“bodies mutilated for the nation”: Reproductive Rights and Women of Color Across Time

Sydnee Wagner and Alicia Andrzejewski //

“Colonizers want land, but indigenous bodies forming nations are in the way because they form a strong attachment to land and because they replicate indigeneity…[the colonizers] see Indigenous women’s and girls’ bodies as the bodies that reproduce nations”—Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Introduction

Our title’s opening quote, “bodies mutilated for the nation,” comes from an initial conversation about this piece; these are Sydnee’s words on the relationship between reproductive rights and women of color across time. These words also speak to Simpson’s characterization of the colonizer in our epigraph, and how Indigenous women’s and girls’ bodies continue to thwart colonizers’ goals and attachments. In this piece, we address the omissions of people of color from the archives, in scholarship, and in discussions about current legislation around “reproductive rights.” When we talk about the right to abortion, the legislation that was just passed in Alabama or forced pelvic exams in Missouri, for examplewhat would it look like to also consider the right to reproduce for women of color?

In this piece, we argue that the womb is a complex site of colonization and nationalism. There has been much discussion of white men insisting on reproduction through invasive abortion legislation (for more on this, see Yamani Hernandez’s “Black Women’s Abortions Are Not ‘Black-on-Black Crime’” and Lauren A. Mitchell’s “A for Abortion: The Weaponized Vocabulary of a Medical Procedure”). But what about the experiences of Roma women today, for instance, described in heartbreaking detail in “Roma women share stories of forced sterilization”? As Sona Karolova remembers, in just one example, “I was pressured by a social worker…. First she promised me money. When I refused, she threatened that they would take my children away. She said my husband would lose his job. In the end I gave in to stop her pressuring me.” Of note in Karolova’s experience is that the social worker was another woman. To put it bluntly, as Sydnee pointed out when we first started discussing this piece, “This is not a universal issue for women because women of color’s lives are seen as minute.”

In order to think through reproductive rights in a way that centers women of color’s lives, we turn back to the early modern period to demonstrate how the past informs the present and the present informs the past, interweaving our own narratives and experiences with research and archives.

Sydnee:

Image: Jacques Callots “Camping Place of the Gypsies: The Preparation of the Feast” (French, 1592-1635)

Jacques Callot's “Camping Place of the Gypsies: The Preparation of the Feast”

When I started doing archive work at the British Museum’s Drawings and Prints department, I did not intend to attend to this print. In fact, I did not know it existed. I called up another Jacques Callot print (for he had many on Gypsies), and found the Gypsy Camp image bound in a collection of his prints. The scene laid out was so chaotic, with no clear focal point to draw the eye. I almost missed her.

Against the tree in the background of the print, a Gypsy woman gives birth. She is accompanied by other women to her side, and a midwife between her legs. An older child watches and, although these figures attend to her, the rest of the bustling Gypsy camp ignores the scene, as if it were commonplace for her to give birth in the middle of the camp. Gypsy children are left unattended throughout the camp, scattered throughout the woods, near firepits, in trees, killing chickens.

Something about this image, holistically, made my stomach hurt with unnamable apprehension. I was so used to attending to busy prints of Gypsy camps, drawings and etchings of Gypsies in bustling market places, or landscape paintings with Gypsies in the background, faceless, still like the plants that surrounded them. This image was different. I felt it at the pit of my gut.

While the description presented by the Art Institute of Chicago describes the Gypsies in Callot’s print as “a motley crew of disheveled itinerants,” my description is less precious: These are a feral people. And that description maps out onto the stereotypes about Roma I grew up with, the stereotypes that I attend to in the early modern archive. I am uncivilized. I am not human. I am an animal. And like an animal, I will give birth in the woods, against the tree, with little comfort or care.

I am a Roma woman, and I grew up in a world that sees my fertility as a problem. I exist in a world in which my womb is a threat to the Nation State.

These depictions are almost always mediatedand have far more to do with the imaginary than the real. There is likely no consent, collaboration, or even Roma models. While there were “rumors” that Jacques Callot lived with Gypsies, this narrative is a part of the bohemian, feral fantasy that helped make prints like this commercially viable. And this print, like many of Jacques Callot’s Gypsy prints, were incredibly popular, feeding into and expanding on a European obsession with Gypsies that encompassed their imagined itinerancy, outlandishness, and hyper-reproductivity.

Alicia:

Image: the Frontispiece of Aristotle’s Compleat and Experience’d Midwife (1700)

aristotle_s-compleat-and-experience_d-midwife-1700-the-british-library-2381-01.png

After Sydnee sent me Callot’s print, the image she close-reads above, I returned to my first Synapsis post, my first public foray into the medical humanitiesand its featured image. The piece I wrote is about what giving birth was like “then” vs. “now.”

