Merriam Webster defines privilege as a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others. One privilege given to men in our society is the assumption that their reproductive capacities are normal and that women’s are deviant.
Society generally considers viewing female reproductive bodies as normal as somehow privileging women. This is not to say that there are not plenty of men and women in our society who appreciate that women’s bodies can menstruate, carry a fetus, give birth, and lactate. But it is also considered perfectly acceptable to discriminate against women for these functions or to behave as if women’s normal reproductive functions are an abnormal inconvenience or a “choice.”
For instance, a common argument in conservative circles is that women and men have similar earnings if you control for things such as childbearing. Women “choose” to have children, and thus the time they take for childbearing is a choice, and thus it makes sense to pay them less because they work less. Men do not bear children, and if women also do not, their salaries are similar to those of their male counterparts. However, this ignores that men retain their salary privilege whether they reproduce or not. Women who reproduce are the only ones who face a pay gap.
If it were considered normal to get pregnant, birth babies, breastfeed, and actively engage in childrearing, then the assumption in the workplace would be that all adults would spend some time doing these things, and workplace policies would be designed around that assumption. Instead, workplaces are often designed around the assumption that not only will workers not get pregnant, birth babies, breastfeed, and actively engage in childrearing, but that someone else will do that for them. This is only possible to assume if one views the normal human body as the male version.
There is a case going before the Supreme Court of the United States in which a pregnant woman working for UPS was not given accommodations needed to maintain the health of her pregnant body (in her case, being given light physical duty for the first half of her pregnancy). People who were not pregnant could get accommodations to maintain the health of their non-pregnant bodies–it was only workers who needed health accommodations associated with pregnancy who were denied. UPS argued that their policy was “pregnancy blind”–that they were not discriminating because they simply treated all workers as if they were not and could never be pregnant–even if they were pregnant. This assumes that the normal human body is never pregnant.
In a recent “Faith and Reason” lecture at Patrick Henry College (a college for devout Christians who were homeschooled), Stephen Baskerville complains that women have made “demands for access to workplaces, universities, the military, and other previously male venues” and that women’s presence in these institutions is “accompanied with equally strident demands to engage there in female-only activities, such as pregnancy or breastfeeding.”*
Baskerville’s argument assumes that it is right and just for institutions to be for male bodies only. His idea is that the female reproductive body is not normal, so that structuring an institution to adapt to normal states of being of the female reproductive body is somehow discriminating against men. His argument is equivalent to stating that peeing while standing is male-only activity and therefore it is discriminatory against women to have urinals in bathrooms.
Women are commonly shamed for having lactating bodies in public (on a light note, here are a few situations that I agree would be bad for lactating/nursing publicly ). A healthy body will lactate after birthing and for as long as an infant gets nourishment at the breast. It is a normal–if temporary–state for a the postpartum body. Yet the right of a woman to her lactating body is so controversial that there have had to be numerous laws passed stating that the normal lactating body must be accommodated in public, including making time for lactation in the workplace. It is generally expected that humans will take time to do other normal human functions, such as eat or pee. We generally accommodate ordinary human functions in public spaces and institutions.
It is an ordinary human function to menstruate, be pregnant, give birth, or lactate–that is, if you consider a woman to be human.
Update: Here is the first follow-up to this post: The (un)Privileged Body: Pregnancy and the ACA
*Baskerville says this as part of a larger argument about sexual harassment. You can read a great takedown of the whole lecture here.