wombs of the nation

Blog neglect has set in, the result of a busy term, busy children, and the inevitable winter cold-cum-laryngitis. I’ve also just finished revising a conference paper into a journal article, and that, too, has necessitated some thinking downtime.

That’s not to say that things haven’t been actively percolating away, stewing, brewing, and festering in the recesses of my mind, but rather, that they haven’t actively formulated themselves into something worthy of sharing with a larger public.

I’ve been reading a lot about the politics of reproduction in the past few weeks. Mostly this is due to my students’ required readings – and while it’s tempting to say that I had a hand in organizing this (I did), there’s more to it. My 4000-level students are reading a single issue of a different feminist journal every week. The issues were all published within the last year and taken together these twelve journals allow us to contemplate what might be considered “contemporary feminist issues”. This approach was the brainchild of my colleague, Jocelyn Thorpe, inaugurated during last year’s iteration of the course (we took our assignments in very different directions, however).

It’s an effective approach, and one of the most effective aspects about it is the element of serendipity. My students and I are, in more ways than in other classes, equals in this space of exploration: none of us knows what will await us. Yes, I’ve chosen the journals. And yes, they’re all feminist journals. But beyond that point, we’re journeying together in uncharted waters.

Uncharted waters allow for the possibility of serendipity. Because there is no ‘order’ pre-imposed on the course content, none of us knows what will happen in that space. We don’t know which ideas will collide with one another. We aren’t sure where sparks will fly. We don’t know if any unifying themes will emerge, and, if they do emerge, we don’t know what shape they’ll take. We don’t know where we’ll be challenged. We don’t know where we’ll find ourselves traversing well-worn terrain.

So far, that journey has been quite illuminating, and I think we’ve all had to push our own boundaries in intriguing ways.

One constant over the past few weeks has been the relationship between reproduction, the state, citizenship, the body and identity. Last week, during our foray through an issue of the Journal of Women’s History, we encountered the curious juxtaposition of Soviet  and slave-owners’ pro-natalist policies. Amy Randall examines the role of legalized abortion within official state-sanctioned pro-natalism in 1950s Russia.[1] Sasha Turner, meanwhile, considered how Jamaican slaveowners worked to ensure the stability and size of their slave labour force during the twenty years preceding the abolition of the slave trade.[2] This week’s articles, from a special issue of WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, ask us to consider the idea of “ruin.” The reproductive body looms large once again: from the repressive policies of the Ceausescu government in Romania,[3] to the disembodiment often associated with the medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth,[4] and the relationships between environmental and racial sanitation in the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ellen Richards.[5]

Read in and through one another, all of these articles remind us of the centrality of the reproductive body to questions of national identity and the continued interest of the state (very broadly speaking) in ensuring the “health of the nation.”

It would be nice to say that this kind of stuff only happens under repressive regimes. After all, the articles are about conditions in the Soviet Union, Romania, and Jamaica under slavery. And while Kristin Egan’s article on Gilman and Ellen Richards reminds us that such ideas can permeate even the “most civilized” of nations (to the extent that they are fully normalized), the ugliness of eugenics and euthenics, remains, comfortingly, in the past. We sagely note that Tissot, too, with his admonitions against novels and masturbation, died over two hundred years ago.

It’s easy, from that perspective, to congratulate ourselves. Pat ourselves on the back. Job well done, mate. We live in enlightened times. Hands washed. Everything’s put away.

Even Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985 under the shadow of reproductive rights debates in Canada, would appear, at first glance, to be nothing more than a fantasy, a dystopian nightmare comfortingly removed from reality.

But if the articles tell us anything at all, it’s the opposite. The intertwining narratives of reproduction, the nation and citizenship have been with us, in various guises, for a long time, and across many geographic regions. The state continues to have a vested interest in the wombs of the nation. What stories will the future authors published in the Journal of Women’s History tell about the imbrication of reproduction, nation and citizenship in early 21st century Canada and North America? How will political debates around ‘personhood’, abortion, transvaginal ultrasound, and citizenship appear to these scholars of the future? And if we imagine ourselves in their place, how might they appear to us?

The Handmaid’s Tale is being written/enacted/legislated as we speak. Various US states have toyed with or implemented legislation requiring women seeking abortions to ‘consent’ to non-medically necessary transvaginal ultrasounds. Other states have flirted with amending laws in such a way as to render miscarriage itself a crime. In Canada, despite the Prime Minister’s insistence that “As long as I’m prime minister we are not reopening the abortion debate,” numerous members of his caucus have mused publicly on a range of issues directly associated with reproductive rights.

And in the midst of all of this, we haven’t even yet begun to explore the politics of contraception and fertility: states that have required women on benefits to submit to long term hormonal contraception, fertility treatments offered only to those who don’t present as ‘fat’ (and previously, only to hetero married couples), the ethics and politics of international surrogacy, etc.  Added to this, we might also engage a broader conceptualization of reproduction to include the politics of parenthood (read: motherhood) and the role of the state: the 60s scoop that divided aboriginal children not only from their immediate families but also from their cultures, mirrors some of the practices described in Gilman’s Herland.

Mothers and their bodies, too, are regularly subjected to public and medical scrutiny: In Ceausescu’s Romania, women were subject to monthly gynecological checkups to ensure their compliance with state reproductive mandates. In the USA, all women “capable of pregnancy,” regardless of sexuality and sexual practice, are encouraged to take folic acid supplements in the event that they might, at some point, become pregnant.

I could go on. And I’m sure the knowledges that you, dear readers, bring to the table, could further ‘flesh’ this out.

Reproduction, the state and citizenship have long been feminist battlegrounds … much longer, even, than the term “feminist” has itself existed. But as these articles unfortunately demonstrate, these issues remain as current today as they were in the past.

Vigilance, dear readers. Constant vigilance.


[1] Amy E. Randall, “‘Abortion Will Deprive You of Happiness!’: Soviet Reproductive Politics in the Post-Stalin Era,” Journal of Women’s History, 23, no. 3 (2011): 13-38.

[2] Sasha Turner, “Home-grown Slaves: Women, Reproduction, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Jamaica 1788-1807,” Journal of Women’s History, 23, no. 3 (2011): 39-62.

[3] Roxana Cazan, “Constructing Spaces of Dissent in Communist Romania: Ruined Bodies and Clandestine Spaces in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 Days and Gabriela Adamesteanu’s ‘A Few Days in the Hospital,’” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 39, nos. 3-4 (2011):  93-112.

[4] Holly Prescott, “Reclaiming Ruins: Childbirth, Ruination and Urban Exploration Photography of the Ruined Maternity Ward,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 39, nos. 3-4 (2011):  113-132.

[5] Kristen R. Egan, “Conservation and Cleanlienss: Racial and Environmental Purity in Ellen Richards and Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 39, nos. 3-4 (2011):  77-92.

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