In the image, a collection of white bodies represent the experience of childbirth.

As in Callot’s print, the woman giving birth is surrounded by other womenbut that is where the similarities end. The woman gives birth in an ornate bed, in a room where even a dog finds comfort. The tree in this image of childbirth is outside, marginal in the sceneits trunk obscured by a window. Only a branch is visible, bending in the wind. You would miss it if you weren’t looking for it.

The image from Aristotle’s Compleat and Experience’d Midwife is widely reproduced in early modern writings about pregnancy and reflected the vision I had in my head, today, of what childbirth might look like if caring for the pregnant person, as opposed to the child, was privileged in obstetrics. The fact that all of the bodies in the image are whiteand that I felt the image reflected better care in general as a white womanis not a coincidence. That images like this one, in which only white bodies are represented, continue to permeate the cultural imagination affects the kind of care women of color receive today. In a conversation about this piece and our images, Sydnee said: “white women’s bodies are the ones reproducing white nations.”

I responded, “and white nationalism.”

She responded, “Yup.”

Sydnee:

Archives: Outlandish Wombs

In Europe, ethno-nationalist movements are using Roma reproductivity as a site of their political grievances. The Hungarian Mi Hazánk manifesto states, “It has to be declared that the integration of Gypsies, as old immigrants, has not been successful and their baby booming threatens the national budget…Limiting childbearing for only subsistence purposes is of key importance to the future of Hungary.”

The United Nations, referring to Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), has defined genocide as not only “killing members” of a “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” but also “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” These measures have historically been a part of Romani oppression, and continue to affect Romani women’s lives in our contemporary moment. Women of color in the US, particularly Black and Indigenous women, have been subjected to similar treatments in hospitals, in prisons, and through state-run Eugenics programs.

But, this ideology is not a distinctly contemporary issue. Stereotypes of Gypsy hyper-reproductivity are commonplace within the early modern archive, not just affecting continental representations of Gypsies, but shaping the literature of English law. English expulsion laws targeting Roma in the 16th and 17th century did not make exceptions for Romani people who were born in England, which would make them citizens under Jus Soli, or “rights of soil,” established in English common law. Concerns, then, of Romani reproductivity were predominantly motivated by creating and maintaining a notion of a white English citizen.

While myths of Romani people “painting” and “dying” their skin brown (stereotypes that attempted to denaturalize brownness) continued to be common place, anxieties about Romani women’s reproduction still prevailed. No matter if this racial difference was seen as an artifice, the fear that these “counterfeit Egyptians” were reproducing became a conflicting narrative against the idea that this contagion spread to white Englishmen. Popular writing on Gypsies in England, like Thomas Dekker’s Lantern and Candlelight (1608), repurposed and rendered Romani bodies as “vermin” (219). Romani people are thus coded as “Egyptian lice swarming,” “Egyptian locusts,” and “Caterpillars of the Commonwealth,” beings that only mass consumed and reproduced monstrously (136, 203, 180).

This concern over Romani women’s rapid reproduction is not only iterated by Thomas Dekker, when he states “these vagabonds have their harlots with a number of little children following at their heels,”  but was also a motif in early modern art (qtd. in Burton and Loomba 170). In Paul Bril’s Fantastic Landscape (1598), a Gypsy woman is portrayed as having a child on her side and an infant carried in a harness around her torso. This imagery is also portrayed through an exoticized lens in Dekker’s writing, stating that the children, or

young brood of beggars, are sometimes carried (like so many green geese alive to a market) in pairs of panieres, or in dossers like fresh-fish from Rye ye comes on horseback, (if they be but infants.) But if they can straddle once, then as well the she-rogues as the he-rogues are horst, seven or eight upon one aide, strongly pinioned, and strangely tied together. (244)

In Bril’s painting, the viewer sees a Gypsy woman with her children, front and center, Paul_Bril_-_Fantastic_Landscape_-_WGA3187while remnants of Roman pillars are shadowed in the margins, representing the civilization that the seemingly-benign Gypsy woman, and her womb, threaten. The Gypsy woman walks towards the forest hinted at through twisting, wild trees in the opposite margins. She, like many other visual representations of Gypsies, is portrayed as being a fixture of the natural landscape, another flora or fauna, yet treated as an invasive species.

These anxieties over the reproductive nature of brown and Black women’s bodies in the early modern period are not focused solely on Romani women. In her book Laboring Women (2004), Jennifer Morgan describes a paradoxical concern over African women’s hyper-reproduction and lack of reproduction during the Atlantic slave trade. Myths of Black women not feeling pain during child labor enabled practices of treating Black women as broodmares for white capital. Rhetoric around Irish women, likewise, featured particular attention to their hyper-reproductivity and contagious breast milk, said to turn English babies Irish. Like many non-white women in the early modern period, including Romani women, this vilification of hyper- and non-normative reproductivity is also paired with imagery of hyper-sexualization by white Europeans.

