Translating Our Bodies, Ourselves | The Nation


Translating Our Bodies, Ourselves

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About the Author

Linda Gordon
Linda Gordon is professor of history at New York University. She is the author, among other works, of The Great Arizona...

Also by the Author

Richard Sennett is best known in the United States for his 1972 book
(written with Jonathan Cobb), The Hidden Injuries of Class. That
study of white working-class men, how they understoo

A half-century ago T.H. Marshall, British Labour Party social theorist,
offered a progressive, developmental theory for understanding the
history of what we have come to call citizenship. Taking the experience
of Englishmen to define the superior path, he postulated a hierarchy of
citizenships: civil rights, political rights and social rights. The last of these became the
category in which twentieth-century Europeans have understood claims on
the state to health, welfare, education and protection from avoidable
risk. They conceived of these citizenships as stages in an upward climb
toward an ever better democracy.

Marshall's schema looked only at European men. Feminists have pointed
out that women did not achieve citizenship in this order. In fact, women
often won some social rights--for example, protective legislation and
"welfare"--before achieving political ones such as the right to vote.
And women's individual civil rights were often overwhelmed and even
suppressed by legally imposed family obligations and moral sanctions.
(For example, a century ago courts generally interpreted the law of
marriage to mean that women were legally obligated to provide housework,
childcare and sexual services to husbands.) Equally problematic were
Marshall's obliviousness to British imperialism and what it meant for
Third World populations, including the fact that he conceived of the
British as civilizers rather than exploiters, and his apparent ignorance
of the conditions of second-class citizenship for racial/ethnic
subordinates within nation-states. In short, his historical hierarchy
was highly ideological.

But no one has yet done what Alice Kessler-Harris has in her newest
book, In Pursuit of Equity, reaching beyond Marshall and his
critics to suggest a new concept, economic citizenship. In this history
of how women have been treated in employment, tax and welfare policy,
Kessler-Harris--arguably the leading historian of women's labor in the
United States--synthesizes several decades of feminist analysis to
produce a holistic conception of what full citizenship for women might
entail. In lucid prose with vivid (and sometimes comic) illustrations of
the snarled thinking that results from conceiving of women as
dependents--rather than equal in heading families--she offers a vision
of how we can move toward greater democracy. In the process, she also
shows us what we are up against. Her book illustrates brilliantly how
assumptions about appropriate gender roles are built into all aspects of

She aims to resolve what is perhaps the central contradiction for
policy-makers and policy scholars who care about sex equality: the
contradiction between, on the one hand, valuing the unpaid caring work
still overwhelmingly performed by women and, on the other hand, enabling
women to achieve equality in wage labor and political power. Today, for
example, although all feminists oppose the punitive new requirements of
the policy that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children,
repealed in 1996, they are divided about what would constitute the right
kind of welfare system. Some find it appropriate that all adults,
including parents of young children, should be employed, assuming they
can get a living wage and good childcare. Others, often called
maternalists, believe a parent should have the right to choose full-time
parenting for young or particularly needy children. Behind this difference lie two different visions of
sex equality--one that emphasizes equal treatment of the sexes and individual rights
and responsibilities, another that seeks to make unpaid caring labor,
notably for the very young, the old and the ill, as honorable and valued
as waged labor.

Kessler-Harris would resolve this contradiction through a labor-centered
view of citizenship, a notion of economic citizenship based on equity,
or fairness, in the valuation of socially worthy labor. Previously, the
policy proposal closest to this principle of equity was "comparable
worth." Second-wave feminists saw that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had failed to equalize male
and female wages. Because the labor force is so segregated, and female
jobs are so consistently undervalued, equal pay alone cannot produce
justice to women (or men of color). The comparable-worth strategy called
for equal wages for work of comparable expertise and value, even when
the jobs differed. For example, consider the wage gap between truck
drivers and childcare workers. Truck drivers earned much more even than
registered nurses, whose training and responsibility was so much
greater. The women's movement's challenge to inequality in jobs took off
in 1979, when Eleanor Holmes Norton, then head of the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission, called for evaluations of job skills to remedy
women's low wages. But her successor, Clarence Thomas, refused to
consider comparable-worth claims. Although some substantial victories
were achieved in state and union battles--for example, the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) won wage
increases averaging 32 percent and back pay retroactive to 1979 for
Washington State employees, 35,000 of whom shared a $482 million
settlement--the comparable-worth campaigns faded in the 1980s.

