Kristine’s blog

 “We no more create from nothing the political terms that come to represent our freedom than we are responsible for the terms that carry the pain of social injury. And yet, neither of those terms are as a result any less necessary to work and rework within political discourse.”

                                                              -Judith Butler, (1993) Bodies that Matter

A critical fault line is a fitting illustration for the precarious space of identity. The ability to name oneself versus the process of being named is always a negotiation and a battle. Our lives are ruled by this process of naming and in this way; agency is always a problematic assumption. We are each on the delicate fault line of identity formations which have been and are ruled by the power systems that name, assign, control, and regulate these categories. In order to continuously locate oneself within the present, you must understand how various identity categories have been formed in the past. For this reason, a critical analysis within feminist pedagogy of the historical construction of the subject is not only needed but imperative to the larger discourse.

We must understand how systems of power and privilege operate to promote, produce, enable and sustain subject positions in our lives. This also means exploring how each person both contributes to and is affected by pedagogy. Without a thorough critique of these systems, we risk slipping from the delicate footholds of our chosen identities into the depths of those chosen for us. The edge of this fault line is a crumbling earth flanked by slippery slopes. To succumb to this system of being named in lieu of seeking to negotiate one’s own subject hood is to be operated by fear and power systems where the self is lost and the body is persecuted. Many have fallen victim to this place. To fight this system we must understand it. Systems of power operate to regulate and define categories which fit neatly into the goals of the nation-state. However, we have the ability to question those in a position to hand out punishment.

The main goal of this analysis is to show that the systems of naming are inherently flawed because they are based on the white-male model as norm and anything that deviates from this as “other.” But, even within the white male model, is a quest for valued normalcy which is free from defect, disability, and of a certain class. It illustrates that historically, a hierarchy of inequality has been built into our system. This has always manifested in the normalizing of biological difference as a means to enact the goals of colonialism and the nation-state.

Some questions at the forefront of my research were; how are sexual identities secured or enacted through identification with various social positions or occupations? And, is the term “woman” a political event or can the term be clearly defined through a collectivity of measurable experiences (Ferree, Lorber, & Hess, 2000)? Most importantly, I wanted to examine how the terms associated with gender, race, and class have evolved historically and become crucial in our concept of self. I use examples of atrocities committed during the eugenics movement to advocate for a deeper critique of these historical constructions. Intrinsic in this is a call for an understanding of the expanded classroom; where pedagogy is understood to operate in every aspect of our lives.

Identity categories

Feminist theory allows you to locate yourself within the discourse (Villaverde, 2008, p2). The subject operates within a distinct and crucial space within feminist theory. We must understand how subjecthood is promoted, produced, enabled and understood throughout the larger environment. It is important to remember that experience is different and varied and can also be problematic within knowledge production. It is this fracture which ensures that there is no monolithic feminism or understanding of what it means for each person. Instead, it is a constant journey of placing yourself within the discourse, creating agency, and investigating the various ways that you can both affect and be effected by it. Women on all sides of feminist debate have illustrated how feminist theory can be deconstructed by more than just experience based upon gender. Therefore, an analysis of feminist theory must include discussions of race, gender, class, as well as how pedagogy contributes in both traditional and non-traditional ways.

Feminist theory is not always positive for all involved. In fact, constant critique is needed to delve deeper into some of feminisms fractures. According to hooks (2003),

Women in lower class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status. (McCann & Kim, 2003, p.51-51)

Feminist theory must encompass the diverse and varied subject positions of identity.  Sasaki (2002), asserts that we all occupy many subject positions which make it crucial for subjects to understand their unique positions and also the ways that they are fluid and varied. We must see ourselves as a work in progress. Identity must be made up of more than just visual signifiers. The emphasis must shift from the external constructions which seek to name, codify, and regulate bodies to one of inclusion.

            Andaluza (2002) articulates the problems with identity and authenticity as “moments of schizophrenia (p. 342).” Within these moments, which can be brief or throughout ones’ life, intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality work to inform competing selves. People must  understand that there is no “true self” or that you must only occupy one place and stay within that category for a lifetime or risk violating an unwritten code. She says, “Our experiences demonstrate how even subordinated people often misrecognize themselves and each other through rigid understandings about who people are and their potential for change (p.342).” Also, if we consistently expect the presence of authentic selves, we contribute to prescribed roles according to identity categories.

