It’s been a big weekend, with all (Western) eyes on Ireland as the country held its referendum on same-sex marriage. The referendum passed, with over 60% in favour, and the country (well, 62% of it) erupted into cheers and jubilation.

Already Irish politicians and the mainstream press are crowing about this triumph of democracy, with Irish minister Health minister, Leo Varadkar claiming that the outcome of the referendum “makes us a beacon of equality and liberty to the rest of the world.” The New York Times, meanwhile, notes that this decision “plac[es] the country at the vanguard of social change.” The mainstream media, measuring Ireland through Jasbir Puar’s notion of homonationalism (more on homonationalism here), is waxing poetic about the increased tourist dollars that this decision will bring.

Never mind that Ireland continues to deny women fundamental reproductive rights.

And never mind that the vote could well have gone the other way.

Here’s the thing: rights are rights. They should never be put to a popular vote. As a commenter on a friend’s Facebook status put it (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I shouldn’t have to ask to be equal.” Sure, the majority voted in favour of same-sex marriage.

But what if they hadn’t?

And what kind of precedent does this set for other human rights? What happens when the cause isn’t as popular, even if it is just? Will we just bow to the “will of the people” and call it just?

The thing is, the majority should never have the right to determine the rights of a minority.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan, in a commentary in The Guardian, writes:

Long before the American people would approve such marriages, it was judges who struck down discriminatory laws in various parts of America. If the majority had been asked whether white people could marry black people, it would have taken decades longer for them be able to do so. In 1967 when the US supreme court deemed anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, the American people were not ready for that decision.

In fact, in 1968, fully 72% of Americans felt that inter-racial marriage was wrong. Put to a popular vote, the constitutionality of those laws would not have been challenged, and given the complex and ugly histories of race in the USA, there might still be anti-miscegenation laws on the books today. After all, according to the article, Alabama only legalized inter-racial marriage in 2000.

Ireland, as much as it has finally acknowledged the rights of same-sex couples, has only just recently dipped the edge of a toenail into the realm of reproductive rights:

In Ireland, you can only have an abortion if you can prove that having the baby will make you die, either by having the baby or by killing yourself. But we saw how that law was put into practice with the Miss Y case, where a woman was on a hunger strike and tried to kill herself, and instead of letting her have an abortion, they delayed her until she was 25 weeks pregnant and then gave this just-turned-18-year-old refugee pregnant as a result of rape a cesarean section. So that’s how that law is working out.

And I’m not convinced that a “progressive” popular vote can change the situation. As Robin Marty observes:

After Savita [Halappanavar] died [from an infection during miscarriage], there was a poll that said that 89 percent of people were in favor of abortion to save a woman’s life, which to me is horrifying. Eleven percent of people are against abortion to save a woman’s life.

And that’s not to say that there aren’t problems with reproductive rights in Canada (PEI is one obvious example). But in this new triumphal narrative of the modern Ireland, we should apparently put all reservations aside and instead fête the wonder that is Irish progressiveness and celebrate that same-sex marriage was won through popular vote, all the while turning a blind eye to other serious social injustice in Ireland.

And given the larger picture, that just doesn’t sit well.

The world did not end when same sex marriage was introduced in Canada in 2005 (or in other countries both before and after 2005). Nor did it end when divorce was legalized, or when anti-miscegenation laws were struck down. Indeed, each of these shifts allowed for a rethinking and reimagining of what is – let’s face it – a profoundly patriarchal institution that needs rethinking, reimagining, reconstructing. Same sex marriage doesn’t devalue my heterosexual marriage. It enriches it, by demonstrating the many possibilities of love and commitment and by opening doors to new ways of thinking about an old institution. Given all of this, same sex marriage is, to use an expression popular when I was a teenager, a no-brainer. But it should never have been put to a popular vote.

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It’s been a slow time on the blog, lately, with the majority of postings gesturing towards interesting reads in other parts of the virtual universe. But that’s not to say that BIG THOUGHTS aren’t circulating, because they are. They’re just working their way out in different venues.

