Towards the end of April 2012, I attended a New York City march and rally aiming to ‘Unite Against the War on Women!‘ At this protest, I saw mothers and daughters, grandmothers and old friends, fathers and husbands and sisters and brothers coming together for a common cause, or rather a common concern for the reproductive rights of women in the United States. Around that very same time, The Washington Post published an article titled, “The Real War on Women,” which was to say that our focus should not be concentrated here (within our national borders of the United States) but in fact, ‘out there,’ where women are facing so-called-real oppression.This is not to say that citizens and non-citizens of national states all around the world do not suffer from racial, ethnic, gendered, sexual or religious oppression, nor is it to claim that there is absolutely nothing we (as American citizens) can do about it in order to assist local organizations in their mobilization of efforts. My tying The Washington Post article into this blog post is simply to highlight the national mentality one such title reflects, as well as the kinds of problems it produces for women residing within the national borders of the United States, governed by such conservative laws and policies which aim to limit reproductive rights and liberties.
In short, diverting one’s attention from ‘the here’ to ‘the there’ becomes problematic for obvious reasons in that it distracts a national consciousness from the policies being implemented, state by state, the so-called-good old fashioned way: legally. But on April 28, 2012, a lot of people began to stand up and refuse to passively allow the State to control women’s bodies, as it intended on doing via laws such as those in Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania, insisting that women undergo ‘mandatory vaginal ultrasounds’ if they so choose to have an abortion. For more facts on the ‘republican war on women,’ you can check our this policymic article, titled, “A Republican War on Women?“…
Now, as many Sex/Gender Studies classes will teach, the body has served as an arch-typical locus of social, economic and political control throughout histories. In other words, certain authorities (such as the State, Western science and medicine, the family and law) have actively policed bodies so that hegemonic discourses can (and have been able to) maintain their dominance. Examples of such hegemonies can be identified in this week’s readings: “Exorcising the Midwives,” by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English as well as Sandra Morgen’s, Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990.
Ehrenreich and English detail the development of, “the most ‘advanced'” medical schools in the United States as having, for lack of a better word, experimented on the “raw material” that were human beings. But it is significant to note the particular groups of people whose bodies were used as a means of learning – without much or any regard for the person’s dignity – and those groups of people tended to be poor, non-white and (in the case of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive medicine,) women. They were seen as having rendered the greatest, “service to humanity,” by one such doctor on the staff of Cornell Medical College at the beginning of the turn of the twentieth century. One might ask, what kind of humanity are these “medical heroes) servicing? It appears that those who benefit, in particular, occupy a certain social location that is white, middle to upper-middle class, and heterosexual. The practice totally lent its hand to the elimination of midwifery in the United States, with a growing field of Western science and medicine. Experienced and skilled midwives were being replaced by inexperienced doctors. White, male doctors and medical students benefited from their ‘hands on’ learning, while white, middle-to-upper-middle class women benefited from the medical experience gained by their new doctors…or did they?
Sandra Morgen’s chapters one and two of Part I: In the Beginning, trace a history of women’s struggles and triumphs under and over the patriarchal oppression of hegemonic authorities (i.e. laws prohibiting the legalization of abortion, the limited concentration of medical knowledge over women’s anatomy). The medicalization of birth, over the course of the twentieth century and in the context of the United States, privatized women’s knowledge of their bodies, which was once a more fluid network of sharing knowledge and experiences of birth as something that was natural rather than pathological. In many ways, the women’s health movement served as a reclamation of said knowledge and experience, particularly within the context of self-cervical check up’s and safe abortions performed at women’s clinics. Women felt empowered by the practicing notion of bodily autonomy. These progressive shifts in power relations did not extend, however, to all women of all social locations during this time.
But that was the 60’s, the 70’s…was it not? I’m sure many people, like me, wondered where decisions like Roe V. Wade (1973) had lead this nation, and more morbidly how far we had strayed from that course of action on the day of New York’s War on Women March & Rally. All social struggles occupy their own space and time that need be specified when theorizing resistance. A common thread that lingers, between the stories we read about and the ones we watch on TV today, is that hegemonic policing of bodies – operating top down as well as from the bottom up, through social forces of influence as we regulate one another in this hetero-patriarchal [social] system.
I saw resistance on that day, April 28, 2012 from hundreds of advocates for reproductive rights, similar to the kinds of resistance mobilized during the women’s health movement of 1969-90. Therefore, I am cautiously optimistic about the future meaning of personhood – as we strip away power inequalities according to race, gender, sex(uality) – as people refuse to accept those inequalities and continue to fight the good fight.