In the summer of 1972, the International Feminist Collective began calling for wages for housework. The group of Italian, American, and British feminists argued that women's unpaid labor was vital to capitalism, bringing workers into life and keeping them alive. "They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work," read Italian feminist Silvia Federici's 1975 pamphlet, Wages Against Housework. Further, the IFC argued, there was nothing natural or sacred about the work required to birth and raise a child.
In Joanne Ramos' debut novel, The Farm, that feminist dream becomes a feminist dystopia. Surrogates, mostly low-income women of color, are paid life-changing sums to incubate the "fetal bigwigs" of the ultra-rich at a plush baby farm called Golden Oaks. The novel explores the costs of monetizing reproductive labor in an age of extreme inequality. It's critical of the idea that the rich can fairly compensate the vulnerable for such work, and Ramos never loses sight of the invisible emotional tax borne by mothers who can't afford to take care of their own children.
Protagonist Jane and her cousin, Evelyn, are part of the underclass that forms the "global care chain." They've immigrated from the Philippines to the West, and make their living doing care work for well-heeled New Yorkers. Evelyn pays another Filipina woman to take care of her disabled son, Roy; when Jane goes to Golden Oaks, Evelyn assumes responsibility for Jane's daughter, Amalia.
When we meet Jane, she's beginning a job as a baby nurse, operating in a less-controversial sector of the reproductive labor market. When she's suddenly fired, surrogacy promises more money and more security. Once she's chosen to host the child of a Chinese billionaire, it doesn't take long for Jane to understand what Golden Oaks really is. "It's a factory and you're the commodity," as Lisa, one of her fellow hosts, says bluntly.
The Farm avoids the moralistic discourse that often surrounds surrogacy. The novel contains no helpless victims spiritually devastated by being forced to carry the children of the rich. For Ramos, it's clear that surrogacy is just one way women make a living. It's fraught, difficult work, involving surveillance, ethical dilemmas, and capricious clients who must be made to feel good about their own caprices. But what kind of work in our society doesn't?
Still, Jane isn't prepared for how hard it would be to leave her daughter behind, nor for two woke white Hosts, Reagan and Lisa, who open Jane's eyes to the Farm's more exploitative aspects. Eventually, convinced that her daughter is deadly ill, Jane ends up running away from Golden Oaks—thereby losing the life-changing money she was promised, and ending up on the same rung of the economic ladder as when the novel began. This time, she's baby-nursing for Mae Yu, the upwardly mobile Chinese-American woman who oversees Golden Oaks.
Despite its dystopian ambiance, very little happens in The Farm that hasn't already happened somewhere in our world. Westerners can already outsource their pregnancies to dorms full of low-income women from developing countries. The wealthy already corner every advantage for their offspring from the earliest possible age.
The novel gains its power by pushing these troubling trends to their logical extremes. At Golden Oaks, some of the worst aspects of modern pregnancy are intensified by the pressure to bear perfect offspring for wealthy clients. Each host is outfitted with a WellBand, a FitBit-like wristband that tracks their movements, heart rate, and other vital signs. The women are continuously surveilled and their every action judged in the name of the baby's health—as is the experience of many pregnant people. Also like many pregnant people, the hosts are reduced to their reproductive function: Every hour in the day, every emotion, must be optimized for the baby, the baby, the baby.
The Farm also focuses on the emotional toll that falls on women who sell their reproductive labor, a subject usually swept to the side in discussions of how women can "do it all." Separated from her daughter, Jane becomes frantic, yelling at Evelyn, smashing bottles, and eventually running away. When she reaches the apartment in Queens she'd set up for Amalia and Evelyn, she's greeted by a lecture from Mae, who has followed her there: "Imagine having no inkling whether your child is injured or sick or in the gravest of danger. Do you have any idea how painful that is to the mother who trusted you? How painful it is not knowing?"
The irony, of course, is that Jane knows exactly how her client feels. While responding to the client's feelings is profitable, Jane's maternal instinct, when applied to her own child, has no market value. She survives by selling it, along with her womb.
The Farm set off a bidding war between publishers. Ramos, an American, earned a six-figure advance just in the secondary market of the United Kingdom. It's easy to see why: The novel is a fast, gripping read, and it's ideally suited to a period of growing political engagement, in which readers want art to grapple with the moral dilemmas of our time. As Wesley Morris put it in his 2018 New York Times Magazine essay, "Should Art Be a Battleground for Social Justice?": "We're talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it's good—good for us, good for the culture, good for the world."
By those measures, The Farm is very good. In terms of strength of characterization and style, it isn't. Several of the characters feel like hastily animated stereotypes. There's Leon, the ruggedly handsome agent of the patriarchy, concerned with inequality and the struggles of the working class insofar as they don't interfere with his ability to make money; Mae, who justifies her work with a mixture of business-school jargon and self-serving platitudes; and Reagan, a composite portrait of moneyed artsy girls and their insecurities. In her diary, lists of MFAs and MBAs square off on opposing pages.
Dialogue between characters often serves as a pretext for debate between opposing ideas. When Reagan argues with her banker friend Macy about the morality of selling one's eggs, it plays out unsubtly, in lines like this: "'It just seems ... hollow. Like selling your eggs was just any old transaction—but they were your eggs,' said Macy, who spent her days at the bank making trades, one hollow transaction after another."
Ramos' prose carries the story along swiftly, without much fuss. There are only a few lines that struck me as truly interesting in their sound and construction, like when Reagan's obstetrician gleams with pride over the boy Reagan is carrying, "as if she'd hand-stitched the fetal penis herself." I kept reading mainly out of curiosity about whether, and how, Ramos would resolve the contradictions at the novel's core: If it's not fair to ask either workers or mothers to shoulder singlehandedly the burden of housework and childrearing, how do we keep the babies alive?
Thankfully, Ramos doesn't tie up the novel's strands in a neat bow, but allows the epilogue to retain the moral complexity of the rest of the novel. Mae has offered Jane a job, a place to live, and a spot for her daughter in an excellent school. In return, Jane has given Mae a child, cheap childcare, and free overtime. It's not a situation in which, as Evelyn puts it, "'Good for you and good for me is good-good-good'"; it's more like things are good enough.
Ramos sweetens the ending by suggesting that Amalia, bright and on the path to enter elite educational institutions, will have more choices than her mother. "Jane watches her daughter, wondering how she is not afraid of ... her teachers, or Ms. Yu. Wondering how she became so brave and smart." She'll participate in the American Dream of upward mobility—the very dream undermined by places like Golden Oaks, where in exchange for capital, the richest can cement privilege and advantage for their children.
But if Amalia replaces Mae on the corporate ladder, who should raise her children? In a more equitable society, she wouldn't be able to rely on the underpaid care labor of workers like her mother. It's a question The Farm, and feminism at large, has yet to answer.
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