Most of my formal research and writing over the past few months has been of two kinds: cleaning up and exploratory. Neither is particularly useful for blog posts. One is about smoothing out all rough edges and polishing everything to a shine, and the other is about newness, discovery, and wonder. But the middle stuff – the juicy, rich, broth flavoured with complex spices – is missing. As a result, I’ve not had as much to say here.

And so, perhaps it’s time for a bit of an update, in the event that you’re interested in reading other things that I’ve written on the topics of bodies and citizenship and life writing.

My book, the research and thinking for which spawned this blog, should be out in the Fall 2015 with McGill-Queen’s University Press. The book, which is based on the letters that eighteenth-century individuals wrote to Tissot, takes the blog’s title: Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot. I’m currently in the final, painful stages of book labour – pushing it out with all my might (forgive the birth reference, but anyone who has delivered a baby vaginally will recognize it for what it is. Also like childbirth, I became obsessed with the generation of the book and with the marvel of the final product, and had forgotten just how miserable this part of the process was).

Proofreading the page proofs is a most vexing task (particularly when one has read the manuscript 20-plus times), and indexing is a challenge that has me constantly thinking about the politics of knowledge production. Which stories shall I record? And what story, in turn, will my recording tell? I applaud those indexers who have chosen to make it a career.

I also have a forthcoming book chapter that draws on my work with the Fonds Tissot. “Mothers and Others: The Politics of Lactation in Medical Consultation Letters Addressed to Samuel-Auguste Tissot” explores the thorny relationship between ideologies of motherhood, breastfeeding, and wet nursing and lived experiences of illness as they emerge in the letters to Tissot. This chapter forms part of the book, The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century, forthcoming in August 2015 with the University of Toronto Press (look here for more information). I’ve already read a few of the essays in this collection but am very much looking forward to reading them all!

Next, a pair of articles that deals with the bodies, citizenship, identity, autobiography and motherhood, but in completely different venues.

First, my colleague and friend, Beth Pentney (you can see her here) and I co-authored an article (open access) on breastfeeding selfies that will appear in the International Journal of Communication sometime around the end of May. This article forms part of a special section of 18 essays dedicated entirely to the politics of the selfie, the first scholarly collection of essays on this topic. Again, as with the edited book, I’m really looking forward to reading the other essays. It promises to be an intriguing collection of thinking and writing about selfies, identity, theories, and representation.

Second, I tackle the topic of infanticide and maternal subjectivity in an essay (open access) that will appear later this year in the European Journal of Life Writing. Here, I consider the autobiographical traces of motherhood as they emerge in eighteenth-century infanticide trials. My ‘data set’ for this work? The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, which are available online here. It’s an incredible archive, freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

All of this stuff that I’ve been working on – selfies, infanticide, medical consultation letters – deals with the very issues that interest me most: bodies, identities, life writing, citizenship, stories.

A side project, spawned last summer together with my colleague and friend, Jocelyn Thorpe, resulted in a multi-authored article on teaching the intro course in women’s and gender studies. “Reflections on the Intro Course: A Pedagogical Toolkit” will appear in Atlantis: Critical Studies in Gender, Culture and Social Justice in Summer 2015.

Finally, I’ve been thinking through a new research project as this one comes to an end. I’ve taken two preliminary research trips (to two different continents). I’ve been reading. I’ve been thinking. Things are percolating. Brewing. Steeping. Stewing. Stuff is happening, but it’s not quite ready to be unleashed yet. Stay tuned.

The article starts like this:

A man and a woman walk into a doctor’s office. All things equal—symptoms and tests included—the female patient is twice as likely as her male counterpart to walk out with a diagnosis of depression. She’s also more than twice as likely to be prescribed a drug and, if that medication is a painkiller, she’ll be prescribed it at a higher dose and for a longer duration of time than the male patient, according to the Office on Women’s Health.

