This post is probably only interesting if you went to grad school with me.

Ida B. Wells
That means Eliza, Deandra, and Rory:  take a look!  (And if anybody else who went to grad school with me has been reading the blog, leave a comment and say hey.)

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."


Jims said...

I didn't go to grad school with you, but I'm still interested in the post! For two reasons:

1. I just had students reading Ida B. Wells in my US political thought course.
2. After your blog entry yesterday, I also kept thinking about how the blog comments you quoted bridged the public/private divide in another way. Many of them particularly referenced very public policies ("accommodations," etc.) that deal with disability. I was thinking about how the newer prenatal test could create a situation in which decisions to continue carrying a fetus with a disability (or not to have the test at all) are then configured as "bad" or irresponsible private choices (whereas now the relative risk of amnio may counter that narrative). There is a strong political tendency to avoid policies that may seem to help those who have made what others perceive as "bad" private choices (thus, the controversy over welfare). I think that disability has already been placed in that realm before, via eugenics, and I could see ways in which this type of testing could move it back in that direction. I'm also wondering if this comment is so long that I should have just sent you an e-mail.

Anonymous said...

And now for a less erudite comment:
Oooo. Totally...same set of issues/questions/tensions...
different century. I find this comes up for my science in lit classes, too, when we look at 19th-C technologies & the underlying questions about identity (public and private, personal and civic, corporeal and not) they hinge on. The discussion of mental health treatment in the 19th-C is also an interesting point of comparison -- how society understands "normal" and what types of "treatment" (aka publically sanctioned banishment and so on) are allowed/encouraged/mandated and for whom.

Looking forward to hearing more about your insight.

Alison said...

Thanks for the good public/private insights, Jims. And Deandra, thanks for responding as my grad school friend! The mental health conversation could be a way to connect your students to disability studies, if that's something that interests them/you.

Amber said...

Hey! I just read this post, and wanted to say that even thought I didn't go to grad school with you, I found this post super interesting. I like to direction that you're going with in terms of how to think about how we make private decisions utilizing public narratives. I think that's a really helpful way to frame and analyze prenatal testing, especially for those who aren't as familiar with the issue(s).

Anonymous said...


I'm taking this post as a sign that you want me to out myself as lurking around your blog. I stumbled upon it a few months ago. I did go to grad school with you, sort of ... maybe you don't even remember me since I was a couple of classes behind you. Anyway, I'll keep reading since you are giving me lots to think about in the projects I'm working on and classes I'm planning. Thanks for being brilliant and fabulous!


Anonymous said...

Mmmmmm... love this post. So much to think about. I am intensely about individual rights - privacy etc. But there is so much to work out re: the "good" gov't policies and the "bad" ie. what do they support and what do they not and how that is related to who makes up the norms. Typically it is some sort of moral issue that underlies bad policy, shame filled social norms and others trying to inflict them on me/anyone pisses me off.
Do these truths discussed by enlightened and open minded people ever go out of style? Nope.
I like the public/private axis- well put.
I'm so tired- hope I'm making sense of a complex thought :) Love having such an intellectual blog pal!

Alison said...

I'm so glad that several non-grad school friends are into this!

And Tikenya, I do remember you! Thanks for outing yourself as a blog lurker. Now I need to Google you and find out what you're up to...