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Monthly Archives: March 2012

today’s life writing microphone goes to Kevin Smith. Smith, an American film director perhaps best known for being thrown off a plane for being “a safety concern” (aka “too fat:) and then for spending the next three days in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons, has released a memoir, one short excerpt of which is available in today’s Guardian. Have a read; it’s worth the effort.

Here’s a short teaser:

The first time I became body-conscious was when I was nine and went to the water park with my cousin. We were having a blast going down the slide when this dude at the top goes, “Sorry, man, pregnant ladies are not allowed on the slide.” The first five people behind me were like, “Heeheehee!” I went and put my shirt on… for the rest of my life.

 

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking and reading and writing and posting about all sorts of things. And it’s not always clear how they might fit together. Knitting. Legislation. Slavery. Family trees. It’s a big muddle (but a glorious one, I have to say).

And then along comes JoAnn Wypijewski, who ties up lots of loose ends, while keeping enough openings for further exploration.

From the end of her piece in The Nation:

The preachers and lay men and women now raising the “personhood” banner for their side have taken to calling the fetus and fertilized egg the new slave, and the movement for their legal personhood the new civil rights movement. The director of Personhood Florida compares himself to William Wilberforce, the nineteenth-century English abolitionist. A Catholic priest posting on Planned Parenthood’s “I Have a Say” video thread likens defenders of women’s bodily autonomy to slave traders. On their blogs and other propaganda the foot soldiers of this movement call Roe v. Wade a latter-day Dred Scott decision; they invoke the Thirteenth Amendment and vow to fulfill its promise.

These people are not stupid, and some are sincere, but they are wrong. They pervert morality and history in the guise of honoring both, and thing-ify women according to the logic of our cruelest past. There is another logic, and it calls us to complete the unfinished business of emancipation.

Last week I wrote about knitting. And about activism. And about reproductive rights. And about how we might try to stem the seemingly endless flow of nightmarish legislation…

Turns out many of us are having the same conversation. Check out the work of the snatchel project:

Looking for some crafty inspiration? The snatchels provide links for:

1. felt cervix

2. snatchel

3. knitted vulva

4. crocheted uterus

While we’re at it, we might want to make like Dr. Karen Norberg, and crochet up some anatomically correct brains. Goodness knows the lawmakers could use them.

Here’s to craft as a site of embodied citizenship!

I don’t knit. Well, I knitted once. I was about 8 and it was meant to be a blanket for a doll I had. Somehow I cast on extra stitches by the row on one end and lost them on the other, and soon enough my rectangular blanket turned into an odd trapezoid-esque thing. And after about 30 rows I got bored. It was purple, grey and white, and even I could tell, right from the get go, that there was something, shall we say…. lacking… in my effort.

Knitting needles abandoned.

But I’m wondering if I might want to pick up those needles again. I’ve been reading Betsy Greer’s Knitting for Good lately. Greer’s notion of craftivism – a union of craft and activism – resonates with me… and it builds a connection between the kinds of carework that formed the basis for women’s activism in times gone by, with the interests that contemporary crafters and activists bring to the fore.

Craft has been, and continues to be, a way for women to claim citizenship, to give voice to the issues that concern them and their communities most, and to contribute to what might be deemed ‘the greater good.’

Here in Newfoundland, we need only to consider the efforts of the Women’s Patriotic Association, whose members knitted thousands upon thousands of pairs of grey socks for the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and we can think, too, of NONIA, the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association. Through NONIA thousands of outport women knitted and sold their wares, in the process raising funds for vital nursing care in remote communities.

We can also look further, to the Faroe Islands, and the emergence of ‘266B-Bindiklubburin,’ a ‘knitting club’ formed to call on the government of the Faroe Islands to ratify measure 266b, a hotly-debated measure which would, in a radical departure for this relatively socially-conservative nordic nation, expand existing anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation. Knitting clubs, all-female social gatherings which convene around the act of knitting and include healthy doses of gossip, have sustained Faroese women’s community and identity from the eighteenth century onwards and remain a vital aspect of women’s communal life in most Faroese villages and towns, many of which boast numerous clubs. In this instance, the women involved in ‘266B-Bindiklubburin’ didn’t knit at all, but took on the club identity (or were assigned it by the media) as a way of further a political and activist cause.

We can look too, to the work of Swedish handcrafter, Kerstin Lindstrom, who brought together knitters from various parts of the world for her project, “Knitting in Circle,” which considers how we might imagine time through knitting. In this form, the lowly act of knitting – in performance –  forms the basis for profound conceptual work in the areas of space, time and place.

All of this might be understood under the broad rubric of bodies and citizenship. I’d even argue that a broad definition of life writing – like those offered by Sidonie Smith, Julia Watson, Marlene Kadar and others  – would allow us to consider all of this life writing as well, stories of self and community constructed and disseminated through the transformative power of craft.

High on today’s North American political agenda is reproduction. Every day brings more discouraging – well, let me rephrase – Every day bring horrific news as state after American state affirm their constitutional rights over women’s sexual and reproductive bodies. Texas’ controversial transvaginal ultrasound law has been lampooned by Gary Trudeau in a hard hitting series in Doonesbury this week. Ohio senator, Nina Turner, meanwhile, has turned the debate on its head, arguing that men who want access to Viagra need to have appointments with sex therapists and to provide letters from at least one sex partner. While The Onion has, typically, satirized the whole situation (and very effectively), the fact still remains that over 430 bills on reproductive issues have been introduced in the US, just in the last three months alone.

Add Rush Limbaugh’s slut shaming into the mix and there’s a whole storm brewing.

A few years ago, a loose group called Wombs on Washington organized themselves around the issue of reproductive rights and started knitting miniature uteri from a pattern available online (thanks to my friend and colleague Beth Pentney for introducing me to their work!). Now, in the wake of extensive yarn bombing initiatives through which often anonymous crafters have laid claim to lamp poles, phone booths, trees, bike racks, etc, in various corners of Canada, the UK and the USA,  might it be time to reconsider that project? Where might we put our knitted uteri? Which lawmakers do you know that could benefit from one (or several)? Which public spaces might we claim? Could we hand them out, just as condoms are handed out? Could we craft installations? Could we organize knit ins?

The assault on women’s rights to their bodies is real. It’s chilling. And it’s not going away any time soon. Given the historic associations of knitting needles with illegal abortion, that’s a cause worth (re)learning to knit for.

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.