About this site

Welcome to my site. My friends and I created this to share some of my work and – more importantly – to invite an exchange of ideas.

I’ve been a sociologist for a long time, and ventured into a number of different fields over the years: birth and midwifery (which I still think of as my home base); the new genetics and reproductive technologies; medical sociology; bioethics; issues in disability; adoption; race; and now I’m exploring food studies too. Some of you might know my work in one of these areas, others in a different area. What would be really interesting would be to have people talk, with each other and with me, across areas. I’ve tried, with some success over the years, to talk to midwives about genetics; to encourage people who do new reproductive technologies to think about home birth; to have bioethicists pay more attention to what medical sociology can offer; to get people in Food Studies thinking about midwives and where midwifery issues overlap with their concerns. Those are invariably the most fun and stimulating conversations I’ve ever been a part of. Connecting people, connecting ideas, weaving the webs that pull us together – nothing could make me happier. So this site, a gift from friends, is my place to do this kind of weaving.

We’ve grouped my work by area – but please, if you’re here because you have gotten anything useful out of my work in one area, do poke around for a minute in another. Bring your insights and wisdom and experience to a new place, a new issue. Let’s see what we can weave together.

- Barbara Katz Rothman

Feb 17, 2011

Article: Breastfeeding

(See below for link to article)

I wrote this article first as a talk – and probably it ‘reads’ better as a talk – for a conference called “Feminism and Breastfeeding.” It feels to me like we’ve been trying to put those two things together for a long time, without great success.

The standard American version of feminism argues that women can do everything, just everything, no limits. Which means women can be all that men are: engineers and firefighters and physicians and soldiers and Supreme Court Justices and airplane pilots and Presidents. All of it. Yes we can.

If that’s the feminism that you are pursuing, then almost inevitably anything that is ‘unique’ to women seems like a barrier we have to overcome. Yes, even with our big breasts and smaller shoulders, we can be firefighters! Yes, even with our menstrual hormones we can be airplane pilots! Yes, even with our emotional depth and our empathic qualities we can be oncologists! Whatever – nothing about our female bodies will interfere with our real achievements.

That is, of course, overstating to the point of being silly, but I do think that’s the basic argument of American feminism: women can be just like men. It doesn’t give us a lot of space for the things that women’s bodies can do that men’s cannot – like being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding.

There are other feminisms, other places to stand when talking about a better world for women. It is possible to actively value women’s potential, the bodily capacity to create and nurture the next generation. But it’s hard to do that and not fall into the anti-feminist trap, the argument that women ought to be doing the nurturing and leave the rest of the world to men.

That’s the tricky place I’ve been standing all these years: trying to value what women do as women, trying to make space for men to be more like women, more nurturing, more care-giving, doing more of the mothering of their children and the children of the world. But it’s not an easy argument to be making in a society that basically views the care of young children as unskilled labor.

And so we end up with a fraught relationship with our ability to breastfeed our babies: if we celebrate it, we tend to fall off into the anti-feminist side, asking women to spend their time being traditional mothers. But there is something there to celebrate – it’s really quite a lovely and interesting system for baby feeding. A recent article by Hannah Rosin in the Atlantic, (April 09) “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” revisited the issue. She did a hard backlash against all the ‘breast is best’ propaganda, and some of her points are well worth thinking about. But – and I found this charming – she ended her article by saying she would continue to nurse her baby basically just because it’s a lovely thing to do.

In this talk, I found myself arguing with all these people who – like me – want to encourage breastfeeding, but are pissing off the Hannah Rosins of the world. The arguments they keep pushing are all about how good it is for babies, how healthy, prevents this and that, healthy for mothers, yadayadayada. Not markedly persuasive – there are lots of healthy things we’re not doing, and this is short sighted anyway. They could, as I point out, create a technologically superior milk than we’ve got now, and then what?

So I’m asking the breastfeeding advocates to try to figure out just what it is that they so value about breastfeeding, to try to figure out what we’re celebrating. And realize that all our arguments, all of what breastfeeding means, occurs in a context, and that if we don’t think about that, if we don’t place ourselves in the right context, we’re not going to be encouraging women to breastfeed. And that’s sad because…… well, it’s a lovely thing to do.

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Read the article here.

Feb 15, 2011

At Your Beck and Piven: A Call for More Public Sociology

You’ve probably heard something of the situation by now – Glenn Beck, a Fox news ‘commentator’ is trashing Frances Fox Piven, using the kind of hateful language and accusations that have come to mark American political discourse, taking all the ‘civil’ out of it. Throw in the joys of the internet, and the level of the conversation has degraded to “Die you Cunt!” messages arriving in Piven’s email. Commentate that!

