Politicization: A New Era for Women’s Bodies

Today marks the third official Women’s Health Wednesday of the House of Representatives. Created by Pro-Choice Caucus Co-Chair Diana DeGette, a Democratic representative from Colorado, Women’s Health Wednesdays, which will last the rest of this year, provide a regular time slot for representatives to speak to the House in defense of women’s health issues. From information on mammograms and birth control, to personal anecdotes of cancer and abortions, all is fair game in what DeGette hopes will be “an opportunity for members of Congress to take a stand against the unceasing attacks on women’s health care.”[1]

While Women’s Health Wednesdays are unquestionably worthwhile in today’s political climate, it is critical to step back to reflect for a moment on the fact that we’ve reached a point in our history where we need this kind of institution. It’s easy to forget, through a present-day lens, that women’s bodies weren’t always subject to political scrutiny.

Women’s bodies, in the course of American history, have been subject to myriad forms of external control. The history of women’s health is replete with examples of medicalization, or attempts by doctors to govern women’s affairs based on the laws of science. At the turn of the 20th century, such “laws” dictated that a woman was incapable of attending school because the mental energy required for studying would decrease the physical energy available to her reproductive organs.[2] Such rules paved the way so that, by the 1950s, childbirth had shifted from a home-centered, female-controlled experience to a hospital-based, physician-attended, drug-dominated procedure.[3]

Our history has also subjugated women’s bodies through commercialization, as consumerist tactics capitalized on female biology to define the meaning of womanhood in America. Birth control manufacturers and advertisers in the 1930s “trumpeted” consumption as a “characteristically female freedom,” and instructed women to exercise that freedom through the purchase of new, commercially made contraceptive devices.[4] In the 1960s, feminine hygiene product brochures taught young girls that they needed to wear up-to-date, store-bought sanitary napkins in order to “look and feel confident.”[5]

Our bodies have been medicalized, they’ve been commercialized, and they’re now being increasingly politicized as well. It would be wrong to say this politicization is completely new; women’s bodies have been a topic of major Supreme Court cases as early as 1965. But never before has this politicization been so extensive as it is today; never before has the onslaught of attacks on women’s health been so extreme and so persistent in the halls of Congress.

We sincerely applaud the men and women who are speaking up during Women’s Health Wednesdays to counter the negative effects of this politicization, as they inject personal anecdotes and informative speeches back into the political battleground. In a time when women’s bodies (and lives) are being so drawn into the realms of politics, it is more critical than ever that support outspoken, pro-choice legislators who will stand in strong defense of women’s freedoms.


[2] George Wythe Cook, “Puberty in the Girl,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children 46 (1902): 805.

[4] Andrea Tone, “Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s,” in Women and Health in America, Ed. Judith Walzer Leavitt: 308.

[5] Very Personally Yours, Kimberly-Clark Corp (1961): 13.

 

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