Noted: Maria Mies
In light of the short discussion that occurred in the comments to my post on One Dimensional Woman, this excerpt from chapter 2, "Social Origins of the Sexual Division of Labour", from Maria Mies' brilliant Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour is, I find, enormously helpful:
What characterizes women's object-relation to nature, to their own as well as to the external nature? First, we see that women can experience their whole body as productive, not only their hands or their heads. Out of their body they produce new children as well as the first food for these children. It is of crucial importance for our subject that women's activity in producing children and milk is understood as truly human, that is, conscious, social activity. Women appropriated their own nature, their capacity to give birth and to produce milk in the same way as men appropriated their own bodily nature, in the sense that their hands and head, etc., acquired skills through work and reflection to make and handle tools. In this sense, the activity of women in bearing and rearing children has to be understood as work. It is one of the greatest obstacles to women's liberation, that is, humanization, that these activities are still interpreted as purely physiological functions, comparable to those of other mammals, and lying outside the sphere of conscious human influence. This view that the productivity of the female body is identical with animal fertility—a view which is presently propagated and popularized the world over by demographers and population planners—has to be understood as result of the patriarchal and capitalist division of labour and not as its precondition.Mies goes on to discuss the numerous methods of contraception and abortion known to women in gatherer-hunter groups, plus evidence which shows that women lowered their fertility through such methods as prolonged breastfeeding. And though she here talks about pre-patriarchal women, later she discusses the types of knowledge formerly known by pre-capitalist women and the ways in which that knowledge, along with women's power, was destroyed in the transition to capitalism (this is a major theme in Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch, too).
In the course of their history, women observed the changes in their own bodies and acquired through observation and experiment a vast body of experiential knowledge about the function of their bodies, about the rhythms of menstruation, about pregnancy and childbirth. This appropriation of their own bodily nature was closely related to the acquisition of knowledge about the generative forces of external nature, about plants, animals, the earth, water and air.
Thus, they did not simply breed children like cows, but they appropriated their own generative and productive forces, they analysed and reflected upon their own and former experiences and passed them on to their daughters. This means they were not helpless victims of the generative forces of their bodies, but learned to influence them, including the number of children they wanted to have.
We are in possession of enough evidence today to conclude that women in pre-patriarchal societies knew better how to regulate the number of their children and the frequency of births than do modern women, who have lost this knowledge through their subjection to the patriarchal capitalist civilizing process.