This early modern preoccupation with Romani women’s rapid reproductivity is a legacy that continues into the present day in detrimental ways. The concerns over the “Gypsy plague” a la both Dekker and “the Brave English Gypsy” ballad was a rhetoric used in the 1938 Nazi decree “combating the Gypsy Plague.” Romani women in the Czech Republic continue to face the threat of forced sterilization in public hospitals. Efforts to combat these genocidal measures have been met with accusations of lying, with the 2006 UN representative of the Czech Republic, Čestmír Sajda, exclaiming that Roma women “exaggerate in all cases,” despite Czech Ombudsman, Otakar Motejl, claiming there was clear racial discrimination when it came to these sterilizations.

Likewise, while we fight for our right to safe, legal abortions and other gynecological procedures, we must remember, as Deirdre Cooper Owens attends to in Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology (2017), that these practices were founded at the expense of enslaved Black women, who were used as test subjects by the “Father of Gynecology,” J. Marion Sims.

Alicia:

Archives: Pruned Gardens

Some women like me, who want childbirth to be a less invasive process, dream of a homebirth like the one portrayed in Aristotle’s Compleat and Experience’d Midwife. I did, at least. I watched The Business of Being Born and listened to Cindy Crawford talk about walking her gardens while she labored. The gardens Crawford describes were likely much like the gardens I saw when I first looked at an early modern map of London. These cultivated, pruned spaces were attached to manors, homes belonging to one family. They were far away from the stench and sewage of the city—away from the stacked tenements where so many people lived. When I saw these maps, I had just begun my foray into archival research, unlike Sydnee. I stared at the tenements; the apartments stacked on top of one another; and wondered how the images I saw within the pages of the bestselling gynecological manuals of the time—the fireplaces, the extravagant beds, the spaces that fit many supportive women—existed within the tenements I was seeing. I realized that the visions of childbirth that I saw reproduced over and over, in manuals and scholarship about them, did not represent the majority of Londoners’ experience with childbirth and pregnancy.

Hollar’s “Bird’s-eye plan of the west central district of London” (1660)

It wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned. In Common Bodies, Laura Gowing cautions historians of pregnancy and childbirth not to romanticize the female alliances, in particular, that shape narratives of home births. Indeed, both images that begin this piece picture a woman surrounded by other women. Gowing demonstrates that often these exchanges and spaces could be as poisonous as the men—and patriarchal institutions—making their way into obstetrics. The bulk of the alliances and betrayals she describes, however, are those among white women. In Common Bodies, race first appears when Gowing quotes Jane Sharp, a 17th century midwife, on the clitoris. As Gowing points out, Sharp regurgitates representations of hyper-sexualized Asian and African women, specifying women in India and Egypt in particular. These women, Sharp argues, have been known to grow clitorises as long as a penis and “some lewd women have endeavoured to use it as men do theirs” (qtd. in Gowing 27). Gowing moves quickly to French medical texts, however, and stories of French chambermaids accused of sodomy, in order to conclude that the “tribadic clitoris became part of the legendary figure of the hermaphrodite and a foundational myth of the lesbian body” (Gowing 28). Gowing also mentions the relationship between blackness and “monstrous” births in the period, musing that, “To fears of miscegenation and the persistence of black blood, the stories of Aristotle’s Masterpiece perhaps presented a reassuring counter-mutt, in which blackness can be imagined in and out of existence” (134). The last mention of race in Gowing’s text, in a larger discussion of childbirth and pain, is as follows:

Already in the sixteenth century easy births without long labors or ceremonial lyings-in were a marker of cultural and social inferiority; hard labour distinguished white women from black, Christians from pagans, and virtuous women from whores. Jane Sharp’s Midwives Book noted, “if any feel but a little pain it is commonly harlots who are so used to it that they make little reckoning of it, and are won’t to fare better at present than virtuous persons do.” (170)

In Common Bodies, Gowing includes the racist tropes that Sydnee describes by citing one particular gynecological manual, written by a white woman. Scholarship on early modern reproductive bodies continues to look largely like this: Race is discussed in five paragraphs or so, reflecting the sudden appearance and appropriation of women of color in the published gynecological manuals—conjured briefly before the author moves swiftly on. Women of color remain marginal in these readings.

