political lives in the United States. Briggs’ analysis can help us understand how Mr. Trump went to Washington, as well as the shrinking governmental support for social programs, the impact of the #MeToo movement, the Global Gag Rule, and the GOP tax bill. To combat the Trump administration and its draconian policies, we need to be attentive to reproductive politics.

Tannuja Rozario graduated from John Jay in 2016 with a BA in Law and Society. She is currently a PhD Student at UMASS, Amherst in Sociology.

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