a. trans. To get into or through, gain entrance or access to, esp. with force, effort, or difficulty; to pierce. Also in extended use: to bring light into or see through (darkness, fog, something opaque, etc.).

“penetrate, v.”. OED Online. December 2011. Oxford University Press. 1 January 2012 <;.”

When I think of the verb, to penetrate, my mind turns to explorers, those intrepid men who penetrated virgin lands in the name of the crown, or to troops who penetrate enemy territory. More current, perhaps, might be the image of the CSIS operative penetrating terrorist cells.

That which penetrates has gone where it doesn’t quite belong. It has entered into foreign territories and established a presence there. As the OED Online suggests, it has illuminated the inner reaches, bringing light into darkness.

But there is something malevolent about penetration. Penetration is not necessarily a benevolent act. Penetration, as the examples above demonstrate, can be a hostile incursion, a forceful gesture of claim designed to cement the fortunes of the penetrator. Rape, in this sense, is the ultimate malevolent penetration, a violation of the body designed to stake ownership, lay claim, enact power.

Light penetrates darkness, but at whose expense?

In his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, William Blake imagines the violence of imperialism, colonialism and slavery through the idea of penetration as rape:

“Bromion rent [Oothoon] with his thunders. on his stormy bed
Lay the faint maid, and soon her woes appalld his thunders hoarse

Bromion spok. behold this harlot here on Bromions bed.
And let the jealous dolphins sport around the lovely maid;
They soft American plains are mind, and mine they north & south;
Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun;
They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge;
Their daughters  worship terrors and obey the violent:

Now thou maist marry Bromions harlot, and protect the child
Of Bromions rage, that Oothoon shal put forth in nine moons time. (plates 1 and 2 of the poem proper)

At the heart of Blake’s imagery is power: power to rape, power to claim, power to name, power to control. To penetrate, in this instance, is to assert control and dominance. Illumination is here imagined as wealth: the claiming of the riches of the land and the labours of the people for the benefit of the motherland.

In other instances, the light that results from penetration is the illusory light of physical and moral health. Such were the (ultimately flawed) perceptions of sexually-transmitted disease infected men who believed that they could cure themselves of their afflictions through sexual relations with a virgin. Carol Smart observes that according to the British medical establishment of the early twentieth century, such penetrative acts were not rape, as we might understand it today, but rather, in the words of Sir MacKenzie Chalmers, “a misdirected medical effort” (391). Penetration, in this instance, was understood as an effective, if misguided, way of gaining access to bodily health. Power, here, lies in the ability of a man to foist himself upon a child, of an upper-class male to demand access to the body of a lower-class female, of an infected body to infect and inflame an uninfected one. Such is the narrative that underpins Ami McKay’s recent novel, The Virgin Cure.

Virgin territories. Virgin bodies. Spaces to be penetrated and claimed in the service of a fundamentally hostile other.

But Melisa Klimaszewski imagines penetration differently. While still malevolent and hostile, the concept moves away from the violence of penetrative rape and into entirely new terrain: the penetration of the nipple of the wetnurse into the mouth of the suckling infant.

At first glance, the metaphor seems spurious. After all, what on earth might the violence and brutality of forced rape have in common with the apparently benign labours of the wetnurse charged with providing nutritive sustenance to the infants and young children in her care? But, if one looks more closely, penetration seems an ideal metaphor to describe the fraught relationship between the wetnurse, her body, her employers and her infant charges.

Wetnurses have been integral to childrearing during many periods of history. Women of many classes have employed wetnurses: from aristocratic women with significant social obligations to working class women, whose paid labour was more valuable to the family economy than their unpaid labour as caregivers. Wetnurses were also common fixtures in hospitals and orphanages, where they provided much needed food to orphaned or abandoned children.

But the wetnurse was a troubling figure, a liminal being who haunted the space between the lowest and the highest social classes. Indeed, as Sandra R. Joshel points out, in her article, “Nursing the Master’s Child: “The social distance and power relations between nurse and nursling give the intimate relations at the center of nursing a contradictory quality” (3-4).  The wetnurse – and she remains anonymous, as few accounts remain from her perspective – performed a necessary role, but was not particularly appreciated for it. Rather, she was subject to intense surveillance that encompassed not only her physical behaviours – from her diet to her sexual habits (preferably, lack thereof) – but also moral surveillance. Because morality was thought to pass through milk, the ideal wetnurse needed to project generosity, grace, and good will. Also of interest was her body, which was subject to intense scrutiny. Of particular interest were her breasts, and, more specifically, her nipples. Klimaszewski argues that the “suitability of the candidate [was] determined by her overall appearance, but concentrated most in her nipple, the extension of her body that penetrates the … child” (328). According to Tissot, the nipple should be long and of average size, such that the infant would have no trouble taking it into mouth.

Shaping all of this were the politics of class, gender, race, and nation. In Classical Rome, foreign-born nurses were considered uncivilized, “barbarous.” In nineteenth-century USA, foreignness was read through race: mothers did not want “colored” nurses feeding their children. Throughout history, women of lower classes – the overwhelming majority of wetnurses – were considered untrustworthy, mercenary, and threatening, their presence a portent of social disruption and chaos.

So, too, did doctors warn their readers against nurses who challenged gender norms in their appearance:  Tissot, among others, counselled his readers that a wetnurse who looked masculine was to be avoided at all costs:

“On doit absolument éviter pour nourrices ces femmes qu’on appelle hommasses; on a vû plus haut qu’elles étaient souvent stériles, et celles qui ont des enfants, ont ordinairement peu de lait: j’en ai vû deux n’en avoir pas de quoi nourrir leurs propres enfants pendant trois mois.” (Les maladies des femmes, unpublished, p. 454).

This cataloguing of traits served only to highlight the social distance between nurse and employer, nurse and child. Hers was a body out of place. It had penetrated not only into the homes of the elite, but through its nipples and its milk, into the very bodies of the elite, leaving unseen traces that could have profound after effects. The wetnurse and her milk haunt some of the letters to Tissot: could their maladies be caused by the effects of a poor nurse and “mauvaise lait”? The legacy of the wetnurse imprinted itself on their somatic autobiographies, extending the idea of corporeal threat – and corporeal identity – through multiple generations.


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