Earlier I promised I’d post about the coolest things I learned at this year’s Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, and now I’m already at my next gig, the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting in Cincinnati. My ordinary weekend travels usually don’t take me any farther than my local farmer’s market, so I’m a bit disoriented to be on the road so much. I feel like a character in a David Lodge novel.
But before I forget all I learned, I’d like to take a quick romp through the Berk highlights of the Berks. It’s probably skewed and idiosyncratic since I mostly sat in on panels related to bodies, reproduction, and sexuality. And I make no claim to fully represent the presenters’ arguments. This is a rundown of ideas that I thought were way cool. (Presenters’ names are in parentheses.)
- Contraception among native Canadian communities was, well, a community affair, and not just up to individuals. Unpublished notes by white Canadian anthropologists of the 1920s and 1930s show that there were indeed individual actions one could take, such as bathing in the creek or nursing one’s baby to prevent conception. But many of the medicine women’s prescriptions triggered social surveillance. A woman might be advised to wear an otterskin bracelet dring the new moon or to paint her face red and her belly yellow. While my immediate reaction was, “Oh, interesting varieties of magical thinking,” that’s far from the whole story. Such visible tactics signaled that the community would be watching to see whether that woman became pregnant – and her husband was well aware of this. Unlike many modern nations where low birth rates have inspired pronatalist policies, these Plains tribes collectively wanted to regulate their family size because too many babies would restrict the group’s mobility. (Kristin Burnett)
- If you follow media reporting on evolutionary psychology, you might image that Darwinian theory and feminism have always been implacable enemies. That just ain’t so. Early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton embraced the theory of evolution because it offered a chance to rewrite Genesis. If Eve is the mother of humanity and the source of all sin and suffering, and if the serpent picked on her because he knew she was inherently weaker than Adam, it’s hard to make a case for women’s full equality. By embracing evolution, Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others could argue that Eve wasn’t simply derivative from Adam; because Eve came after Adam, she must actually be a higher life form! However, few of these early feminists advocated jettisoning religion altogether. They just argued for a more nuanced, less literalist reading of the Genesis story. (Kimberly Hamlin)
- It wasn’t news to me that early American feminists also generally embraced eugenics and saw planned mating and breeding as a progressive force. (And this, despite Francis Galton’s contention that eugenics was “a particularly virile creed.”) What did surprise me was how adamantly American conservatives rejected eugenics. Today, neo-eugenic ideas such as Depo-Provera shots for the poor tend to be held by conservatives and racists. In early twentieth century Europe, left-wing and feminist reformers advocated eugenic programs, but so did many on the right, albeit with much stronger racist overtones. So I was surprised to hear that American conservatives accused feminists of treating men like livestock and of simply demanding too much of men. Press coverage of early women who became single mothers by choice insinuated that some women wanted to render men unnecessary altogether – anticipating Maureen Dowd by decades, I might add. (Susan Rensing)
- Wet nursing, a common practice in fifteenth-century Valencia, was tangled up in contradictory ideas about maternal duty and the balance of power between fathers and biological mothers. Contracts were struck between fathers and wet nurses that seemed to leave birth mothers out of the loop altogether. And yet, birth mothers exercised power in a variety of ways. In one case that landed in court, a birth mother named Lucretia – the concubine of a Dominican friar – claimed she’d been under contract to nurse her infant but gotten stiffed of her fees. Because the law held that if you fed your baby out of maternal love or piety you couldn’t be paid for it, Lucretia had to argue, perversely, that she had no maternal feeling for the child whatsoever. In a second case, a widow named Isabella sued the executor of her dead husband’s estate when he refused to fork over the fees for a wet nurse even though two surgeons and a midwife had certified her unable to breastfeed due to inverted nipples. She tried all manner of tricks: poultices made of chard, ointment, cupping glasses, and a technique called “opening” that I think I’d prefer not to explore further. The court ruled for Isabella, showing that mothers could hold their own in legal affairs and effectively defend the interests of their children. (Debra Blumenthal)
- Conventional wisdom holds that since at least ancient Greece, women’s bodies were historically regarded as inferior and the male body as the healthy norm. This story turns out to be more complicated, though. A set of widely circulated broadsides sixteenth-century Germany depicted the female body as the norm. These anatomical pictures featured a lift-the-flap design, though not the transparent overlays that so fascinated me in the encyclopedia when I was a little girl. The female figure showed a small baby (not a fetus) inside the uterus. It also featured ducts running from the uterus to the nipples, reflecting the theory that menstrual blood nurtured the “fruit” during pregnancy and then transformed into breastmilk once the baby was born. The text alongside the diagrams describes the male figure as lacking a womb. Male spermatic vessels are said to be like the female spermatic vessels (that is, the ovaries). And most remarkably: the penis merited no discussion whatsoever! (Kathleen Crowther)
- In contemporary Poland, abortion rights have been progressively restricted since the early 1990s. Like other East-Bloc countries, Poland’s Communists had legalized abortion. Between 1956 and 1993, first-trimester abortion was available on demand. Since 1993, women seeking an abortion have had to qualify under one of three possible indications: 1) genetic defects in the fetus, 2) rape or incest as the cause of pregnancy, or 3) health problems on the part of the pregnant woman. These indications are not so very different from the old West German framework. Yet abortion is vanishingly rare in Poland today, with only about 200 legal abortions performed annually. With a population of roughly 38 million, about 10 million of whom are fertile females, this figure is exceptionally low. Of course, it only points to the prevalence of illegal abortion. Even women with legal indications for abortion face insurmountable hurdles. Hospitals refuse to perform them. Women end up in the “abortion underground,” where the same physicians who publicly declare themselves “too ethical” to do abortion willingly perform them for high fees! The driving forces behind this are the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, the idea that abortion was a Communist holdover, the lack of civil society including a women’s movement, and the absence of a discourse on women’s rights due to the old law portraying abortion solely as a public health imperative. The result? A fourteen-year-old rape victim was recently denied an abortion. Worse yet, she was taken out of her mother’s custody on the presumption that the mother must be coercing the daughter! (Wanda Nowicka)
- Home pregnancy tests may be not only driving up the rate of recorded miscarriages. They may also be changing the meaning of miscarriage itself for American women today. Instead of waiting for confirmation of pregnancy after missing a period or two, or even waiting for quickening (fetal movements) as women did a century ago, women now use home tests even before they’ve missed a period. A positive line signals to many women not just that conception has occurred but that “there’s a baby” in there. But this sets women up for grief and woe: Of 100 meetings of egg and sperm, 57 never implant (and thus wouldn’t result in a positive test). Of the 43 that do implant, 10 miscarry before a doctor would declare the woman pregnant. These are the early pregnancies that home testing often picks up on. Of the 33 that continue, 4 will miscarry “clinically” and 29 will reach full term (give or take a few weeks). Your reporter Sungold exists only because her own mother experienced one of those 10-in-100 events a few months earlier. When she told me that she thought she’d had an “early miscarriage” just before conceiving me, I was incredulous: “What do you mean, you don’t know if you were pregnant?” Today, she’d have experienced this as a certain loss, and thus possibly as a more painful one. Indeed, this presentation argued that women now face a cultural imperative to grieve these very early losses irrespective of how they actually feel. (Lara Friedenfels)
And now I’m realizing why I didn’t have energy to blog the Berks right after the fact – my brain was still spinning. Now I’m back to the NWSA before I miss out on all the fun there.