But even had the comparable-worth strategy been adopted, it could not
have recognized the hours spent in caring for children, parents,
disabled relatives and friends, not to mention the work of volunteering
in underfunded schools, cooking for homeless shelters, running kids'
basketball teams. Kessler-Harris is arguing for a citizenship that
respects unpaid as well as paid labor.

She has worked out the arguments in this book systematically over many
years. Several years ago, an article of hers with the deceptively simple
title "Where Are All the Organized Women Workers?" enlarged the
understanding of gendered "interests" from an exclusive focus on women
to take in men as well. She demonstrated that so long as men dominate,
aspirations understood and characterized as class interests often
express gender interests equally strongly. She uncovered how unions
often operated as men's clubs, built around forms of male bonding that
excluded women, primarily unconsciously but often consciously, too. In
this new book she extends her analysis of men's gendered interests to
reveal how labor unionists' inability to stop defending the privileges
of masculinity have held back labor's achievements. One vivid example
was unions' opposition to state-funded welfare programs and
health-and-safety regulation, stemming from anxiety that they would
deprive workers of their manly independence. Of course, unionist
resistance to state control over workplace and work-centered programs
also derived from a defense of workers' control. But this vision of
workplace democracy was inextricably masculinist, and workingmen's
understanding of their dignity rested on distinguishing themselves from

In A Woman's Wage, Kessler-Harris showed that both Marxist and
neoclassical economics were mistaken in their joint assumption that the
wage was somehow a consistent, transparent token of the capital/labor
relation. By contrast, wage rates, wage systems, indeed the whole labor
market were constructed by gender interests and ideology as well as by
supply and demand or surplus value or the actual cost of subsistence. A
wonderful example from her new book: The Hawthorne experiments of the
late 1920s have been interpreted to show that women workers were more
tractable than men. In one study, a group of women workers adapted more
cooperatively and quickly to a speedup than did a group of male workers.
In seeking to explain this behavior, investigators examined the women's
home lives and even their menstrual cycles, while paying no particular
attention to the fact that the collective rather than individual wage
structure imposed on them was such that higher productivity could only
increase their total wages, while the men's piece-rate wage structure
offered no such guarantee--in fact, the men had reason to expect that
the piece rate would be lowered if they speeded up. We see here not a
"natural" gendered difference arising informally from culture and
socialization, but female and male workers responding rationally to a
gendered system imposed by employers.

In Pursuit of Equity argues that no one can enjoy civil and
political rights without social and economic citizenship. Marshall's
alleged gradual expansion of civil and political rights not only
excluded many others but actually strengthened women's exclusion from
citizenship. One fundamental premise of democratic capitalism--free
labor--was never fully extended to all women, whose labor was often
coercively regulated, not only by husbands but by the state.
Kessler-Harris shows how free labor developed in tandem with the "family
wage" ideal, that is, that husbands/fathers should earn for the entire
family and that women's destiny was domestic unpaid labor. The correlate
was that men "naturally" sought economic and social independence while
women "naturally" sought dependence. Ironically, most feminists of the
nineteenth century went along with this dichotomy and tried to root
women's citizenship in their essential family services rather than in
the free-labor definition of independence. That is, they argued for
rights on the basis of women's spiritual and material work in unpaid
caretaking labor.