Thanks to a panoply of chemicals and hormones, psychiatric drugs also affect women and men differently, regardless of prescription rates. For the most part, drugs just work better in female users— opioids are more pain relieving, antidepressants more potent, and anti-anxiety medications more powerful. They also cause more side effects. And while men still outpace women in addiction rates, female abuse escalates more quicklyharms the body faster, and is a more difficult habit to break.

While it’s true that women experience depression and anxiety at higher rates than men, this still doesn’t explain the intense level of prescription disparity. Even with disorders that skew heavily male, like ADHD, women are more likely to be prescribed medication.

And then the author, Taylor Prewitt, goes on to develop a rich, complex argument that draws on the politics of gender, history, politics, bodies and medicine.

You can read the rest here.

A fascinating exploration of the afterlives of museums: Brown University’s Lost Museums Symposium:

…the symposium addresses the history of museums from a new direction: not their founding, but their disappearance. We know a great deal about how museums are born and how new collections come into being, but not nearly enough about how these fragile institutions pass out of existence, how artifacts decay and disappear as times and interests change.

Perhaps a trite comparison, but reading about this symposium brought me back episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow that I watched sometime in the 1990s. Among the varied items on display, was one that stood out: a couple had brought an elephant foot umbrella stand to be evaluated.

From the standpoint of the notion of a historical artifact, it was a fascinating piece. A stump of a leg, complete with toes and toenails, lined with brass. Aesthetically, for this particular modern viewer at least, it was ghastly. Ethically, it was horrifying. The Roadshow expert said as much himself: the piece was of esoteric interest, but within contemporary politics, had little resale value. (For those who might be interested, it looked something like this)

But what happens to pieces like these? To the collections they are in? What happens when collections are consolidated? What happens to the stories that such pieces tell? What new narratives emerge to take their place?

Too bad I’m nowhere near Brown University…. but for those of you who are, you can find the program here.

A friend directed me to a an article about a project developed by photo-based artist, Stacey Tyrell. Entitled “Backra Bluid,” the project is meant to explore the complexities of mixed heritage. In a series of portraits, Tyrell dons white face as a way of examining elements of her heritage that she has found it difficult to discuss outside of her immediate family. The project’s name itself – “Backra Bluid” – gestures to this mixture, drawing in the West Indian Creole word for white/master and the Scottish word for blood and kin.

In her own words:

“The characters in my images are a way of trying to subvert and maybe even co-opt the white mainstream gaze that I feel that myself and every other non-white person is constantly under,” she concluded. “Too often the term ‘black’ is used to describe millions of people worldwide without consideration that within that category there is a rich tapestry of thousands of cultures, identities and genetic makeups that are interconnected with other races. I really wish to contribute to a greater discourse that I feel needs to open up surrounding the very loaded notion of racial identity.”

These images are curious – pristine, posed, utterly unnatural… and too perfect. I don’t know what I would have thought if I’d passed one of them in an advertisement. Or even if I saw one hanging in a gallery. The effect, for me, emerges when I look at them one after another after another after another. Suddenly it’s as if the whole artifice of racial categorization opens up, blows apart, and resettles in a whole new way….

You can read more here.

When women prisoners – together with a scholar committed to educational initiatives for the incarcerated – research the history of their own maximum security prison, amazing things can happen.

Recently, a group of women currently incarcerated at the 142-year-old institution (now called the Indiana Women’s Prison) began to pore over documents from the prison’s first 10 years. They had set out on an ambitious project: to write a history of the institution’s founding decade, one that tells quite a different story from the official narrative. What happens when inmates write a history of their own prison? In this case, the perspective that the group brought to the project took what inmate Michelle Jones, writing in the American Historical Association’s magazine Perspectives on History, calls “a feel-good story” about Quaker reformers rescuing women from abuse in men’s prisons and turned it into a darker, more complicated tale.

Without access to the tools available to conventional students – internet and good libraries – these women painstakingly pieced together a complicated history, presenting findings at conferences via video conferencing technology and publishing papers. Now they’re working towards publishing a book. I’m thinking I might share this with my undergrad students in research methods this coming winter…
Want to read more? You can get the whole story here.