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pathologizing the body

Posted by pocochina on May 8, 2007

I’m almost through reading Wake Up, Little Suzie:  Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v Wade by Rickie Solinger.  It’s an excellent book, powerfully written and researched, with tons of stuff to unpack.

Some of those things that are forefront in my mind are good, old-fashioned Sexist Stupidity nuggets.  My personal favorite is the idea that single teens and young women got pregnant through latent lesbianism.  That’s right, they were so gay, they spontaneously knocked themselves up.  And remember, this is decades before Mary Cheney.  (Rim shot!  But that’s a whole ‘nother post.)  While that particular suggestion is worth a good laugh, it’s also emblematic of the conventional wisdom (towards white girls of the era) described by the author.  Female sexuality was just so fucked up, so beyond the pale, so totally pathological, it had to be the worst thing they could possibly come up with – of course, homosexuality.

Another is the beautiful way Solinger deconstructs intersectional identities.  That’s so incredibly difficult, because you just can’t know so many things about something so personal, and yet so public, as identity.  Personal in that it’s wholly yours, nobody lives in your skin but you, but also public – it’s literally written on our faces for everyone to see.  But this book does a fascinating job of teasing apart when society saw these women as women, how their gender mattered, how their race mattered, and to a lesser extent, how their class mattered.  (Cheap shots at retro conservative idiocy aside, there can’t be too much discussion about unintended pregnancy around sexual orientation, although statistically, of course, for some women it would’ve been an issue.)  There’s intricacies of race that I don’t think there was room to deal with, such as the first and second generations of Mediterranean-American heritage, who were “becoming white” at the time, but that’s a so delicate it’s not an argument against the book, just something I found myself getting curious about.  And of course, I’m always uncomfortable when something deals with race as a full category, and then boils down to black and white.  It’s an important discussion to have, especially considering the particuarly vicious treatment African-American single mothers continue to face, but I’d just like to have seen some recognition that Asian, Chicana, and Native women were, in fact, also alive at the time.  But again, more of a space issue, certainly not one that disqualifies Solinger’s painstaking research.

Mostly, what got to me was the description of the maternity home (almost exclusively an option/forced path of action for white girls and women).  I actually forgot I wasn’t reading a description of an ex-gay “ministry” and, to some extent, “fat camp.”  This is what I wrote in my book:

You could actually just change some words around and you’d have a picture of an ex-gay camp, or fat camp.  Having to talk about sex underground.  Confusing rape with sex, confusing date rape with consent.  The level of denial about human sexuality – did anyone actually believe that crap?  I mean, nobody actually went to visit their aunt in LA, did they?  And it can’t actually make you less sexual, just like fat camp can’t possibly fix kids.  They weighed in pregnant women, they fucking weighed them in, ’cause that’s so healthy.  And the definition of femininity in the context of this all-female world is fascinating – the “enforcers” of femininity aren’t feminine at all.  And feminity is distinctly at odds with female reproductive health – getting pregnant makes you NOT a woman.  Any reason not to blame the boyfriend, I guess.  This is a world that treats female friendships so incredibly disrespectfully – must women even liking each other always be resistance?

What I think I was getting at, is the way the maternity homes punished, and punished, and punished the women for being sexual.  They forced the women into “group therapy” a la But I’m a Cheerleader, in order to figure out the tragic, terrible, horrible circumstance that landed them down the Path of Sexy Destruction.  The idea of seculsion from the world, and endless lecturing and shaming, is such a constant in these stories.

Kind of a gentler, but still evil, way to punish people.  Oh, it’s not her fault, she’s just sick.  It’s just another way to marginalize people.

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