The book demonstrates particularly effectively how the dominant modern
gender system--the family-wage norm--made it difficult for women to
become full citizens. In one closely documented section, Kessler-Harris
exposes the condescending and defensive assumptions of those who drafted
the Old Age Insurance program (which later became Social Security). The
drafters agreed, for example, that the widow of a covered man with young
children should be able to receive three-quarters of his pension until
she remarried or the children reached 18. A widow without children
lacked any rights to her husband's pension. But if this pension was her
husband's by right, as the designers insisted, then why were his heirs
not entitled to all of it as with all other parts of his property? If
the widow remarried, she would not have to give up the bank account or
house or car he had left her--why should she give up a Social Security
pension? One Social Security drafter argued that retaining such an
annuity after remarriage would make widows "a prize for the fellow that
has looked for it," assuming that women are entirely passive in marriage
decisions! The drafters were all convinced that "once a woman was no
longer dependent on the earnings of a particular male (dead or
alive)...his support for her should cease." In other words, his status
as breadwinner should continue even after his death. The drafters
rejected the idea of granting all widows of covered men an equal stipend
or one based on the number of children. It was important for her
benefits to be calibrated to his earnings so as to feed "the illusion
that families deprived of a father or husband would nevertheless
conceive him...as a continuing provider." "Why should you pay the widow
less than the individual himself gets if unmarried?" Because "she can
look after herself better than he can." Imagining women as less capable
of handling money than men, the designers removed the option of a
lump-sum benefit to widows, requiring them, unlike men, to receive
monthly stipends. To avoid "deathbed marriages," they allowed a widow to
collect only if she had been married and living with her husband for at
least a year before he died.

The concern with male status was reflected particularly comically in
discussions about the age at which a wife could start to receive her
share of her husband's benefits. Some argued for an earlier "retirement"
age for women because if both men and women were eligible at 65, this
would mean that men with younger wives--a common phenomenon--might not
get their full pension for a number of years after they retired. But
others argued that since men who married much younger women were more
likely to be those who had married more than once, granting women an
earlier retirement date might reward these men over single-marriage

Several decades ago economist Heidi Hartmann pointed out that patriarchy
was as much a system of power and hierarchy among men as a male-female
relation, and Kessler-Harris confirms that insight. For example, the
entire debate about whether married couples should be able to report
separate incomes for IRS purposes concerned the inequalities this would
create between men with employed wives and men with nonemployed wives.
Fairness to women was not a prominent concern. The fact that employed
women's old-age insurance benefits were restricted according to their
marital status while men's weren't "did not seem like sex discrimination
[to the Social Security designers] but rather like equity to men."

At the core of In Pursuit of Equity is the understanding that
what is "fair" is historically changing. The problem we face today is
not that men deliberately built policies to subordinate women but that
when our basic economic policies were established, men and women alike
tended to see male breadwinning and female domesticity as "fair." That
standard is far, far from reality today. One result is a double standard
in which supposedly ideal family life, requiring a full-time mother, is
a privilege of wives of high-earning husbands.

In the United States, the resultant damage is worse than in Europe,
because here many fundamental aspects of citizenship flow from the labor
market. "Independence" today is generally defined as earning one's
living through wages, despite the fact that the resulting dependence on
employers leaves workers as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than
dependence on government stipends. Social rights vital for survival,
such as medical insurance, retirement pensions and workers'
compensation, typically derive from employment in this country, in
contrast to most developed countries, which provide such help as a
matter of right to all citizens or residents. This is one way in which
American wage workers, as Kessler-Harris says, were "in a different
relationship to the constitution than those who did care-giving work."
As a result the development of democratic capitalism, even the growth of
working-class power in some ways failed to strengthen women's economic
citizenship, even weakened it. Indeed, she shows how victories against
sex discrimination in the labor force in the 1960s inadvertently
confirmed the assumption that all women could and should work for wages,
thereby contributing to the repeal of welfare without creating the
conditions that would make it possible for poor women to support
themselves through employment.