            Feminist pedagogy inside and out of the classroom must foster an environment of flexibility and continuous critique. It must also allow the multiple voices of identity to speak so as to facilitate an understanding of difference.  Paramount in this is the process of sharing knowledge. According to Lorde (1980), “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect (p.40). LeGuin ( 1986), also emphasizes the importance of language. She says,

I come back to words because words are my way of being in the world. The words and the experiences of difference are what make feminist theory complete and what motivates it to stay current, real, and occupy a space of truth; to hear you erupting speak with a woman’s tongue. If we don’t tell our truth, who will? (p.155)

            Lorde (1980) is not alone in her demand for voice. Anzaldu’s (2002) article arises out of her frustration about “class members’ failure to listen to each other, and about the larger sociopolitical and cultural practices further challenging out claims to voice (p.341).” Mairs (1990), also illustrates the importance of words and finding your voice within embodiment. She says, “I have a body, you are likely to say if you talk about embodiment at all; you don’t say, I am a body. A body is a separate entity possessable by the “I”; the “I” and the body aren’t, as the cupula would make them, grammatically indistinguishable (p.393).” Yet, consistently throughout history, the construction of the subject entails embodying both self and physical body as one and the same. Once you are labeled within an identity category, the assumption is that one label must actualize your being completely; you become this or that. But, identity is much more fluid. The monolithic constructions of personhood have been created in the father tongue and are devoid of actual lived experience. They do not account for whom or what you really are or if such a thing can even be characterized. The term “I” could originally be thought to be an assertion of the person who is speaking. However, according to feminist theory, there is first a discourse which preceded and enables that “I” and forms in language the “constraining trajectory of its will” (Butler, 2004, p. 225). Therefore, there is no “I” that stands behind discourse.

Butler (2004), describes this notion of societal dependency on identity in the following way:

Individual agency is bound up with social critique and social transformation. One only determines ‘one’s own’ sense of gender to the extent that social norms exist that support and enable that act of claiming gender for oneself. One is dependent on this ‘outside’ to lay claim to what is one’s own. The self must, in this way, be dispossessed in society in order to take possession of itself. (p. 7)

Given this illustration, the terms male, female, woman, man, etc. are not the product of choice but rather the forcible enactment of a norm. The same can be said of race categories. Gender and race are an assignment that must be actively performed (Butler, 1993). According to Rubin (1975), “We are not only oppressed as women, we are oppressed by having to be women, or men as the case may be” (p.787).

The evidence of experience

According to Fisher (2001), feminist discourse is not an ideal to be achieved but a process to be developed. Experience, feelings, thinking, and action provide grounding for this process, but their place cannot be taken for granted. This is an important point because it illustrates the problematic construction of experience. She cites Scott and Fuss by saying that they argue that experience is neither simple nor innocent. It involves assumptions that need to be analyzed (p.63). According to LeGuin (1986), “there ‘s no way you can offer your experience as your truth if you deny your experience…What-we-shall-never-know-is-what-a-woman-wants. She’s a male construct, and she’s afraid women will deconstruct her (157).  She describes the white area on a map drawn by men and urges women to venture beyond that to explore and seek out difference.   

Williams and McKenna (2002) want all students and educators within feminist theory to consider how we conceptualize subject positions in relation to our lived experience. They describe how a former class was based on both a textual analysis and a service-learning component where students were expected to volunteer at various “need-based” organizations within the community. What they found was that many facets of this program were problematic because they privileged those who volunteered and then othered the experiences of those receiving “aid.”  It also set up a power dynamic where the volunteering students were in a more dominant position as they framed their volunteer activities in a discourse of help and aid. This meant that those groups being serviced by non-profit organizations and the volunteer students were automatically placed within discursive ontological categories which had been previously constructed by their positioning within the relationship.  The Williams and McKenna text prompts feminist scholars to look at and understand   how we develop our notions of the world. We must not dismiss our lived experience because it directly influences most aspects of our lives.

Eugenics, the history of the subject and psychoanalysis

During many periods in the history of science, biological theorizing has been used to naturalize and perpetuate social inequality. Two famous cases illustrate how women have been defined by biology in law: Bradwell v. Illinois (1873) and Muller v. Oregon (1908). Bradwell v. Illinois was important not only because it upheld a decision that women were ineligible to practice law in that state but because Justice Joseph Bradley presented the following argument in his decision: 

The civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman….The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interests and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband. So firmly fixed is this sentiment in the founders of common law that it became a maxim of that system of jurisprudence that woman had no legal existence separate from her husband, who was regarded as her head and representative of the state….The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. (Bem, 1993, p.67) 

Here, Bradley reinforces the second class status of women and their biological destiny.

            Muller v. Oregon is important because it sets biological traits as precedence again in case law. During the industrial revolution, women of lesser socioeconomic backgrounds did work to help support the family. White, middle-class women typically remained as wife and mother at home. As a result, states passed legislation that would limit the number of working hours that a woman could perform based upon her presumed biological difference from men. This set the framework to later case law and standards for the labor discrimination against women. The courts reasoned:

That women’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious….Still again, history discloses the fact that women has always been dependent upon man….Differentiated by these matters from the other sex, she is properly placed in a class by herself, and legislation designed for her protection may be sustained. (Bem, 1993, p.69)

This decision made it impossible for women to compete with men for a living wage. The “difference” model also set the precedent that men’s work was worth more than a woman’s due to her biological restrictions. Most importantly however, the court used the precedence of the Muller case for sixty years thereafter to uphold every sex discrimination case that came before it.

