Monday, October 15, 2007

Pitting Women Against Girls: Thoughts on Feminism and Disability

So I'm going to do something really radical and blog about something other than books today. Hang onto your hats.

Something I noticed when I first read about Ashley X on feminist blogs, and that I see now reading about Katie Thorpe, is that the feminist community seems to be conflicted over these cases. Some bloggers thought the girls' rights had been violated, others thought the caregivers should have the freedom to do whatever they think is in their charges' best interest, and still others were not comfortable enough to make a judgment one way or another. The extent of this diversity, and the intensity of the disagreements, surprised me, as I had thought this was a fairly straightforward instance of these girls' rights being ignored because it was convenient to ignore them and their disabilities made it impossible for them to advocate for themselves --- in other words, sexism and ablism. Case closed, right?

What I have come to find, though, is that several feminist narratives are at work in these stories, and it's along those pre-existing lines that the feminist commentary fractures. Yes, there is the paternalistic medical system, with its history of pathologizing the female body, particularly the reproductive organs. There's also the traditional role of women as unpaid caregivers, both of children and of infirm adult relatives. Indeed, caregiving is still primarily women's work, and is almost always either unpaid or underpaid. And finally, there's the sterilization divide: white women who want sterilization can't get it, while women of color find it pushed on them. (It's worth noticing that one of the blogs to come out aggressively opposed to the Ashley Treatment was the Women of Color Blog, which does go into the fear of forced sterilization).

Another thing that goes into it is the fact that nothing about gender is neutral in our culture. Ashley's parents specifically mentioned a fear of rape as one of the reasons they didn't want her to mature --- they thought (probably mistakenly) that she would be less likely to be raped if she didn't look like a woman, and they also wanted to make sure she couldn't be impregnated by a rapist. Just being a woman in our culture makes you prey to a wide range of Very Bad Things, from institutionalized, bureaucratic sexism to individual, personal types of victimization like stalking, domestic abuse or rape. Maybe her parents thought they could fool society, or nature, or whomever, by disguising their daughter as not-a-woman. Not that that excuses it, but if that is part of the rationale, what a sad commentary on our society.

There's probably enough material in all those feminist archetypes for every woman to find some part of her own story echoed in Ashley and Katie's story, which is why we see such a clamor of voices. Women who've grown up fearing forced sterilization, women who are primary caregivers or work in healthcare, women with disabilities and women who have experienced some form of violation by a health professional (e.g. birthrape) can all identify with some element of the stories. So, I've come to believe, the problem isn't that feminists aren't identifying with this story, but that there is so much they can identify with. And there aren't a lot of easy answers there --- we demand humane care for people with disabilities, but we have to be aware that that's a burden that will fall disproportionately on women. We ask for sterilization on demand, without being second-guessed or told we'll change our minds, but we also need to remember to ask not to push sterilization on women who don't want it, regardless of what the doctor thinks is "best" for them or their potential children. This is not to say that any of these things is impossible, or that we shouldn't agitate for these things. We should agitate for them all, and for change in society such that would make them all go together, rather than seem contradictory.

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