I’m not absolutist about a lot of things, but when it comes to free speech and the first amendment, you’re not going to find a lot of stronger advocates. I spent my teenage and young adult years listening to late night ‘listener supported’ radio, listened in tears as stations were attacked by right-wing, pro-war forces, felt my eyes fill as the Pacifica station reopened with the rousing chords of “Let the Sun Shine In” after a bombing. Oh those 1960’s! And in the years that followed, I watched early feminist attempts to control deeply misogynist pornography backfire, the laws quickly being used against feminist free speech. These days, I spend a fair amount of time in Berlin, a city so overfilled with its own monuments that it requires stumble stones, engraved brass cobblestones to show you where people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. I became used to it, stumbled, sighed, nodded and walked on. But the memorial that brought tears to my eyes, the one that truly made me stumble, was the book burning memorial. In front of Humboldt University, at the law school no less, there is a memorial marking the spot where the Nazis burned piles of the books they found offensive. You stand on a square of thick glass in the plaza and look down into a small white room lined with empty white bookshelves. I stood there and cried – the books!

So what with one thing and another, I’m not going to ask for laws to cut down on freedom of speech. Not even Glenn Beck’s. I am going to defend his right to be stupid and evil. But it does require that I – and we, SSSP members – be good and smart. We have to address these vicious, personal attacks designed to silence not just Piven, but any of us who critically assess the system and dare to publicly advocate for the poor, the unemployed or the foreclosed.


An unfortunately large part of the media response supportive of Piven that I’ve seen makes a point of mentioning that Frances Fox Piven is 78. Well, as an old white woman myself, I kinda resent the assumption that one look at us and anyone can see that obviously we’re not dangerous. Partly it’s the ‘ageism’ in that, but more it’s the kind of privilege that allows some people to say things like “Do I look like a ______?” shoplifter, terrorist, radical rabble-rouser? Thus reinforcing the idea that some people – young black or Middle Eastern men for example-- do look the type. And just what is the type in question for Beck here?


Piven, a past president of our organization and of ASA, a colleague and a truly remarkable and wonderful scholar and person, may well be a model member of an intelligent minority. Beck has named her among nine people as the ‘intelligent minority’ who are also the nine most dangerous people in the world. I think I would take some comfort from a world in which the most intelligent were also the most dangerous – it would imply more power associated with intelligence than I’ve observed. But be that as it may, I’m having a hard time seeing Piven as one of the nine most dangerous – and thus in some way powerful -- people in the world. If she were, this would be a much nicer world.

It’s been noted that 8 of those 9 people Beck pointed to are Jews. Intelligent minority? We’ve been called worse I suppose. Did Beck really and truly, deliberately do a display of anti-Semitism? Is this a Goebel-like attempt to tell the big-lie, name the scapegoat, sow division, and let the people connect the dots? Or, like Sarah Palin’s recent misuse of the phrase ‘blood libel’ did he just demonstrate an appalling lack of, uh, intelligence? Or at least knowledge of history, sense of the political landscape, basic common sense or what my mother would call ‘seichel’?

So here’s what Beck says makes Piven so dangerous – she’s a public sociologist (or public political scientist -- pity but the media do consistently give them rather than us credit for her) who has recently wondered why the unemployed in America these days are not protesting, rallying and marching, why they are going so quietly into that jobless night. She compared that silence with other protests and disruptions, including the recent Greek strikes and riots. Well, people died in Greece, so it follows logically a la Beck that Piven is calling for violence.

But that’s rather minor in her list of sins. Really what she’s responsible for is the financial meltdown and – now you’ve made even me angry Frances -- the housing crash! It seems that what really caused the economy to crash was an article Piven and Cloward wrote 45 years ago that suggested that ‘poor people claim their lawful benefits from the welfare system.” Piven and Cloward thought perhaps that would bring us to a system of guaranteed income. It didn’t actually do that, you might have noticed. But 42 or so years later, that article caused the markets to crash and that explains why I couldn’t sell my house! I am so relieved to finally understand what happened with all that.

OK, I will take a deep breath and try again to deal with this seriously. Frances Fox Piven is getting death threats, and no, that’s not funny and it is terrifying. Defending her right to enter the public discourse and try hard to steer it intelligently does not really open up ways of shutting Glenn Beck up. If she has a right to be smart, he’s got one to be stupid. But there are a lot of us, and maybe we better get out there in that public discourse too. Surely there are more members of the intelligent minority (goys welcome!) who can raise our voices alongside of Piven’s, make our calls for justice, for decent social policy, for an end to racism, an end to poverty, our calls for a better world, and make it harder for just one or two of us to be picked off, ‘selected,’ shall I say, for smearing.

Feb 8, 2011

Article: Who is Defending Whom from What?

This little piece is really too short to properly address the issue, but here's a quick thought on the issue of 'malpractice' as an explanation for the rise in Cesarean sections.  One thing worth noting is that the medical profession has so totally managed to place its own concerns front and center that when you say 'malpractice' most people think of the insurance, rather than the actual bad practice being insured against. 


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Read the article here