|Ida B. Wells|
The first book I wrote--that I researched from scratch and wrote myself--was a revision of my dissertation. It's called Out in Public: Configurations of Women's Bodies in Nineteenth-Century America. It's a fine academic book, a book that did its job, which was to establish me as a Real Life Scholar. I was and am proud of it, and I love the women I wrote about--19th c. American women who did subtle, creative, radical, and/or dramatic things to challenge the oppressive culture they were living in. Let me just say that one of these women, Ida B. Wells, will be making an appearance in the WGS Capstone course I'm teaching in the spring.
But other than the women I wrote about occasionally showing up on a syllabus, this book has felt like a little bit of a vestigial organ. Everything I've done as a scholar since then--everything--has been about contemporary feminist activism, the third wave, zines, parenthood, and now prenatal testing. I sort of thought that Out in Public was an interesting relic from my past.
And then this afternoon, I was biking to campus, pondering this whole prenatal testing thing. Here are the thoughts (triggered, in part, by comments on the previous post):
- What differentiates eugenics from reproductive rights? I'm passionately in favor of reproductive rights: I'm very open about having had an abortion, which I don't regret. I believe every woman has the right to determine whether or not she remains pregnant. This is a private issue, an intensely private issue. No one is more qualified to make that decision than the woman who is pregnant.
- Eugenics is what happens when reproduction becomes public, when a society starts determining who gets to be fertile and who's sterilized, or--in more extreme form--who gets to live and who's killed. It's public, not private.
- But the kicker, of course, is that many of the people who terminate pregnancies based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome do so because of public narratives. Many of the people who made comments on the Freakonomics blog--comments about how much better society would be if fetuses with Down syndrome were terminated--believed that stuff because of public narratives. And they were arguing that this decision was public, because it would affect the productivity of the larger society. The private decision is shaped by public stories and beliefs, as well as by public resources.
- So a crucial part of this research project I'm involved in may well hinge on the false binary of the public and the private. And interestingly enough, this was the crucial theoretical thing going on in Out in Public: the 19th c. was ostensibly divided into the public realm (all the guys) and the private realm (all the ladies), which in fact was a false narrative. I based my whole book on showing how false the narrative was, because here were five women who were out in public.
- Some quotes from OIP that are resonating with me right now: "The binary categories themselves are inadequate and unstable." (True, I think, of all binary categories.) "Although this discursive and societal model attempted to stabilize and contain shifting power relationships, it was inadequate and its containment only partial." And how about this: "The body's complexity and unevenness is a function of the larger cultural discourses that apply pressures to women's shaping of their corporeality and make certain bodily possibilities more or less available to a given woman at a given time."