A Brief History of the Unruly Woman and her Dangerous Body
Sumerian texts, Jewish midrashic texts, and the Book of Isaiah (34:14) discuss the figure of Lilith, said to be the first wife of the biblical Adam. Created out of earth at the same time as Adam, she refused to submit to him and take a subordinate role (in this instance, lying beneath him during sex), arguing that they were created equals.
“She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.'” Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith
When Adam rejected Lilith’s claims of equality, Lilith fled the Garden of Eden, whereupon Adam complained to God about the unruly and disobedient woman and was thus “given” Eve, made of his rib and deemed to be subordinate to him. Lilith, in contrast, was then portrayed as a demonic figure; refusing to return to the Garden and submit to the masculine, and accepting that as punishment “a hundred of her children will die every day.” Thenceforth, the figure of Lilith became a demonic distortion of motherhood, a seducer of men and a murderess of babies. In Ulysses, James Joyce even casts her as the “patron of abortions“.
Tertullian, arguably one of the most ardently misogynistic of the Patristic Fathers of the Christian Church, referred to women (and their bodies) as “the devil’s gateway”:
“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die”. (Tertullian: “On the Apparel of Women”, Ch. 1
To the early Church Fathers, every aspect of a woman’s body became a topic for disparagement, demonisation and derision; her hair, her dress, her sexuality, her womb, her brain, the list is endless. The theory of the bodily “humours“, established by Galen in the second century CE and long used as a basis of hippocratic medicine, was used as an explanation for women’s unruly and “hysterical” bodies. It was widely argued that female “hysteria” and “melancholy” were the result of having a uterus that had not served its function as a vessel for procreation, was thus “sad”, and moved about the body, causing such varied symptoms as hysteria, fainting, mania, sexual fantasy and “excessive vaginal lubrication” (Tasca, C., Rapetti, M., Carta, M. G., & Fadda, B. (2012). Women and hysteria in the history of mental health. Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health : CP & EMH, 8, 110–119
Roe v. Wade and the Fight to Establish Reproductive Rights
It has been estimated that “approximately 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal, unsafe abortions were performed per year” during the 1950s alone. Women who found themselves “in trouble”, as unwanted pregnancy was euphemistically called, would resort to back-alley abortions conducted in unhygienic and salubrious settings, paying large amounts of money to be subjected to painful and invasive procedures. Those who could not afford to see an abortionist would often resort to imbibing dangerous poisons and/or inserting sharp objects such as coat-hangers, knitting needles and bicycle spokes into the uterus. My own grandmother use to tell the story of how she, finding herself pregnant again only months after having already given birth, drank a bottle of gin and sat in a scalding hot bath in an attempt to bring on a spontaneous abortion. Her attempt was unsuccessful, and she continued with the pregnancy; had her efforts been successful, I suspect she may not have been so open in sharing her story.
In the landmark Roe v. Wade case (1973) the US Supreme Court found that the law criminalising Norma L. McCorvey’s (“Jane Roe”) attempt to procure a safe and legal abortion was a violation of her constitutional rights. The Court found that women’s “zone of privacy” extended to the doctor’s office and, as such, their constitutional right to privacy and ipso facto personal autonomy in the areas of “marriage, contraception, and child rearing“, was extended to include the right to terminate a pregnancy.
As important and groundbreaking as the Roe v Wade case was and, indeed, still is, there are those who seek to argue its findings and continue their endeavours to impede women’s abilities to procure safe and legal abortions. As recently as 2014, the United Nations called for countries all around the world to remove barriers to safe and legal abortions:
“The fundamental human rights to life and to security of the person, as well as freedom from cruel and inhumane treatment, and from discrimination, among others, means that unnecessary restrictions on abortion should be removed and governments should provide access to safe abortion services” United Nations Urges Countries To Remove ‘Unnecessary’ Restrictions On Abortion, 2014
Yet, even prior to the 2016 election, the Guttmacher Institute reported 231 abortion restrictions having been implemented by US legislators between 2010 and 2015:
“By 2010, 22 states were considered hostile to abortion rights; five of these had six or more restrictions, enough to be considered extremely hostile to abortion rights. By 2014, 27 states had enough restrictions to be considered hostile; 18 of these can now be considered extremely hostile. The entire South is now considered hostile to abortion rights, and much of the South, along with much of the Midwest, is extremely hostile to abortion rights.” Guttmacher Institute: “In Just the Last Four Years, States Have Enacted 231 Abortion Restrictions”
In 2012, Republican Senate hopeful, Todd Akin, made the outrageously ignorant and scientifically unsound comment that a woman cannot get pregnant from being raped because, “if it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” The inference, one that is as old as time, is that the woman must have enjoyed the sexual assault; if not, her body would have somehow magically known to prevent the impregnation. Yes, I can hear your laughter and shouts of outrage from here!
