Birth Happens: The relevance of midwifery to the feminist cause

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In Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s film “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives,” Ina May, in one of her more powerful monologues, describes the scene of giving birth from the point of view of the midwives and the other women in the room. She claims that in the presence of such an amazing natural act, the act of giving birth, one cannot help but fall in love with the woman doing so. I feel I must agree: Truly, something magical is going on here, something we have long forgotten to cherish. Too long we have been shoving the glorious, natural act of giving birth into the back of our consciences, whether from fear of the unknown, or from the comfort of confinement to patriarchal societal “norms” that have kept women in a vice lock, arguably since antiquity. However, in this brand new documentary, the viewer is given a fresh perspective into what it means to give birth in a more natural setting, surrounded by love and experienced women, rather than impersonal doctors and beeping machines. This modern revisitation back towards midwifery, one of the oldest professions of human kind, is therefore evidence that women are reclaiming the power they naturally have and emit, in the aiding of and the giving of life.

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It is easy to forget that women have been giving birth without the help of real doctors, or even sterilization, for thousands of years. The rise of caesarian sections and induced births, rather than following the natural birth processes, have only added to the enigma and fear that birth seems to conjugate in contemporary minds, both male and female alike. Upon watching this documentary, for example, I was at first appalled; not because I think babies or vaginas are gross, but because it is rare to be truly exposed to the full on birthing process. Once I was able to get over the initial “ew” factor, I realized what I was watching was actually quite remarkable – a celebration of the power of a woman’s body, and what it is capable of. Because the actual birth can get a little messy, we have somehow deemed the whole process as “unclean” when really it is a feat to be celebrated. Our bodies, as women, were made for this, biologically speaking at least. It is only scary because our culture has shut the whole “unclean” part of it out. Pregnant might be “in” in Hollywood, only until the celeb moms enter a hospital. That whole unclean part (the actual birth!), which Ina May would argue is the most important part, is forgotten and shut away, until it has produced a beautiful little celebrity baby and a flushed and tired mom; that part we like.

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The sexual and absolute power of the woman giving birth, empowered by the steady women surrounding her, loving her, encouraging her, is the vision of Ina May, based off of the age-old profession of midwifery, and thus centuries and millennia of knowledge passed down. That is why it is so important to not let such a profession, and thus its knowledge and wisdom, slip away. Although we cannot say for sure that this is exactly how the midwives of antiquity went about the birth, through the film at least we can get a good grasp of just how empowering, and therefore important, this profession is. Women had little to no rights in Greco-Roman antiquity, and the only writings we have to go on for the birthing processes were written by men. However, even just by watching the scenes of the midwives with the woman giving birth, it is possible to feel the love and the beautiful, inspirational power that these women have together in that one room, during that special time. I can only imagine how it must be in real life, if I felt so inspired just by watching it on a screen in a classroom, and it is because of this that I feel so strongly about the application of cross-cultural comparison. Through time and space, women give birth the same way, and midwives have risen to help them through. It is so important not to forget that we, as women, were biologically made to give life; thus it is not surprising to see that we are at our climax of ecstasy and power when doing so. Rather than reject what we are told is “unclean,” we should rejoice in the strength and enduring naturalness of our sex, and our bodies.

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Girl on Girl – And Not the Good Kind

Though my presentation this week centered more on the rape of Philomela and the aggression of men against women, I’d like to focus my blog post on another aspect of violence against women: woman-on-woman aggression. Although much of the literature of antiquity focuses on men-on-woman aggression, such as rape, there are also many tales of the opposite. These myths, such as the myth of Arachne, act supposedly as cautionary tales to women, a warning to not act too proud, or too beautiful or desirable, lest a goddess may act revenge on them. The theme of the “jealous goddess” I would argue is a subtle undertone for the anxieties of men we spoke of this week in class, such as men’s anxiety over women’s power through sexuality, or communication. Because these stories were written by men, we can infer these to be tales whose purpose is to “frighten” women into their place, or face the wrath of the gods.