This gendered citizenship became more visible and more obnoxious to
women as wage-earning became the female norm and as "alternative
families" gained political clout. For example, if every individual was
entitled to an old-age pension and unemployment compensation, we
wouldn't have to struggle about the inheritance rights of gay partners
or stay-at-home parents' need for support. Even today, banning sex
discrimination is difficult because it is difficult to get agreement on
what constitutes discrimination. In a few cases division among feminists
has held back the struggle. Kessler-Harris ends the book with a brief
reprise of EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., a 1980s marker of
this division and a case in which she herself played a significant role.
Sears admitted that very few women held any of its well-paying
commission sales jobs but argued that women were not interested in these
jobs because the positions were competitive, pressured, demanding.
Another historian of women testified for Sears against the women
plaintiffs, using her expertise to argue that women's primary attachment
to unpaid domestic labor led them to want only jobs which did not
conflict with it. Her arguments illustrated vividly the continuing
influence of this emphasis on male/female difference, not necessarily as
"natural" or essential but nevertheless beyond the appropriate scope of
legal remedy. Sears won the case.

There is one pervasive absence in Kessler-Harris's book--race--and the
omission weakens the argument substantially. Her understanding of how
the family-wage ideal works would have to be substantially complicated
if she made African-American women more central, for they were rarely
able to adopt a male breadwinner/female housewife family model and often
rejected it, developing a culture that expects and honors women's
employment more than white culture. Mexican-American women's experience
did not fit the family-wage model either, despite their reputation as
traditional, because so many have participated in agricultural and
domestic wage labor throughout their lives in the United States. Equally
problematic to the argument, prosperous white women who accepted the
family-wage model often didn't do unpaid domestic labor because they
hired poor immigrants and women of color to do it for low wages. These
different histories must affect how we envisage a policy that recognizes
labor outside the wage system, and they need to be explored.

One aspect of Kessler-Harris's economic citizenship concept is being
expressed today by progressive feminists trying to influence the
reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the
program for poor children and their parents that succeeded AFDC. We are
pushing a House bill that would recognize college education and
childcare as work under the new welfare work requirements. This book is
a sustained argument for that kind of approach and should help it become
part of the policy discussion. It probably won't win. Some will call it
unrealistic. But today's policies are already wildly unrealistic, if
realism has anything to do with actual life. If we don't begin now to
outline the programs that could actually create full citizenship for
women, we will never get there.

The progressive social movements of the last half-century produced millions of pages of print, from manifestos to journalism to novels, but nothing as influential as Our Bodies, Ourselves. The feminist women's health manual is the American left's most valuable written contribution to the world. This claim is meant to be provocative, of course, but it's true. The publication of an excellent book about the book, Kathy Davis's The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders, makes this a good time to examine its impact.

Our Bodies, Ourselves spoke for a women's health movement that transformed American medicine and popular health-and-sexuality culture. In the 1960s, physicians commonly addressed female patients as if they could not understand medical diagnoses and sometimes withheld information about their illnesses; unmarried women could not legally get birth control; women who sought sterilization had to qualify under an arbitrary formula (number of children x patient's age = >120), while poor and minority women were sometimes sterilized without their knowledge, let alone consent; women were routinely excluded from clinical trials of important drugs; women discussed breast cancer in whispers with a sense of shame. A nationwide hypocrisy pretended that sex fit only in marriage; most gays and lesbians had to dissemble when seeking healthcare; Americans mostly believed that whole milk, red meat and cheese were fundamental to a healthy diet.

Starting from this landscape, the achievements of the American women's health movement are impressive: prohibiting coercive sterilizations, opening public discussion of breast cancer, regaining women's control over childbirth, requiring physicians' honesty toward patients, radically increasing the number of female doctors and women's health centers, impelling sex manuals to discuss women's sexual pleasure as well as men's and maintaining--barely, against unremitting attack--the right to reproductive choice. But few understand these victories as the hard-fought products of a social movement.

The original book, published in 1970 on newsprint for 75 cents, sold 250,000 copies without a commercial distributor. The radical content of the book would have been inconceivable without the civil rights/new left/feminist context. It included a left-wing critique of medicine in a corporate economy; detailed line drawings of genitalia, complete with pubic hair and the variety of hymens different women might have; a discussion of sex that presented heterosexuality, lesbianism, masturbation and celibacy as equally healthy; a section on abortion that told the reader where to go to get one, illegally in Massachusetts or legally abroad, and estimated the costs of these options--this was not your standard left-wing political pamphlet.

