Beyond the Reproductive Body

Book coverI’ve been working on a project about healthcare communication after the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, and it looks like I’ll be focusing on the relationships between economy and healthcare rhetorics. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Marjorie Levine-Clark’s Beyond the Reproductive Body: The Politics of Women’s Health and Work in Early Victorian England; while I wasn’t surprised to find thought-provoking material there, I have been excited and intrigued by how very relevant many of her findings are to my work on Deepwater.

Specifically, I’ve been interested that most of the health-related materials I’ve found related to my research have to do with children or pregnant women. It’s not surprising, then, that Levine-Clark argues that in Early Victorian English, the able body was male and the reproductive body was female; “these models of embodiment did battle in the discussions about what to do to reform the English social body” and, she says, “they also collided in working women’s perceptions of their own bodies” (p. 5). That is, working women contested the notion that their sex meant they were inherently not able-bodied.

Official narratives ran counter to these working women’s understandings of themselves. The Mines Regulation Act of 1842 “was the first gender-specific law pertaining to industrial relations: women were added to ‘children’ and ‘young persons’ as a category of individuals in need of government protection” (p. 17). I’d argue that this isn’t actually so different from some regulations in place in the U.S. today. For example, most ethics boards consider pregnant women a vulnerable population. It seems to me that this is a continuation of the Victorian perception of women as not able-bodied that Levine-Clark identifies: “We can see this gendering of ablebodiedness operating today in the construction of occupational health hazards. The ‘objective facts’ of medicine still hold tremendous power over women’s work. Questions about women’s morality may be more subtle in present-day contexts, but scientific constructions that position women as potentially pregnant … have been used to push women out of jobs … because of imagined dangers to potential fetuses.” (p 177). If you’re looking for any evidence of this in modern times, all you need to do is a quick search for Arizona’s HB 2036.

I like that Levine-Clark’s work makes apparent the voices of the women who are her subjects. She points out that “few historians … have asked how these ‘problems’ were interpreted by working women themselves” (p. 3) and also have not adequately investigated historical conceptions of health, especially given its common connection to morality. She also argues that “understandings of health were fundamental to public policy concerning women and work, and to women’s own definitions of themselves as workers” (p. 1). Health and economy were, in many situations (then and now), pitted against one another. “Focusing on health, people worried about the capabilities of the reproductive body; focusing on work, they worried about the numbers of available able bodies” (p. 19).

This book helps me to think through some tensions that I’ve been working around in my project. Levine-Clark points out that “[O]nly lately have feminists returned to the physical body as a subject of investigation; the feminist critique of biological determinism has meant that the material body has been viewed with suspicion for fear of making essentialist claims about the relationship between female bodily processes and the nature of women” (p. 6). She cites Mary Poovey to show that feminists need to pursue both projects that recognize the reality of womanhood, and projects that challenge sex/gender binaries. For my work, this means recognizing that (1) It’s a problem that the only way women’s health has been represented after Deepwater Horizon is in relation to pregnancy and that (2) It is simultaneously a problem that health isn’t being talked about much at all and is divided by sexed categories when it is.

Other passages/ideas worth mentioning and/or following up on include:

  • “Medical men” were the gatekeepers. They were charged with evaluating suitability for work and the impact of the new economic system. While they disagree on many things, few challenged the idea of the female body as the reproductive body. Discussions of women’s health were always discussions of reproductive health.
  • There was great concern over girls’ health, and puberty was seen as an especially risky time. Most of this seems to have focused on gender policing; the concern was that physical labor would prevent girls from becoming women and would instead cause them to remain childlike or to become like men. (pp. 28-33)
  • Concern over the care of children was consistently connected to wage-earning mothers who spent time away from home. Working mothers were blamed for the household’s finances not being organized and husbands not being attended to. Thus, husbands would go to public houses for comfort and working mothers were blamed for a cycle of poverty.
  • The Poor Law made distinctions about who was deserving of welfare based on ablebodiedness, which put women—who society deemed reproductively embodied, not able bodied—in a strange position. It meant that work was sometimes considered healthy for women, provided it occurred under certain sets of circumstances usually associated with family survival.
  • Medical narratives suggested that the female body was weak, but “poor women imagined their illnesses to be produced by economic, social, environmental, as well as biological factors” (p. 96).
  • Several chapters discuss the ways in which economy and health were set against one another. Much of this had to do with poverty. In the chapter, “‘She Continued at Her Work’: Negotiating Employment and Health,” Levine-Clark finds that working women “identified three main aspects of their occupations that created health problems: (1) the stability of their employment patterns; (2) the physical and social conditions under which they worked; and (3) the types of work they performed” (p. 151).
  • Despite regulations for work outside the home that applied to women and children, “no parliamentary investigation concerns itself with the work of servants, charwomen, or laundresses because of its domestic nature and its supposed suitability for the female body” (p. 158).
  • “Because poor women identified so strongly with their ability to work, health in relationship to work was central to their conceptualizations of self” (p. 170). Further, “women’s health often fluctuated with the availability of waged work” (p. 155).
  • Working women were “unwilling to allow concerns about the susceptibility of their bodies to illness to take precedence over their wage earning; health was often sacrificed to economic necessity” (p. 175).



Comments are closed.