As Sydnee’s image, work, and the work of other scholars in our field have shown, however, it is possible to dig deeper and attend to how these racist tropes are inextricable from reproduction in the early modern cultural imaginary. As Kim Hall writes in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice,” early modern fears of miscegenation were tied to the formation of English identity, culture, politics, and economics. In this article, Hall reads an overlooked exchange in the play in which a minor character, Launcelot, has got “the Moor” with child (3.5.28-39). Hall argues, “this pregnant, unheard, unnamed, and unseen (at least by critics) black woman is a silent symbol for the economic and racial politics of The Merchant of Venice” (89).

Seeing and hearing these women of color when it comes to the study of reproduction in the period, let alone in general, is a collective responsibility. To see not only these women but one’s own complicity in centering white, reproductive bodies, is necessary work. While we worked respectively on reproduction in the early modern period prior to this piece, I was looking for early modern images and discussions of pregnancy and childbirth. Sydnee was looking for representations of Gypsies, of “outlandish people.” While Sydnee only missed the Gypsy woman giving birth at first glance—I missed the entire print.  

(After)/Forward:

This piece grew out of personal, political dissent; vines of respective yet intertwined anger. The oppressive structures that inspired this dissent are, however, met with resistance. Womanist and intersectional feminist movements have made substantial efforts to highlight the issues that plague women of color’s reproductive rights, which expand from the violent histories of gynecological experiments and forced sterlization, to ongoing issues of child displacements (in adoption and foster care as well as immigrant detention centers), the alarming rate of Black women’s pregnancy complications, and an overall lack of medical resources.

Responding to anxieties of Roma women’s reproductivity, in particular, queer Roma feminist performance artist Mihaela Drăgan created “the pregnancy rap,” a piece that revels in the fears of Roma citizenship, hyper-reproductivity, and anchor babies. Here, the anchor baby is located as a protective measure, allowing the Roma woman to stay in Germany so that she may thrive. Drugan subverts the notion of hyper-reproductivity, using it as a tool to demolish white supremacist patriarchy, as a way to quite literally “fuck [their] system.”

As well, in Suzan-Lori Park’s In The Blood (1999), audiences and readers alike see a Black woman, Hester, the “welfare queen” of white America’s fears and fantasies, torn apart by the forced sterilization of a hysterectomy forced upon her by the Welfare agent and the Doctor representing a health agency. At the end of the play, Hester exclaims that she wishes she had many more children, a “whole army” of “Bad Bastards” (1.647-8). If the objective is genocide, then the very act of reproduction is a radical act of resistance. But, in Park’s play as in history, Hester’s body was mutilated for the nation, her reproductive organs removed for white well being.

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 3.55.56 PMTo close, then, we turn back to the plants, the trees, that both of the opening images share. What can they tell us about the complexity of reproductive rights when it comes to different kinds of bodies with wombs? In Book 4, Chapter 21 of Mikrokosmographia, “Generation: Of the Matrix or Wombe,” there is a picture of a woman touching her breast, gazing directly at physicians. She is a white woman. To her side, a plant grows askant. Alicia has often used the image of a “rude-growing briar” from Titus Androncicus to conjure queer pregnancy: Roses, in particular, that grow on bushes; are not plucked or cultivated; and are allowed to grow and wind around one another (2.2.199). In many ways, people with wombs endure horrific violence and policing because of the power they have to grow askant, reproducing bodies that cannot be placed. As Holly Dugan points out, damask roses were “valued for their outlandishness…. First bred in Syria” (47). The rose, so often conflated with reproductive bodies, is a foreign import—yet another kind of body “mutilated for the nation,” one introduced to Europe by crusaders and “distilled into a perfume meant to be worn on the [English] body” (Dugan 47).

We have not come so far from what lurks behind the symbolism of the rose as potentially-pregnant body, and must narrow the gap between the two images that began this piece. A brief glance out of the window is not enough; uprooting, distilling, and pruning reproductive bodies in the name of solidarity is just another kind of violence, of appropriation. Another kind of silence.

Works Cited

Aristotle’s Compleat and Experience’d Midwife. London, 1700. EEBO, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.gc.cuny.edu/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:99899554.

Crook, Helkiah, et al. Mikrokosmographia: a Description of the Body of Man, Together with the Controversies and Figures Thereto Belonging. Printed by W. Iaggard Dwelling in Barbican, and Are There to Be Sold, 1616.

Dekker, Thomas. Lantern and Candlelight. Ed. Viviana Comensoli, Barnabe Riche Society Publications, Volume 18, 2007.

Dugan, Holly. Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Gowing, Laura. Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. Yale University Press, 2003.

Hall, Kim F. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice.

Loomba, Ania and Jonathan Burton. Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Owens, Deirdre Cooper. Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. University of Georgia Press, 2017.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. The Red Letter Plays. Theatre Communications Group, 2001.

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. Ed. Jonathan Bate, Bloomsbury P, 1995.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

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