Even less well-known is that for more than thirty years Our Bodies, Ourselves supported and energized women activists throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. These women's movements--antiwar, anti-fundamentalist, anti-neoliberalism, pro-human rights--are often the most progressive forces in the field. Worldwide, the book has sold well over 4 million copies (its various versions, some of them unauthorized, and its multiple distributing channels make it impossible to get an exact count) in more than twenty languages from Swedish to Albanian to Korean, not counting Braille and audio versions, with several more translations in progress. The profits, along with much other fundraising, support education, advocacy and new translations. (Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel helped support the Russian translation.) In other words, the book has had marathon legs. Its global impact comes not mainly from the information it offers but, as feminist scholar Kathy Davis argues, from its radical method: a democratic politics of knowledge and expertise.

The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which produced the first Our Bodies, Ourselves (titled Women and Their Bodies), emerged from consciousness raising, the potent organizational tool invented by the women's liberation movement. CR groups, when they worked well, did not aim at therapy or support (although support was an important byproduct) but examined how gender and women's subordination were reproduced and maintained. These small groups created a free space in which women gained the confidence to challenge dictates on the nature of woman by religious leaders, lawmakers and physicians. Consciousness-raising operated on the premise that women could challenge even their own assumptions, exploring alternative explanations of, say, why women cleaned and cared for children, and men so often merely "helped." Through the analysis of shared experience, CR groups developed oppositional interpretations of women's and men's "nature," today called gender. Our Bodies, Ourselves continued that process with a focus on health.

If Our Bodies, Ourselves had retained its original authorship, the homogeneity of the original Boston-based CR group--in class, race and nationality--would have limited its appeal. The group's concern with women's concrete experience led them to gather many personal reports, so the book's sources grew increasingly varied. As activists in other countries discovered the book, they asked for versions in their own languages. As Davis recounts in her history of the book's global expansion, the original authors soon came to understand how saturated their book was with the perspective of educated, middle-class, white American women. In fact, the group's initial chutzpah in challenging medical authority was partly a product of these women's privilege. As their global sophistication increased, the Boston group came to a new understanding of what "translation" requires: Words, sentences, images and anecdotes have different meanings in different contexts. What was oppositional and radical for the Boston authors, such as challenging mainstream medicine, made no sense to women who lacked access to medical care.

The authors realized that you could not just hire a translator, or allow publishers in other countries to hire translators. The non-English versions of Our Bodies, Ourselves were adaptations, and they could emerge only from protracted discussion. The authors work closely with "translators," discussing how to present controversial material and providing help with publishing arrangements, information resources, graphics, fundraising and connections with activists worldwide.

We should not imagine that in these global discussions US feminists were necessarily more "advanced." In some cultures--and not just European ones--women were accustomed to speaking of sex more frankly than Americans. (Bawdy jokes among women are common, for example, in many conservative Muslim cultures.) Germans thought the book was too focused on motherhood; several Third World women's groups thought Americans did not grasp the global economy of health.

Kathy Davis watched closely as a group of health activists from throughout Latin America created a 2000 translation, Nuestros Cuerpos, Nuestras Vidas. New experiential accounts and illustrations to reflect Latinas' lives were just the beginning. The "translators" wanted more poetic language, not only for literary reasons but because of the oral traditions of many who would hear but not read the book. One of the most sex-radical images in the book, a woman alone on a bed looking at her vagina and cervix in a mirror, would have made no sense to them, because it assumed the book would be read by an individual in private. The Latinas wanted to reach women who could never buy the book and never had a private room; they oriented their book for group educational meetings. Furthermore, they disliked the self-help emphasis of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which they associated with the individualist, private solutions emphasized by Americans. They banished the words auto ayuda and used ayuda mutual.

