bodies politic

Can women belong to the body politic, that nebulous imaginary body that has shaped and defined how we understand and viewed concepts of rational citizenship? According to Moira Gatens, they can’t, because the body that forms the basis of the body politic is male. This can, of course, be seen at a literal level in relation to Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, a pointed rebuttal to Thomas Paine’s deceptively objective Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, published just a couple of years earlier. The extended debates on woman suffrage in the nineteenth century also insist on this point.

But to what extent must we consider a relationship between woman and disability in considering the exclusion of women from the body politic. As a diverse range of thinkers and scholars have observed, women have often been imagined as defective men – their sex organs inside out, their bodies too cool to support rational thought, their reproductive bits the source of hundreds of maladies unknown to men. In a phallocentric imaginary, women, if they appear, can only appear in relation to ‘man’, and through that lens, are always found lacking.

So what might this mean for the highly charged debates around citizenship? Emile was Rousseau’s ideal citizen, a young man brought up entirely by his tutor and presented, when he was ready, with Sophy, a wife who was different from him in every way, a woman who would follow where he would lead, who would be a mother to this children and a virtuous foil to Emile’s strength. Other philosophers of the period had mixed feelings about women. Diderot found them capricious, unpredictable and, in Le rêve d’Alembert, vapid and flighty. Women were the weak link, entities whose mysterious bodily and emotional workings challenged the supposed rationalism and order of the political sphere.

And yet, many philosophers were keen to ascribe social roles to the sexes, roles that accorded with their perceptions of women’s abilities. Thus, women were ideal wives and mothers (particularly if they breastfed), but even this social positioning was fraught, for as incubators, women’s actions – and thoughts – needed careful surveillance. Not too much reading, not too much imagination. A moderate life that would preclude the possibility of nervous disorder, the scourge of elite society.

In this approach, women always come out wanting. Not rational enough to participate in public debates, their bodies were also weak and prone to illness. They would appear to hold a privileged place as incubators of the virtuous republic, but even this positioning was overwhelmed by their dangerous porosity, their all-too-easy capacity for emotional excess. At psychic and somatic levels, women were fundamentally disabled and as a result, could never qualify as political citizens.

I find much to appreciate in the work of Rousseau. He was an innovative and revolutionary political thinker. But I also know that if I had daughters, I’d have done as Madame Necker did: raise them like Emile, rather than Sophy.


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