I am a proud feminist. But part of being a good feminist is acknowledging the ways in which the movement has failed. Feminism, while it has accomplished much, is not a perfect movement. It has erred in its racism and exclusion of transgender individuals (in some cases, downright transmisogyny) and women with disabilities. Political science is a field, among others, where feminist scholars have taken up intersectional frameworks to address the impacts of race, gender and class on social location. However, disability has infrequently been the subject of their work. This post outlines how a theory originating from the work of feminist political scientists on race and the nation can be equally applied to women with disabilities.
Feminist political scientists have theorized that certain women become naturalized as physical reproducers of the nation. Simply put, this means that we have a certain idea of those women we as Canadians, for example, want to have children and thereby raise the next generation of Canadians or reproduce the nation. Typically, feminist political scientists have pointed to race to illustrate this. For example, Dua (2007) provides an historical example from Canada wherein legislators seeking to preserve the racial purity of the nation, discriminated against Chinese women, whose inclusion through immigration, it was reasoned, would result in a “mongrel” race. Thus, at this time in Canada’s history, politicians and the media constructed Chinese women as undesirable bearers of the nation. Concomitantly, white women were positioned as the appropriate bearers and reproducers of Canada.
Similarly, in Britain, at certain times, white women have been encouraged to have children for the benefit of the nation, while at others, measures have been enacted to limit the Black population (Klug 1989). Black women have reported receiving more encouragement from some National Service staff to have abortions or be sterilized when experiencing unplanned pregnancy. In short, they have been prevented from having children when they desired them. Klug (1989) is careful to emphasize that these interventions are not necessarily indicative of a eugenics conspiracy on the part of the British state. Rather, black women’s testimony suggests that because official attention was paid to the black birth rate, concern permeated the consciousness of National Service professionals. However, I argue that eugenics thinking underpins the actions of medical professionals.
Eugenics thinking provides a way for us to understand how the experiences of women with disabilities mirror the experiences of the minority women described above. For example, women with disabilities have also recounted undergoing coereced abortions and being subject to other reproductive restrictions, including tubal ligations and hysterectomies and discouragement from doctors when discussing whether or not to reproduce (Prilleltensky, 2003). Underlying these actions is a fear that women with disabilities will pass on their impairments to their children and therefore, should not reproduce (Prilleltensky, 2003). In this way, we see how these women have been constructed as undesirable mothers.
Other aspects of the social world, such as the inaccessibility of spaces frequented by families, also send messages about the kinds of women deemed (in)appropriate mothers. For example, Malacrida (2007), in a study of 43 women with disabilities from Alberta, interviewed a woman paralyzed from the waist down who was frustrated by the inaccessibility of most school environments when she sought to enroll her daughter in pre-school. In Calgary, Alberta, a city of a million, the mother found only two accessible pre-schools. Significantly, the school in which she enrolled her daughter hosted an integrated program for children with disabilities, and therefore was accessible. According to the author of the study, this fact is significant. She argues, like Foucault, that architecture offers insight into ways of knowing, thinking, and being in a culture. This mother’s experience shows that the spatial configurations of family-related buildings in the public sphere assume that children and not parents are the family members with disabilities. The inaccessibility of schools discourages parenting with a disability and suggests that these individuals cannot or should not reproduce. Thus, spatial arrangements in such places convey a subtle message that parenting with a disability is inappropriate. While Malacrida’s study is not concerned with the construction of motherhood through nationalist discourse, her work uncovers how women with disabilities are excluded from the definition of appropriate mothers.
Similarly, Blackford (1993) provides a more recent historical example of how messages about (in)appropriate mothers were conveyed by the Canadian state. In the early to mid-1990s, the Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs distributed a brochure about crib standards to new and expectant mothers. To be in violation of the safety standards contained within it was to break the law. Blackford (1993) notes that the safety standards excluded mothers with disabilities using mobility devices. For instance, the publication specified that a crib’s sliding side would be released with the exertion of both arms at the same time. This maneuver is next to impossible for a woman in a wheelchair, whose arms may be weak, and who is seated below the side of the crib. These crib standards construct a particular definition of a Canadian mother. She is an average height with strong arms and hands that allow her to manipulate both releases on a crib and raise and lower the side of the crib. Through this example, Blackford shows how the Canadian state contributed to the construction of an able-bodied woman as the average and by extension, appropriate mother.
While feminism as a whole could be bettered by the inclusion of women with disabilities, this post has provided an example of how feminist political scientists could also strengthen their analyses by applying their established theories to the experiences of women with disabilities.
Blackford, K.A. (1993). Erasing mothers with disability through Canadian family –related policy. Disability, Handicap, & Society, 8 (3), 281-294.
Dua, E. (2007). Exclusion through inclusion: female asian migration in the making of Canada as a white settler nation. Gender, Place and Culture, 14 (4), 445-466.
Klug, F. (1989). ‘Oh to be in England’: the British case study. In N. Yuval-Davis & F. Anthias (Eds.), Woman-nation-state (pp. 16-35). New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press Inc.
Malacrida, C. (2007). Negotiating the dependency/nurturance tightrope: Dilemmas of motherhood and disability. The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 44 (4), 469-493.
Prilleltensky, O. (2003). A Ramp to Motherhood: The Experiences of Mothers with
Physical Disabilities. Sexuality and Disability, 21 (1), 21-47.