Nature and the Female Body   3 comments

The Minnesota midwifery debate Mary M. Lay chronicles illustrates Western confusion in visioning the female body. Direct-entry midwives, schooled in experiential methods, view a woman’s body as natural and well-suited to manage the job for which nature has prepared it, namely, giving birth. This perspective returns the understanding of her body back to the individual, acknowledging that a woman can know and trust her own body and its messages. The professional medical discourse, in contrast, evinces the medicalization of “natural” processes like birth and dying. By negotiating a perspective of pathology, physicians gain the upper hand in knowing a woman’s body better than she herself can (Lay 5).

If midwives seek autonomy, they (like the women whose bodies they tend) must discursively create themselves outside of the dominant discourse (Lay 31). Resolution in a situation such as the Minnesota meetings would necessarily define direct-entry midwives by the standards of either the state or medical community; once inside the system, midwives would be subject to the institutional prerogatives of those in power (24, 27). Their knowledge most likely would be less valued and potentially lost over time. “How different our knowledge might have been” observes Londa Schiebinger, noting the loss of indigenous women’s medical lore during the age of exploration (206); a similar lament may be made years from now if direct-entry midwives’ knowledge, such as “using comfrey root and shepherd’s purse to control postpartum hemorrhage” (Lay 133) is similarly erased by institutional ways of knowing.

The view of the female body as a mystery to those who inhabit it, open only to properly-trained clinicians, is an idea made fact by long-standing enculturation. Lay observes that state legal agencies “struggle with what is ‘medical’ and what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ about birthing procedures” (11), a debate in itself revealing the distance between the social awareness of the body and an individual’s personal physical experience. Theories of the body’s social construction, as Lay points out, can be traced through the history of “medical and other knowledge systems,” ideologies which mapped the body through paradigms of “the four humors” in one period and machinic constructions in another (22). Contemporary understandings add computational language: N. Katherine Hayles notes that “Much of the discourse on molecular biology treats information as the essential code the body expresses” (2).

These contests over conceptualization of the body transcend medicine, and can be traced to the mind/body split of Cartesian philosophy. The body unites humans with the organic world; it is the concrete proof of our animality. Through this lens, the body must always be viewed as in need of improvement, if not repair, and the female body, through its generative function, as even closer to nature and more in need of control or repair.

Lay demonstrates that the “suspicion of technological intervention” shared by direct-entry midwives (136) is heir to a long history. Carolyn Merchant, exploring a similar theme, links the seventeenth-century struggle between midwives and physicians to a larger social evolution in which an organic understanding of natural processes was replaced by a mechanistic ideology. According to Merchant, midwives (along with witches) became symbols of a changing worldview in which Nature was portrayed as a source of raw materials rather than a nurturing mother, and in which “the spheres of production and reproduction” were redefined as masculine domains (151). The new machine age demanded technological solutions for newly recognized problems such as birthing; midwives, as Merchant notes, “symbolized female incompetence in her own natural sphere, reproduction, correctable through a technology invented and controlled by men—the forceps” (155).

For me, the observations of Lay and Merchant overlap to reiterate the separation our species defines between humans and the rest of nature. Inasmuch as the direct-entry midwives seek to hold onto a more naturalistic methodology, they challenge the mechanistic interpretation of the human body (Lay 134). One question which remains with me after reading Lay (and which we touched on last week) is how does the fragmentation of the body (24) relate to our understanding of embodiment, and is it necessarily gender-specific or more a product of medicalization?

Works Cited:

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Print.

Lay, Mary M. The Rhetoric of Midwifery: Gender, Knowledge, and Power. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2000. Print.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Print.

Schiebinger, Londa. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP. 2004. Print.

Posted September 13, 2010 by MGalbreath in Uncategorized

3 responses to “Nature and the Female Body

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  1. Well said, Marcy! I want to add that when you mention “enculturation” that Lay also asserts that this enculturation/indoctrination seems to be what is used to determine the legitimacy of knowledge claims, which is troubling considering the challenge of questioning indoctrinated thinking whether it is sensible or not!

  2. Marcy:

    Your post, particularly the comment: “The Minnesota midwifery debate Mary M. Lay chronicles illustrates Western confusion in visioning the female body. Direct-entry midwives, schooled in experiential methods, view a woman’s body as natural and well-suited to manage the job for which nature has prepared it, namely, giving birth,” reminded me of our discussion last week about medicalization. Our society has medicalized not just pregnancy, but the female body altogether.

    By turning the female body and its functions–menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, menopause–into medical conditions too complex for the layperson to understand, the medical establishment does as Lay states on page 22 in chapter 2, “This social and discursive formation of the body creates a picture of the normal body that may view women’s bodies as less capable than men’s and that may negate women’s varied experiences.”


  3. To respond to your question, I think it’s both.

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