By the time the 2016 US election campaign hit full swing, then, abortion and women’s reproductive rights were already under threat. In the acrimonious cauldron of the campaign for the White House, women’s bodies once again became a primary locus of political and theocratic discourse.
Plutocrats, Patriarchs and Theocrats: The Curtailment of Women’s Reproductive Rights in 2016 and Beyond
During the 2016 presidential debates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton clashed over the issue of abortion. While Hillary Clinton reiterated her support for Roe v Wade, Trump declared that he would put pro-life judges on the Supreme Court in an attempt to reverse the Court’s 1973 decision. He further declared that the government should stop providing funding for Planned Parenthood “because many Planned Parenthood affiliates provide abortion.” In July 2016, the now- Vice President Mike Pence said, “I’m pro-life and I don’t apologize for it. I want to see the day that we put the sanctity of life back at the centre of American law and we send Roe vs. Wade to the ash heap of history where it belongs.”
Upon his ascension to the role of President, one of Trump’s first acts was to sign a ban of federal funding for NGO’s in any way affiliated with the provision of abortion. Known as the Mexico City Policy and, more widely known as “the Global Gag Rule,” the strictures upon providing funding to groups who perform or provide information on abortion was initially established by Ronald Reagan in 1984, overturned during Bill Clinton’s administration, reinstated by George W. Bush in 2001, and again rescinded in 2009 under Barack Obama’s presidential tenure. One can see, then, how the policy has been drawn along starkly political lines.
When the Trump administration released a photo of the newly-elected President signing the executive order to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, the image quickly went viral, and with good reason. Twitter lit up with comments pointing out the notable absence of any women in the photo, with the Guardian’s Martin Belam noting “as long as you live, you’ll never see a photograph of 7 women signing legislation about what men can do with their reproductive organs.”
As a result of Trump’s Executive Order, NGOs saw a decrease in funding in the other areas of their services, such as HIV and AIDS funding (50% of which came from the US government), access to contraception and coalitions for LGBTQI and sex-workers’ rights. Last month (August 2019), Planned Parenthood announced that they were withdrawing from the US family funding programme rather than to remain and “be bullied into withholding abortion information from our patients” (Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood’s acting president and CEO, cited in USA Today).
With his weighting of the US Supreme Court with “pro-life” (read, “anti-abortion”) judges, Trump has brought the result of Roe v. Wade and the hard-won rights of women for bodily and reproductive autonomy to a crisis point. Next week (1st Octover 2019), the Supreme Court will meet to decide “whether to hear a case that could leave little, if any, of this right [to abortion] standing“. As reported in Vox yesterday (he salient question today is not if the Supreme Court will gut what remains of its pro-abortion decision in Roe v. Wade. It is almost definitely when.”
Countless studies have shown that restricting access to safe and legal terminations does not in fact bring down the numbers of abortions performed (in relation to the Global Gag Rule, see for instance, Prescribing Chaos in Global Health The Global Gag Rule from 1984-2018 pg 21). What occurs instead is that increasing women are forced to return to the bad old days of dangerous and unsafe terminations.
Enforcing Patriarchal Control over Female Bodies
What is particularly telling when it comes to women’s reproductive rights is that the voices who advocate against abortion are often the same voices who seek to restrict women’s access to safe, reliable, and cost-effective forms of contraception. One might almost be tempted to suspect that the anti-abortion movement has little to do with their oft-quoted belief in “the sanctity of life” and more to do with a desire to curtail female sexuality and enforce patriarchal control over women’s wombs. Indeed, when anti-abortionists decry the number of abortions that are sought every year, they conveniently manage to forget the role that men play in impregnation. In so doing, they erase the agency of both parties: the rights of the pregnant woman and the responsibilities of the man who got her that way. One can easily see how this dual-erasure works in the interests of patriarchal tyranny.
There is a plethora of material readily available which explores the connection between the curtailment of women’s reproductive rights and the rise in sexism and misogyny in the “Trumpian” world in which we now find ourselves. I encourage all those who support reproductive rights, pro-choice ideals and the upholding of Roe v. Wade to investigate these materials and to read widely. It is, I’m afraid, beyond my scope today to go into minute detail, though I am sure to revisit the topic in the coming weeks and months as the US Supreme Court seek to quash the Roe v. Wade ruling.
Today is not only #SafeAbortionDay, it is also Smutathon 2019, a day when sex-bloggers, smut-writers and other sex-positive content writers gather to raise money for a worthwhile cause, and this year Smutathon are raising funds for the National Network of Abortion Funds. Whether you are a writer yourself, a smut-reader, or merely a supporter of women’s bodily autonomy and the right to choose, you can get involved by following Smutathon 2019 at the website , on twitter , via #Smutathon and by donating what you can, if you can at:
A Selection of Further Reading
Church, F. Forrester. “Sex and Salvation in Tertullian.” The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 68, no. 2, 1975, pp. 83–101. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1509087 .