            Biological theorizing and sexual pedagogy was used widely throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th century to justify segregation, racism, sexism, and classism. In the historic 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, Carrie Buck, a poor sixteen year old girl from Virginia was ordered to be legally sterilized. This happened at the height of the Eugenics movement in America. Buck was raped and thus thought to be promiscuous and sentenced to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded on the grounds that she was not only incorrigible but also mentally defective. Carrie’s mother and infant daughter were also deemed mentally deficient. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The Buck v. Bell decision from May 2, 1927 reads as follows:

The attack is not upon the procedure but upon the substantive law. It seems to be contended that in no circumstances could such an order be justified. It certainty is contended that the order cannot be justified upon the existing grounds. The judgment finds the facts that have been recited  and that Carrie Buck ‘is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,’ and thereupon makes the order. In view of the general declarations of the Legislature and the specific findings of the Court obviously we cannot say as matter of law that the grounds do not exist, and if they exist they justify the result. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tube….Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (Lombardo,1982)

This decision was not repealed until 1974. Virginia was not the only state to include sterilization laws with a total of 31 before being formally outlawed.  Many have written on the link between the United States’ sterilization laws and the medical experimentation during world War II by the Nazi’s. In fact, defense lawyers at Nuremburg read from the Buck decision in hopes of saving Nazi doctors by claiming American precedent. (Ward, 2009).

            Identity categories which assigned biological precedence and norm were intended to perform very specific functions within the nation-state. The onslaught of immigration, subsequent population increases, greater problems with disease and overcrowded cities lead to increased identity categories which served a crucial role in governmental “solutions.” One important role was that of sexual pedagogy. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century the regulation of sexual activity worked as an agent for the state. According to Stoler (1995), “discourse on children’s sexuality and the power relations generated by it play a central part in Foucault’s biohistory (p.137).” Stoler describes the focus on children’s masturbation not as a self-contained act, but as an imagined social relationship between nursemaids and the children in their care (p.147). What was important here was not that sexuality was restricted against specific sexual acts, but it was sexual partnerships that were limited. The nation-state needed to regulate who had sex with whom. Underlying all of this was a general fear of mixed breeding and cross contamination leading to the creation of half-castes which would become wards of the state. Foucault (1978), describes this shift in discourse towards biological responsibility. He says, “The medicine of perversions and the programs of eugenics were the two great innovations in the technology of sex of the second half of the nineteenth century (p.118).”

            Regulation of sex meant forced sterilization, increased propaganda aimed at racialized others and a movement to define gender roles. The history of the construction of the subject is crucial to understanding how lives were and are affected from this shift in sexual regulation both in the past, present, and future. To dismiss former laws such as those developed during the height of the Eugenics movement as the past and thus irrelevant is to contribute to future persecution. The voices of the subjugated must be heard and recognized or else the ground at the edges of a faultline will give way. Feminist theory must therefore deal with these issues within a discourse of difference and flexibility so that history will not be repeated but learned from.

1909 eugenics law



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Bem, S.L., The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. (1993).                              Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press.

Butler, J., Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. (1993). New York: Routledge.

Butler, J., Undoing Gender. (2004). New York: Routledge.

Ferree, M.M., Lorber, J. & Hess, B.B., The Gender Lens: Revisioning Gender. (2000). New                      York: Altamira Press.

Fisher, B. (2001). No angel in the classroom: Is women’s experience the best teacher? Different    ways of knowing. Lanham:Rowman & Little Field Publishers, Inc.

Foucault, M. ( 1978). The history of sexuality: An introduction (Vol. 1). New York, NY: Random House.

Hesse-Biber, S.N., Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis. (2007). London: Sage.

LeGuin, U. (1989). Dancing at the edge of the world: Thoughts on words, women, places. NY:    Harper & Row.

Lombardo, P.A. 1982. “Eugenic Sterilization in Virginia: Aubrey Strode and the Case of Buck v.             Bell. Doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia. Retrieved June 15, 2010, from   

Mairs, N. (1990). Carnal acts: Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

McCann, C.R. & Kim, S., Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. (2003). New              York: Routledge.

Stoler, A.L. (1995). Race and the education of desire: Foucault’s history of sexuality and the         colonial order of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Villaverde, L. (2008). Feminist theories and education. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Ward, J.M. (2009). Three generations, no imbeciles: Eugenics, the supreme court, and buck v.       bell/segregation’s science: Eugenics and society in Virginia. Virginia Magazine of       History & Biography, 117, 302-304.

Williams, T. & McKenna, E. negotiating subject positions in a service-learning context: Toward    a feminist critique of experiential learning. In A. A. Macdonald, & S.Sanchez-Casel (Eds.)     Twenty-first century feminist classrooms (pp.135-154). New York, NY: Palgrave         MacMillan.

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