Interestingly enough, these mortal women who “challenge” the gods sometimes do no such thing. Although Arachne purposefully stands up to Minerva, others, such as Io, are merely going along their own business, and happen to attract the attention of a powerful male god, such as Zeus, who inadvertently falls in love with them. These mortal women are then punished for merely for being desirable to other male gods; the women’s desirability and beauty are described as the women’s fault. The female goddesses punish the women, such as the jealous Hera turns Io into a cow, rather than confronting fully their adulterous husbands. Thus these mortal women are thus arguably doubly punished: first by being the object of affection, which leads them to being “seduced” (raped?), to then being victims of the curse of transformation by the female goddesses their rape transgressed. In other words, the female goddesses feel themselves to be transgressed, or violated, by this ambiguous mortal woman who is blamed for leading their husbands astray, into committing adultery against the powerful goddesses. So the goddesses lash back out at these women, and violate them in retaliation, using their powers to curse and transform them into ugly creatures, and silencing them altogether, thus solving the problem of their potentially threatening beauty and power all at once.

The cycle of woman-woman aggression and violation-retaliation is therefore also an interesting aspect of violence against women in the literature of antiquity. For it seems not only do the men violate the women; quite often, the women are guilty of a sort of violation themselves, in transforming or cursing these women so that they are no longer objects of affection for their straying husbands. The solution is always to punish the woman for being desirable, rather than the man for straying, which I believe still permeates contemporary culture. Girls’ bullying of other girls in grade school, for example, could arguably be traced to the same themes as the myths of antiquity; how much attention one girl receives from a boy, and whether that threatens another girl he is with, is a common cause of female aggression. Women are biologically competitive in their own way, though we are more used to hearing about male-male aggression.

It is an interesting thing to keep in mind as a feminist, and as a woman, that as women, we need to stand up for one another, rather than to attack, violate, and assume the worst. For the women in these myths, such as Minerva and Hera, are no better than their male rapist counterparts.

Resource Post 16: Reclaiming Depictions of Violence

“What secret darknesses human hearts hide!”

– Ovid’s Metamorphoses VI

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So much of the written history and lore of antiquity contains violence and sex, or violence through sexual violation, that it is hard not to question the roots of such unspeakable cruelty. The written myths and stories that survive to this day have created a large debate as to the significance of such violence, especially towards women, that persisted through the cultures of antiquity, and the poets that recorded it thus. Modern feminists have also since begun to question what substance we can get out of such seemingly demeaning stories, and conclude that the best way to honor such violated and silenced women through history is to honor them by speaking out, metaphorically rather than physically, through art and the art of literature and academics.

Political Implications of Rape: The Paradoxical “Raped Virgin”

As with the tales of the rape of Philomela and the Vestal Virgins, chastity was considered sacred in Greco-Roman culture, and women were often metaphorically used in comparison to sacred cities, and cities were often feminized (i.e. Roma). Both women and cities in such stories as the rape of Philomena are controlled and/or threatened by the same men, be they father, husband, or barbarian. Chaste women are often used as an exchange of currency, and therefore are depicted as the “cure” for violence, or the “cause,” depending on if they are married off to save the city from conflict (cure), or are raped, and therefore the cause of transgression. (Joplin 269). Thus chastity is crucial and sacred as a metaphorical bargaining chip for the pure city (Athens or Rome) they represent. However, as clarified by P.K. Joplin:

But female chastity is not sacred out of respect for the woman as a person; rather, it is sacred out of respect for violence. Because her sexual body is the ground of the culture’s system of differences, the woman’s hymen is also the ground of contention. The virgin’s hymen must not be ruptured except in some manner that reflects and ensures the health of the existing political hierarchy. (267)

From the arbitrary power of the males of the rape stories, and the male poets that wrote them, we can derive a definitive anxiety of what fifth-century Athenian Greeks feared most: a barbarian invasion represented metaphorically by the rape/transgression of a young and beautiful woman (Joplin 269). In the story of Philomena, Tereus is indeed a barbarian, so the rape is somewhat justified by the author, and represents a barbarian transgression into Greek “territory,” in this case, a woman.

