Taking it to the Body, Part 4: Women’s Bodies and Self-Authority

This is a somewhat shortened version of a prior post. I revised it to be a part of my taking it to the bodyDecember 2012 001 series.

I believe a potent source of female power lies in the female body and that body wisdom has been suppressed and denied over the course of many years as a means of oppression and control. One of the root issues of patriarchy is who “owns” women’s bodies—is it men, is it the government, is the medical system, or is it the woman herself? (you know my pick!).

Body wisdom and sources of power

Considering power, sources of power, and body wisdom, I appreciated reading Barbara Starrett’s essay The Metaphors of Power in the book The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. While she uses a different example, I have modified and paraphrased her thoughts to make the idea about birth. Starrett originally states, “We can create power centers both within and outside ourselves…Power is where power is perceived. Power resides in the mind. We can give or withhold power through our beliefs, our felt thoughts.” Medical professionals can make decisions about a woman’s body and birth choices effectively only as long as women believe that the professionals have the right to do this. When women reclaim the power to decide for themselves about birth, the doctors proclaim in a vacuum. Their power depends on the transference of our power, through our belief that this is right…Power is where power is perceived. This also means that in any given in-the-world situation, we can intentionally set up our own power centers. If we believe that power resides in those centers, it will. We will act successfully on this belief. Women’s organizations, unions, birth coalitions, etc., will never work unless we regard them, “as the legitimate centers of power…We must grant our own power to ourselves” (p. 191).

While this comes a little too close for comfort to me with the idea that “we create our own reality” (which I cannot fully embrace due to the logical extension into blaming the victim that it creates), I connect deeply with the idea that we must treat women’s organizations and work as legitimate power sources. I think of books/movements like Our Bodies, Ourselves, for example. To me, this is a definitive women’s health resource—by women, for women and separated from the medical establishment that often dehumanizes women. If we continue to believe our “alternative” structures are just that, “alternative,” then the dominant model is still the norm and still accepted, even by us, as “normal.”

Starrett continues her essay by sharing that “It is necessary for some women to risk total reclamation, to risk the direct and intentional use of power, in bold, even outrageous ways. It takes only a minority of women to alter present reality, to create new reality, because our efforts are more completely focused, more total.” (p. 193) This is the risk that the creators of Our Bodies, Ourselves took. It is the risk birth activists and women’s health activists continue to take.

Consult your health care provider?

In my own life, I am frustrated by the ubiquitous phrase, “Consult your health care provider.” No, thanks. I prefer consulting myself, my books, google, my own research, and my friends. Last time I checked, my doctor did not own my body nor did she have divine revelation as to what I need in my life. I am a breastfeeding counselor providing phone and email support to women who have breastfeeding questions. Women frequently receive very poor breastfeeding “advice” from their doctors—to the extent that I honestly think they’d receive better information by polling random strangers at Wal-Mart with their questions (and, yes, I will actually tell women this). One caller once used the phrase, “but, I don’t want to disobey my doctor” and I found this extraordinarily telling as well as depressing. I recognize that doctors have special training and can be life-saving, however, what does that say about mothering in our culture that a woman would not act on behalf of her own baby and herself because of fear of being disobedient to a professional that she has hired? She is a consumer of a service, not the subject of a ruler!

This brings me to a thought by Dr. Michelle Harrison, author of the book A Woman in Residence:

I used to have fantasies…about women in a state of revolution. I saw them getting up out of their beds and refusing the knife, refusing to be tied down, refusing to submit…Women’s health care will not improve until women reject the present system and begin instead to develop less destructive means of creating and maintaining a state of wellness.”

Indeed! And, in an essay by Sally Gearhart’s about womanpower, she notes: “…there’s no forcing any other woman into a full trot or a gallop; she will move at her own pace, but at her own pace we can be sure she will move. At this point I always remind myself that the patriarchal use of crash programs is antithetical to organic movement; in a crash program the theory goes that if you can get nine women pregnant you can have a baby in one month; it takes women, I suppose, to understand that it doesn’t work that way.” (p. 202-203)

Reclaiming power

So, how do women reclaim power? I think story holds a key to power reclamation in this context. As I’ve referenced before, Carol Christ describes it thusly, “When one woman puts her experiences into words, another woman who has kept silent, afraid of what others will think, can find validation. And when the second woman says aloud, ‘yes, that was my experience too,’ the first woman loses some of her fear.” As I touch on above, for me it is to see myself and my body as a source of wisdom and to refuse to participate in structures that do not honor my power and personal agency. It involves more often turning to my peers, to other women, for advice and comfort and support, rather than to experts.

I’ve written many times before that I am a systems thinker. Women’s choices about their bodies and about birth are not made in personal isolation, but in a complexly interwoven network of social, political, medical, religious, and cultural systems. As Gearhart notes, “There may be no ‘enemy’ except a system. How do we deal with ‘the enemy’? As seldom as possible but when necessary by opening the way for [their] transformation into not-the-enemy. What weapons do we use? Our healing, our self-protection, our health, our fantasies, our collective care…” (p. 203).


3 thoughts on “Taking it to the Body, Part 4: Women’s Bodies and Self-Authority

  1. Pingback: I am a Story Woman | Talk Birth

  2. Pingback: Wednesday Tidbits: Activism! | Talk Birth

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: The Midwife as a Storyteller and Teacher by Patricia Harman | Talk Birth

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