Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Bodily Autonomy and Political Power
As much as I’d like to have come up with this title by myself, I can only claim to be standing on the shoulders of writers like Michelle Murphy, and the Women discussed in her 2012 book “Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience”. The pioneering and radical feminists of the 70’s and 80’s were at the forefront of the effort to allow women to demystify and take control of their own body, be this sexual or reproductive liberation. What I hope to discuss today is not only the physical empowerment of the fight for bodily autonomy, but the wider social, political and economic implications of breaking these inherently patriarchal paradigms.
While Murphy specifically discusses the USA in her book, the fight for a woman’s right to access an abortion in the 70’s (and unfortunatey in many places to this day) was fierce. In many cases it was totally illegal, driving many women to resort to unsafe methods, often scared and alone with no support. Rampant patriarchal power structures and pervasive religious pressure, especially in the US, denied women their rights and provided little to no education to women about their own bodies.
To fill this void of both support and education, autonomous self help clinics stepped in with a kind of “Protocol feminism”. In a casual, non medicalized setting women could come together to teach each other, in simple step by step instructions, how to perform things like self inspection, urine pregancy tests, all the way to (relativley) safer abortions depending on local laws regading the isssue. Crucially these self help groups were not tied to a place as such, with founders asserting that a self help group was “any
group of women getting together to share experiences and learn about their bodies through direct observation”. As these groups grew and spread, their scope grew into the realm of sexual exploration, even branching into “lesbian health”, including as many women as possible in the movement.
In this way self help groups and their style of protocol feminism were not tied to a single place or setting, allowing women across america to share their knowledge, and help each other to achieve a new degree of bodily emancipation in an era were a professional medical setting carried a certain degree of political control over a woman’s body, in an era where sexuality was heavily policed. Here crucially is where the aspect of “seizing” comes into play.Whether intentional or not, it became an inherently marxist-feminist movement of women learning and teaching collectively. Mirroring the idea of seizing economic production by taking economic control away from elites and transferring it to the workers, control over sex, sexuality and women’s health care had been seized from the political sphere and its elites and placed back into the hands of the women it actually affected. Armed with this improved knowledge, women were able to mount more effective campaigns for the right to their own bodies.
While women’s rights have of course improved, in many countries and US states there are still laws governing and restricting what women can do with their own bodies. Coupled with the fact that from my own experience sex education is still sorley lacking, this kind of autonomous, women teaching women feminism can still serve a purpose in the modern world, working from (as I am) the women and feminists who came before to drive the fight for bodily autonomy.
As I mentioned previously, the deliberate restriction of abortion rights,sexuality and sexual education form part of a system designed to maintain gendered power structures. These structures are beneficial to both patriarchal and capitalist interests (which, depending on your view of the topic, are inherently connected in the modern world) by creating a divide between work and home life along gender lines. Men are placed into the work world, while women are restricted to the rule of the homemaker and bringing up the next generation of workers/homemakers.
The control of women’s reproduction becomes central to maintaining that paradigm, which makes efforts to hand that control back to women even more vital in disrupting patriarchy and patriarchal capitalism. While marxist-feminist scholars like Hartmann in 1979 have attempted to define the link between patriarchy and capitalism through social reproduction theory, exploring the different ways in which paid(work) and unpaid (home making) labour interact with capitalism, it can be argued that its application to women is far too narrow. Luxton argues that when social reproduction is used only to refer to women’s unpaid work in the home “it loses the conceptual clarity to challenge the invalid separation of production and reproduction”.This risks cementing these illogical boundaries used to separate womens labour in the home from the concept of “productive labour”.
Breaking down these boundaries serves two purposes, and are both helped by women’s seizure of biological reproduction. Firstly, women’s control of their own body allows them to choose if they wish to reproduce in the first place. Freeing women from this patriarchally pre-ordained purpose allows them to participate in society in the way that they choose, and forces a wider perspective of women’s social reproduction beyond the boundaries of home life. Secondly, by removing the distinction between paid and unpaid labour we prevent the notion that a woman’s labour in the home is somehow less valuable, should she choose to biologically reproduce, as well as beginning to dismantle the notion that a woman’s workplace labour is worthy of lower pay.
To expand on an earlier point, not only does the initial act of women reclaiming their bodies mirror the marxist idea of seizing economic production, but the long term effects and opportunities that arise from this seizure can also be used to disrupt patriarchal capitalism and its associated power structures. Here we see just one of the many intersectional crossroads inherent to feminism, highlighting the crucial importance of the empowerment of women to the wider social revolution.
In conclusion, what I’m rather long-windedly arguing is that the drive to improve women’s bodily autonomy is not only a crucial part of the feminist movement, but every step towards true emancipation carries with it significant political power. This can be leveraged not only to achieve even greater feminist goals but also in the wider political struggle to grant equality to everyone. In that sense Seizing the Means of Reproduction does exactly what it says on the tin, returning power to the people it belongs to.
Before I sign off from this piece, I’d just like to thank the team at POWW for being so welcoming to me since I joined the team. In such a passionate organization run by women, for women's empowerment, it’s a great honour to be invited to be the first male member of the team. As you’ve probably guessed I’m an intersectional/marxist feminism, and as such hold the belief that women will always be best placed to solve problems for women, and I look forward to learning from the incredible team behind this project. I hope that you enjoyed this first piece,and that you’ll join me as I learn and grow alongside POWW.
Love and Rage everyone,