Rape is also used politically in stories such as the tale of Lucretia and the rape of the Sabines in order to justify/catalize political upheavals or outright war. “Political anxieties that fuel the myth [of Philomela and Tereus] are transformed into erotic conflicts,” (Joplin 265). Again, we have the violation of an important woman, representing the transgression of Greek territory by Other, but she is only important in the story because she is raped. Her chastity only serves the purpose of being so, so that it is that much worse when she is violated, and represents a more ideological transgression of Athenian/Roman identity, than the emotional/physical state of the woman herself after having just been raped.

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Rape/Violence and Cultural Constructions of Identity

In the myth of Philomela the fact that both acts are performed by the same man, Tereus, and that both daughters are taken from the same man, Pandion, suggests that the difference between the generative rite (marriage) and the dangerous transgression (rape) is collapsing within the Greek imagination.” (Joplin 269)

Identity appears to be alarmingly put at stake in the myth of Philomela, as the two cardinal rules of the Rule of Exogamy (marrying outside one’s own social group), adultery and incest, are clearly broken. Tereus, upon setting eyes upon Philomela for the first time, wishes to be her father so he can fondle her. Then, with the rape, Tereus becomes an adulterer as well. These may only be slightly acceptable in light of the fact that Tereus is an outsider, a barbarian.

Philomela, however, also has a radical breakdown in terms of her identity:

Were my father’s orders

Nothing to you, his tears, my sister’s love

My own virginity, the bonds of marriage:

Now it is all confused, mixed up; I am

My sister’s rival, a second-class wife, and you,

For better and worse, the husband of two women,

Procne my enemy now, at least she should be. (533-39)

Philomela has experienced rape and that is also incest, as she is now her sister’s “rival and monstrous double” (Joplin 270). She is also a “second-class wife” in the sense that her chastity and purity have been violated, and she will never be worth a good marriage, on top of being her sister’s double. Thus she does not even view herself as Philomela anymore in this sense; her identity has been reduced to practically worthless in terms of her culture’s constructions of worth and identity. As Joplin puts it, “If marriage uses the woman’s body as good money and unequivocal speech, rape transforms her into a counterfeit coin, a contradictory word that threatens the whole system,” (270).

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Women’s Silenced Language Through Art (“Voice of the Shuttle”)

P.K. Joplin, author of the article “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours,” argues that women, through literature from antiquities on, have been forced into silence; that such stories and myths have set the example to mute and mutilate women into submission. According to Joplin, “all posit an original moment in which an act of violence (the transgression of a boundary, the violation of a taboo) explains how difference became hierarchy, why women were forbidden to speak,” (262). From Freud’s castration complex of women, to feminists such as Virginia Woolf’s rejection of this complex through her metaphoric story of the mutilated Manx cat, Joplin argues that this “metaphor for muteness” permeates literature as a threatening violence toward women, and has since silenced us (262). While it has been explained above that men have obvious sexual and political anxieties, Joplin describes a “sexual anxiety” in women as well, as a result of this archetypal, violent mutilation of women’s ability to speak and to be heard (262). Women have developed a sort of “premonition for violence” out of this inherent anxiety if they speak their mind, that men will lash out in some violent way, in men’s case the only way, to subdue women’s power in her speech (262).

Signs of hope, however, permeate these modern feminist thinkers’ analyses of such ancient stories. Philomena, for example, though silenced by Tereus, weaves her story into her loom, and in this way is able to “speak” the truth so that her sister finds out, and rescues her. The image of women metaphorically “speaking” or communicating through art is exactly what Joplin encourages other women to keep on doing. It can be hard to read any substance into such tales of violence against women, as a woman, but Joplin, Virginia Woolf, Philomena, and many others both ancient and modern may encourage others to communicate women’s power through their art. It is important not to mourn these women as victims, but rather, as Joplin put it best:

We celebrate Philomela weaving, the woman artist who in recovering her own voice uncovers not only its power, but its potential to transform revenge (violence) into resistance (peace). In freeing our own voices, we need not silence anyone else’s or remain trapped by the mythic end. In undoing the mythical plot that makes men and women brutally vindictive enemies, we are refusing to let violence overtake the work of our looms again. (278)

 

 


Sources:

Joplin (2002) “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours” in Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (excerpt: Book Six)

Richlin (1992) “Reading Ovid’s Rapes”