Bodies Beyond Rights: Why Governance of Woman’s Autonomy is Not Solely a Legal Issue
30 November 2022
Protests for abortion rights in Itay; image credit: Claudia Torrisi
The most recent attacks on women's freedom demonstrates that unless the imaginary and atavistic roots that have historically slowed and thwarted change are addressed with the necessary radicality, rights and freedoms can be revoked at any time. Starting with the reflections of the feminist collectives who fought in the 1970s for the recognition of women's rights, not only to abortion but also to freedom of sexuality, this paper will explore how the law is not sufficient in itself. In the light of the recent crises and the increasingly strong alliance between conservative values and neo-liberal economics, is required also a renewed reflection upon the societal relationship between man and woman.
As Laurence Joseph stated in her article Politicised Bodies: We Cannot Always Take Care of the Life We Are Carrying: “A woman’s body bears witness to juridical and electoral democratic conditions. That is, during political crises the first decisions of a group of people with power will be directed at women’s freedom: to restrict them, to break them, to criminalise them. Women are the sounding board for the political state of a country, they are forced to pay.” (1)
But why is it, when a society regresses in terms of rights, that the first to pay the consequences are women, and in particular, their bodies? Violence against those considered different, weaker, or ‘foreign’ is the most primal reflex of the human species, which has always materialised even before the black, the Jew, the gypsy, the body of the woman. This doggedness has various explanations, from those that are biological – linked to the law of the fittest – to religious ones, that, in the case of the great monotheistic religions continue to locate within woman the source of sin and temptation. The denunciation of the role of capitalist economic primacy over women’s bodies and freedom finds a decisive turning point in Marxist reflection, which traces gender inequality back to the economic structure. A solid alliance between neo-liberal policies and traditionalist conservatism was established to the detriment of women and their freedom.
Friedrich Engels’ reflections on this, in his well-known text on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), remain illuminating. Engels challenges the ideological constructions produced to justify the subordination of women – ‘biological and physiological factors’, ‘religious texts and beliefs concerning the inferiority of women’, ‘nature and natural causes’. Using the data collected by the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan (2) in his more than forty years of research among tribal communities, as well as Marx’s extensive notes on Morgan’s work, Engels elaborated an analysis of women’s ‘subjugation’ by linking it to the development of the class society – a phenomenon that persists in capitalist societies to this day. Engels’ most important contribution is to position ‘women’s issues’ within a materialist conception of history, which frames the development of human society within the dialectical relations between the development of the productive forces and the control of the means of production, including the evolution of social relations, including those between men and women, and the institution of the family.
Engels arrived at the conclusion that the toppling of matriarchy marked the universal historical defeat of the female sex. However, the economic approach to the relationship of the sexes, is not exhaustive in explaining (and overcoming) the issue.
Engels shows how the most ancient ‘matriarchal societies’, where lineage passed through the mother, were more egalitarian since there was no social surplus at that time, given the low level of development of the productive forces. In these ancient societies, women played a central role in the production of the means of subsistence and reproduction, which were essential for the survival of the species. As much research has shown, women were not only gatherers of food, but also hunters.
The subjugation of women would come to be associated with the emergence of private property, the disappearance of which would therefore lead to the emancipation and liberation of women. The monogamous family would also be born from reasons economic, founded upon male domination with the explicit aim of the procreation of children of undisputed paternity, who would come into possession of the paternal estate as natural heirs.
Analysing the monogamous family structure, in the second chapter of his book, Engels states that it “is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs. The ‘monogamous family’ becomes the norm” (3) and the text continues: “Monogamy [...] was the first form of the family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property”. Further on he claims: “The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others.” (5) Engels arrived at the conclusion that the toppling of matriarchy marked the universal historical defeat of the female sex.
However, the economic approach to the relationship of the sexes, is not exhaustive in explaining (and overcoming) the issue.
In this regard, the analyses of the feminist movements that, since the 1970s, have highlighted how male dominance is not only the consequence of the institution of both private property and the traditional family, remain of great import in understanding what matters. As the Italian feminist Lea Melandri makes clear, ‘if it is true that the economic machine tends to absorb every other social productivity, to regulate and subordinate to itself every other social order, it is also true that the male-female relationship opposes its specificity and structural autonomy to this incorporation’. The attitude that poses the problem in economic terms tends to bring the sexual relationship within the overall social context, placing sexuality among cultural, ethical, and psychological problems. Alongside the centrality of the economic structure in the interpretation of the male-female relationship and the issues of voting and work, the feminist movements added the need to reflect on the problem of the ownership of the body of women. Of notable importance among the results of these battles were abortion laws, an important landmark achieved in an extraordinarily short time.
