A History of Women's Bodies

By Rose Weitz, Dec. 2000

Throughout history, ideas about women's bodies have been used to reinforce and, occasionally, to challenge women's social position.

Circa 1800 B.C.The Code of Hammurabi-the earliest recorded legal system in the western world-defines women's bodies as men's property and defines rape as a property crime. Under this Code, convicted rapists must pay fines for "damaged goods" to the raped woman's husband or father (if she is unmarried).
4th century B.C.The Greek philosopher Aristotle contends that embryos become female only if they have insufficient "heat" to become fully human. Thus all females are "misbegotten men" and "monstrosities." Other Greek scholars extend these ideas, declaring that lack of heat makes women smaller, frailer, less intelligent, emotionally weak, morally suspect, and, as a result, a danger to men.
Early Christian eraLike the Greeks who precede them, early Christian philosophers conclude that women's presumed moral weaknesses endanger any men who come under their spell. For centuries thereafter, Christian theologians argue that Eve succumbed to the snake's tempting and caused the fall from divine grace because women's nature makes them inherently more susceptible to sexual desire and other passions of the flesh, blinding them to reason and morality and making them a constant danger to men's souls.
14th to 18th centuriesThe Christian belief that women are less intelligent than men, more driven by sexual passions, and hence more susceptible to the Devil's blandishments undergirds the killings of tens of thousands of innocent women accused of witchcraft in Europe and America.
17th centurySlavery takes root in colonial North America. Both the law and scientists regard African-American women (and men) as less-than-human property. As a result, the rape of African-American women slaves by their white masters becomes an accepted (if rarely discussed) practice, justified by ideologies that absolve white rapists of guilt by declaring African-American women animalistically over-sexed temptresses. This racist belief continues to be used as a justification by white rapists throughout the twentieth century.
1769English legal theorist, Sir William Blackstone, publishes his encyclopedic codification of existing English law. According to Blackstone, women experience "civil death" in marriage, and their husbands gain total rights and responsibilities over their wives' bodies and lives. Consequently, husbands have the legal right to beat or rape their wives-a right that will survive for more than two centuries.
1776The new United States of America adopts Blackstone's principles as the basis of its legal code. White women and free African-American continue to be treated under the law as if they are property, while African-American slave women (and men) are property.
1872Reflecting contemporary ideas about women's inherent weakness, Charles Darwin, in his groundbreaking book On the Origin of the Species, argues, as part of his theory of evolution, that only the fittest males succeed in gaining sexual access to females and reproducing. As a result, males continually evolve toward greater "perfection." Females, on the other hand, need not compete for males. As a result, they have limited sex drive and, more importantly, can never evolve fully. In addition, Darwin argues, the stress of reproduction deprives women of the energy needed for either physical or mental development. As a result, women remain subject to their emotions and passions: nurturing, altruistic, and child-like, but with little sense of either justice or morality. These ideas underlie social acceptance of "romantic friendships"--intense, passionate, sometimes life-long, relationships between women who are presumed to be heterosexual.
Late 19th to early 20th centuryBeliefs about women's physical and emotional frailty are widely used as justifications for restricting women's rights to vote, get an education, or hold professional jobs. Many educators argue that higher education will make women frigid, drain them of their beauty and health, and prevent their pelvises from developing fully, causing women to suffer or even die in childbirth. To "treat" women who become rebellious or depressed due to their constricted roles, doctors surgically remove their ovaries, uteruses, and clitorises in highly dangerous operations. Meanwhile, the same scientific "experts" who lament the frailty of middle- and upper-class white women proclaim the robustness of the poorer women - both white and non-white - who must perform hard manual labor in fields, factories, and households.
1908The U.S. Supreme Court, in Muller v. Oregon, upholds protective labor laws that set maximum working hours and mandate rest periods for women. Although designed to benefit women, these rules further reinforce the notion of female frailty, extending that notion to poor women.
1920s-1930sAs growing numbers of women receive higher educations and obtain jobs that allow them to survive economically without marrying, those who remain single and continue in "romantic friendships" become stigmatized as lesbians.
1950s to 1980sDisdain for and fear of female reproductive organs among doctors (most of whom are male) continues in the twentieth century, and results in an epidemic of unnecessary episiotomies, cesarean sections, hysterectomies, and radical mastectomies. These numbers begin to taper off in the 1990s, but remain far higher than those recommended by medical scholars or the World Health Organization.
1960s to 1970sThe "Second Wave" of feminism begins. Feminists argue that women and men are morally, physically, and intellectually equal, and that the differences between men and women are less important than the similarities. In later years, some will argue that women's ability to create human life has made them innately superior to men--more pacifistic, loving, moral, creative, and ecologically inclined. In addition, some feminists will begin arguing that lesbianism-women loving other women - is at least as "natural" as heterosexuality.
1962In Self v. Self, a U.S. court for the first time rules that men do not have a right to beat their wives. However, women continue to face difficulties in getting police and courts to protect them from spousal abuse, although some communities have made great strides.
1973A coalition of feminists, lawyers, and doctors succeed, in Roe v. Wade, in winning the right to abortion for American women and giving women the right to control their own bodies. This decision immediately sparks an anti-abortion movement.
1970s to presentIn response to women's new rights, a backlash emerges that uses ideas about women's bodies to reassert control over women's lives. Women are now expected to be not only painfully thin, but muscular and buxom--qualities that only can occur together if women spend time, money, and emotional energy on cosmetic surgery, exercise, and diet. Meanwhile, doctors argue that women cannot be trusted to behave rationally either because of PMS (if premenopausal) or hormone deficiencies (if postmenopausal). And the anti-abortion movement continues to press-often successfully-for legal restrictions on abortion, arguing not only that abortion is murder but also that women are too emotionally and physically frail to make their own decisions about abortion or to retain their health following abortions.
1980sU.S. courts begin ruling that men do not have a right to rape their wives. However, between 10 and 14% of women continue to experience marital rape, which is rarely prosecuted.
1980s to presentThe concept of "fetal rights" emerges, which declares that the fetus has rights that supercedes its mother's and that therefore the mother can be treated as a "fetal container." As a result, women are arrested if they use drugs during pregnancy (even if they have been denied treatment for addiction), forced to have cesarean sections against their will if doctors declare it best, and refused jobs by employers who prefer to have no women workers rather than to make working conditions safe for all workers.

Feminists continue to fight against the idea that women's minds and bodies are inferior to men's and for the right of women to control their own bodies.

See our Action Alerts page for how you can take action today to protect women's bodies, health, and reproductive freedom.

Source: From The Politics of Women's Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, a collection of articles by scholars and essayists edited by Rose Weitz and published by Oxford University Press.

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Rose Weitz received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is a Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Arizona State University. Her teaching and research interests center on gender and health. She is author of many research articles, co-author of Labor Pains: Modern Midwives and Home Birth (Yale University Press), and author of the books Life with AIDS (Rutgers University Press), The Sociology of Health, Illness, and Health Care: A Critical Approach (Wadsworth Publishing), and The Politics of Women's Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior (Oxford University Press).

"Women are the gatekeepers of life. We have not just the right, but the responsibility, to decide whether and when to bring new life into the world through our bodies."

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