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according to the New York papers, the first artificial womb was discovered—not invented—on the night of February 24, 1894, in a “queer little shop” on East Twenty-Sixth Street. The shop’s owner, a reclusive scientist named William Robinson, was roused from sleep by the personal physician of E. Clarence Haight, a Madison Avenue millionaire whose wife had died in childbirth and whose daughter had been born weighing less than two pounds. Desperate to save the baby, the physician begged Robinson to give him something to keep her warm. Robinson hurried to the back of his shop and emerged with what he called his “artificial womb”: a black steamer trunk with a sliding window cut into the lid, a cruder version of the infant incubators soon to debut at the Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin in 1896. “The Little Tot Has Been Nearly Three Weeks in the Artificial Womb, and the Prospects Are That It Will Live to Begin Life in the Normal Way About Three Weeks More,” reported the Daily News on March 16.

Like many advances in reproductive technology, the artificial womb lent itself first to speculative fiction, then to scientific research, and finally to feminist theory. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the artificial womb appeared in hundreds of pulpy newspaper stories and dystopian novels, including Brave New World (1932), in which ectogenesis—the development of embryos outside the uterus—enables the mass production of human beings. In 1952 the New York State Medical Society started designing an artificial womb that doctors imagined as a “goldfish bowl filled with chemical fluids,” connected to a life-support machine, that would “do the work of” a human mother. They did not succeed, but in 1962, doctors at the Royal Caroline Hospital in Sweden announced that they had, unveiling their artificial womb that “brought back to life babies born dead” and, more horrifying still, “babies legally aborted from their mothers.” This was the same year that expectant mother Sherri Finkbine learned that the child she was carrying would likely be born with severe deformities; after a highly publicized request for an abortion was denied by her home state of Arizona, she flew to Sweden—to the same hospital where the artificial womb was being housed—to terminate her pregnancy. In the face of growing outrage over restrictive abortion laws, the artificial womb’s promise of creating life without any woman’s consent began to look increasingly dystopian. By the mid-1960s, research into artificial wombs sputtered and then died for a time.

It was not until 1970 that radical feminist Shulamith Firestone imagined a future in which technologies of artificial insemination, test-tube fertilization, artificial placentas, and parthenogenesis (“virgin birth,” she calls it in her manifesto The Dialectic of Sex) would liberate women from reproductive work. In the right hands, Firestone insisted, artificial wombs and other reproductive technologies could dismantle hetero-patriarchal sex roles. They could make the grinding work of pregnancy—nausea and exhaustion, labor and delivery, postnatal recovery and postpartum depression, nursing and around-the-clock childcare—just one option among many for how to create and care for children. The problem, as Firestone saw it, was that research on reproductive technologies was performed only incidentally in the interests of women. The development of the artificial womb, for instance, had to be justified as a lifesaving device for premature babies and not as a laborsaving device for women who simply did not want to do the work of gestation. “Until the decision not to have children or to have them by artificial means is as legitimate as traditional childbearing, women are as good as forced into their female roles,” she warned.

Firestone’s enthusiasm for new reproductive technologies was met with incredulity, scorn, and outrage among many of her fellow radical feminists. Some criticized her techno-utopian naïveté; others doubled down on the “natural” as the feminist antithesis to technological dehumanization. In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone dismisses the natural as part of a “reactionary hippie-Rousseauean Return-to-Nature,” a dangerous ideology that transfigures discomfort and risk into an essential female experience, one women can harness as a source of personal empowerment and political emancipation. Firestone mocks the mystifying maneuvers of the natural in a brief, funny, and (to my mind) fairly accurate thought experiment on what it feels like to push a baby out of your vagina.

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About Boston Review

From the breast pump to egg freezing, new technologies have long promised to “liberate” mothers, but the results are often uneven, freeing some women while worsening the oppression of others. Once and Future Feminist considers how technology offers women both advances and setbacks in the realms of sex, career, and politics. In the age of Silicon Valley, these issues are more pressing than ever, and this collection pushes readers to consider not only whether emancipatory feminism is possible today, but what it might look like.