The issue of abortion thus calls into question man’s relationship with women’s bodies and his desire to establish dominance and control over women, entrusting them with the role of mother.
While human rights and the vote for women needed centuries to be recognised, in the case of abortion it took only a few decades. It was precisely the rapidity of this process, however, that led to a split between the real perception and that imposed by law. That is, it was thought that a law could be entrusted with the power to erase all misunderstanding, prejudice, and potential regression. As today it is evident to all, this was not the case. Despite the legal recognition in many states of the right to terminate one’s pregnancy, there is no doubt that since then abortion continues to face many obstacles. Not only, as we have seen, with the US Supreme Court overturning the historic Roe v. Wade ruling, with which the very same Court had legalised abortion in the USA in 1973, but also as a consequence of moral stigmatisation. It acts on the senses of guilt deeply inculcated in women’s experience through centuries of procreative obligation, and that ends up intimidating and blaming, if not legally then ethically, women who decide to terminate their pregnancy. Added to this are campaigns that claim that the ‘natural family’ and ethnic purity are threatened by the increase of the falling birth rate and migration or, as in Italy, by a rate of conscientious objectors that reaches 70%, touching peaks in some regions of 90%, effectively diminishing the possibility of exercising this legal right.
It therefore becomes clear that the law alone is not enough, but that the issue must be tackled with greater radicality, that is, going to the root of a mentality that has not yet adjusted to the changes established by rights. Indeed, the persistence of the perception of the woman as a producer of life remains evident, and above all the concerns of the man who feels his own fragility with respect to this body other than himself, which he tries to dominate, at times with violence, especially with respect to the generative capacity that is directly denied him. The exercise of subtracting the female body’s availability from man evidently still appears as a threat. For this reason, at a time of vulnerability in the democratic life of a country, not only is the issue of abortion bound to come up again – especially in realities where this dimension is also accompanied by religious intolerance - but all issues relating to the emancipation of women.
Carla Lonzi, an Italian theorist of self-awareness and sexual difference, as well as author of the well-known pamphlet Let’s spit on Hegel (5) therefore proposed to shift the perspective of analysis and response to this constant tendency to restore the order of patriarchal discourse, emphasising the need to not make abortion solely a question of rights. As some feminist collectives also argued, the problem of abortion should not be treated in isolation but included in the overall analysis of the condition of women, their sexuality and their bodies. As some Italian feminist groups of the 1970s pointed out, this position runs the risk “of giving only a partial answer that is perhaps turned against us or that in any case is not a solution for us [...] the coming together means that we deal with this issue in the political ways that are ours, and therefore with the telling of experiences and also with stances that may not have great coherence, but reflect what is our thought and desire.” (6)
The American feminist Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. magazine, makes clear that as long as the law tries to control abortion in ways that have never been applied to other practices of surgical medicine, there will be danger. (7) The reason why the word ‘refusal’ appeared in so many documents in the 1960s and 1970s is simple: the aim was to oust the government from reproductive decision-making by rejecting any laws on abortion or contraception. For this reason, various feminist collectives fought not for a political and legal recognition of the right to abortion, but for the decriminalisation of abortion and the recognition of women’s right to manage their own bodies. As long as the law sought to replace women in the regulation of their fertility, there would be a danger to their own freedom, but also to the freedom of women in general and their ability to regulate the process of reproduction.
The very first law enacted by Hitler was the condemnation of abortion as a crime against the state, and the control of women’s destinies. For Benito Mussolini too, the family, intended for reproduction, was essential, and women were only to produce children.
We thus return to the situation that is taking place in our time. It is enough to think of the clash between the various interpretations of when and how life begins, the parliamentary dynamics, the intervention of hospital and judicial administrative institutions. These are all elements that demonstrate how maintaining the focus on rights in this case is only a first step and an entirely insufficient at that, since the fight for abortion calls into question a much broader sphere in which the man/woman relationship and, overall, the way in which women can and want to live their sexuality and their bodies, is at stake.