The American book began with a discussion of body image and the yearning for a perfect, sexualized body--pressures the Latinas blamed on a commercialized, wealthy and individualistic culture. Distress about body image was not a major concern in Latin America. Their first chapter, instead, was "Perspectiva Internacional," which discussed issues the Americans had put at the end of the book: the problems of poor women deprived of resources yet responsible for family maintenance, problems created by neocolonialism and global corporate power. A chart reports educational levels, contraceptive use, maternal mortality (8 per 100,000 in the United States, 650 per 100,000 in Bolivia) and other social indicators across the Americas. Yet, the first sentence in this chapter reads, "Como feministas, sentimos un vínculo entrañable con todas las mujeres" ("As feminists, we feel a close bond with all women")--a strong assertion of common interests.

They also added material. Before their critique of modern scientific medicine they discussed traditional healing practices, distinguishing them from an "Anglo, New Age approach." They used Mexican religious retablos, for example, to honor healers of the past and the foremothers of the "translators." They discussed women's activism on issues other than health, such as that of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. The American book mentioned religion only in its discussion of antiabortion activism; the Latinas wrote a fuller and more complex discussion of Catholicism. They believed its sanctity-of-life values could be transformed from a screen for forcing motherhood and subordination on women into the imperative to protect the lives of children already born, of women, of communities.

Our Bodies, Ourselves is no longer a bestseller, and many young American women have not heard of it. Many think they no longer need it because much of its information has become mainstream. But health messages these days typically come from corporations, selling goods and services as commodities, often with reckless claims. Though it faces different challenges, an oppositional health movement is no less needed today than in 1970.

Meanwhile, the terrain has shifted, and much of the leadership of the women's health movement--and of progressive women's activism generally--comes from the global South, where Our Bodies, Ourselves has become part of a transnational women's health movement. Active in the anticolonial movements of the mid-twentieth century, women soon saw that national independence by no means guaranteed democracy or public welfare, let alone their emancipation. Some women's health activism developed from the need to resist negative developments: in a vivid illustration of the diversity of local conditions, Indian women opposed a coercive population-control policy, while Filipinas opposed suppression of abortion and contraception. A 1977 International Conference on Women and Health jump-started an international women's health movement. Ten international women-and-health meetings have convened at regular intervals, mainly in global South countries. At these, along with the meetings of NGOs accompanying the UN-sponsored gatherings at Nairobi (1985), Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995), activists shared problems, created ever denser global connections and spread the movement. Regional coalitions supplement national groups in most parts of the world.

For too long, many of the big foundations and aid agencies--and many feminists in the global North--assumed that reproduction control was the highest health priority for poor countries. The international women's health movement works to educate them otherwise, communicating not only grassroots needs but also a global structural analysis of the problems women face. Throughout Africa and parts of Asia, clean water is a top priority, and achieving it means resisting the rapidly encroaching privatization of water. Women want action against pollution, environmental destruction and exposure to toxics in manufacturing and agriculture. Agencies have begun to learn from women's health movements that violence against women and women's poverty are major contributors to HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately, this activism is largely defensive, in the face of fundamentalist repression and IMF/World Bank "structural adjustment" policies requiring cuts in social, education and health spending. Health indicators are worsening in many parts of the global South and in former communist countries. Women face pharmaceutical companies' attempts to block generic drugs, privatization and "user fees" for healthcare and education, US bans on foreign aid to effective reproductive and sexual health programs, high levels of violence against women and attempts to impose reactionary religious family law.

Still, world health would be worse without the activism of the international women's health movement. By the mid-1990s, that movement was largely responsible for forcing the World Bank to backtrack somewhat, urging governments to provide at least rudimentary healthcare and treatment for infectious diseases. The new People's Health Movement (phmovement.org) has put women's health issues at the forefront of its campaigns. But compared with the size of the problem--to use a single example, one in 7,300 women in developed countries die during pregnancy or childbirth; in Africa, one in twenty-six--progress has been poor.

As the feminist slogan goes, "Women deliver." In other words, when women control resources, the social gain is greater than when men control resources. Improving health for the poor is as likely to produce progressive change as any other strategy, because health activism these days requires challenging the world's most powerful and destructive forces. Matters of the body are politically fundamental. If Our Bodies, Ourselves contributed even in a small way to activating women globally, American feminists can feel proud.

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