As Lea Melandri recalled, “maternity and abortion are, without a shadow of a doubt, linked to a model of penetrative and generative sexuality marked, within the historical dominion of man, by a burden of material and psychological violence, which does not show signs of diminishing even in the presence of highly civilised cultures.” (8) The issue of abortion thus calls into question man’s relationship with women’s bodies and his desire to establish dominance and control over women, entrusting them with the role of mother. Yet the real protagonist of this drama, in which the woman is forced to accept an unwanted pregnancy, remains hidden, like a ghost. “If,” Melandri continues, “the female body has needed to be confined in a natural order, subjected to all sorts of controls, made the object of love and at the same time of violence, it is because, in the memory of the man-child, it has remained the place of an unrepeatable fusion, and at the same time, the reminder of a dependence that threatens his adult individuality.” (9)
It was no coincidence, moreover, that the very first law enacted by Hitler was the condemnation of abortion as a crime against the state, and the control of women’s destinies. For Benito Mussolini too, the family, intended for reproduction, was essential, and women were only to produce children. All this because of men’s need to control women and their choices, to coerce them, and the need for women to continue to represent their sexuality through the male model. The antagonism as such arises between a sexuality that has been imposed, that of men, and a sexuality that has been erased, that of women, and which has subsequently been reproduced in the opposition between a productive capacity that has been able to expand in the most diverse forms and a productivity reduced to its biological function.
The abortion debate thus reveals a much more complex issue that extends beyond law. Any law, any parliamentary regulation that overlaps or claims to replace women's competence is equivalent to wanting to resolve the contradiction in favour of men because it undermines women's competence and choice. “Without the right of women and men to freely make their own choices about their bodies, there is no democracy,” said the 88-year-old Steinem in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling, and she concludes “controlling reproduction is the first step in any authoritarian regime.” (10)
What is happening today in many countries of the world, with respect to the revocation of women's rights, from abortion, to freedom of expression, to the opportunity to study, can only be understood as the sign of a crisis of civilisation that reveals in all its manifestations, economic, cultural and political, a sign of men’s worldview. For this, laws or hard-won rights are not enough. The change we need must be far more radical: it must pervade the institutions, knowledge, and powers of private and public life, even though conflict and disobedience.
1. Laurence Joseph, “Politicised Bodies: We Cannot Always Take Care of the Life We Are Carrying,” Philosophy World Democracy 3.7 (July 2022): https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/articles-1/politicised-bodies-we-cannot-always-take-care-of-the-life-we-are-carrying
2. L.H. Morgan, Ancient Society or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, London: MacMillan & Company, 1877.
3. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), translated by Alick West, International Publishers, New York 1942, revised against the German text as it appeared in Marx-Engels Werke, Volume 21, Dietz Verlag Berlin 1962: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/, p. 33.
4. Engels, The Origin of the Family, p. 35.
5. See Carla Lonzi, “Let’s split on Hegel” (1970), translated by P. Mills Jagentowicz, in Feminist Interpretation of G.W.F. Hegel, ed Jagentowicz, State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996: 275-298.
6. “Corpo politico,” Sottosopra, Special Issue: Documenti di gruppi femministi. Testimonianze di donne. Interventi dell’incontro del 1-2 Febbraio, al Circolo De Amicis di Milano, Milan 1975, https://bibliotecadelledonne.women.it/fascicolo/sottosopra-n-3-1975/, p. 7.
7. Gloria Steinem, “If Men Could Menstruate,” Women's Reproductive Health 6.3 Special Section on Menstruation (2019): 151-152; see also “Gloria Steinem: 'If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,” The Guardian 17 Oct 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/17/gloria-steinem-activist-interview-memoir-my-life-on-the-road.
8. L. Melandri, “La Corte Suprema degli Stati Uniti e il femminismo degli anni Settanta” (The US Supreme Court and feminism in the 1970s), Il Riformista, https://www.ilriformista.it/la-corte-suprema-degli-stati-uniti-e-il-femminismo-degli-anni-settanta-297763/
9. Melandri, “La Corte Suprema degli Stati Uniti.”
10. F. Sironi, “Interview to Gloria Steinem,” L’Espresso 30 Sept. 2021, https://espresso.repubblica.it/mondo/2021/09/30/news/gloria_steinem_diritti_donne-319698018/