Bodylogues: A request for writers/performers

Would you tell me a story of yours?

I’ve heard incredible stories here, from very different people. Each of these people cracks me up and shocks me and makes me think, with the casual stories of their unique lives. And with every story I hear, my narrative of the people around me becomes a bit more enriched.

It’s narrative of the body – and woman’s body especially – that me and a few others came to question, starting with our involvement in the Vagina Monologues here at the University of Chicago. We became very aware of stories that weren’t being told, of a space for body-positive stories aware of their constraints in time and space – stories of people here at the University of Chicago. We want to tell those stories through the Bodylogues, a set of stories about the UChicago community today.
Your stories might involve women’s vaginas, but might speak of women’s lips instead, or their fingers or thighs or knuckles, during their midterms or parties or love stories or internships or relationships or prayers, of the things their bodies go through. You could identify as male, or female, or neither. Just living in this gendered world gives you a story to tell about it.

So tell me your story about your experience with the feminine, whoever you are. I hope to bring together a group of around 15 five-minute stories by the end of winter quarter, illustrations of the infinite, vividly different feminine experiences surrounding us every day right here. Send it (or any questions about the nature of this project, confidentiality-related or otherwise) to me at from now through Friday of second week next quarter – That’s January 17th. After a quarter of slowly tuning your story to say exactly what you want it to say with workshops and rehearsals, we’ll make it part of a performance for our friends in the spring – either through your own performance or through the anonymity of another performer’s voice. The nuances of this project are ultimately in your hands.

So, tell me your story?

UChicago Class of 2015


Consent and domination in Monsieur Venus

In Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable’s introduction to Monsieur Venus, they note that Rachilde’s female protagonists, such as Raoule, often act through “modes of empowerment over others [which are] aggressive, sadistically seductive, cruel, and violent;” they use their sexual wiles to lead men to a “literal or symbolic death” (xxi). This is presumably because of traditional understandings of men winning women by conquest, and may be interpreted to be a critique of these gender roles. However, second-wave feminists did not reclaim Rachilde as one of their own, in part, because she does not give “voice and form to a feminine difference” in the way that, for instance, Cixous proposes, as Raoule is a quite “masculine” and power-hungry character. Literary critic Janet Beizer has argued that Rachilde “defamiliarizes the conventional power relationship and thus puts it into question,” but it is not immediately obvious that Rachilde has presented her work to achieve those ends (xxvi). While Rachilde may challenge certain ideas ,can it be said that she truly subverts homo-heterosexual and male-female binaries if themes of domination in the main character’s sexual relationship persist? As an unequal power dynamic remains, even if it is inverted, is it truly positively empowering to women if it is premised upon domination of a “feminine” male?

I was particularly concerned with the violence in Raoule and Jacques’ relationship, and Rachilde’s choice to include themes of domination in a relationship between people of different genders. For instance, after Raoule understands that Jacques has been harmed in Chapter 10, she proceeds to abuse him herself, biting his “marbled flesh” and enacting a “complete defloration,” recalling language of virginity, or concepts of sex between two unequals in which a submissive partner loses something in the exchange (129). This particular scene seems like a sexual assault as consent is not given: she “forced him to go to bed,” and Raoule continues her assault even as Jacques states that she is hurting him, that she is being unreasonable, etc. (129). To what ends has Raoule included this scene (and others like it) in her narrative? The introduction notes that while she consistently championed sexual freedom, her views became increasingly conservative as she grew older and adopted explicitly anti-feminist positions. If she means to highlight power imbalances, as Beizer suggests, why does she do so in such a violent manner? Does she mean to suggest that domination and submission are inherent to sexual relations and gendered relationships, regardless of the gender of the aggressor? Can this be interpreted as a representation of “feminine” power? If so, why is it done at the expense of “masculine” power? Does Rachilde insinuate that female empowerment is not an appropriate aim as she portrays it as harmful to a male character? Does she assume that people of all genders cannot live together free of power imbalances?

The first publication of this text included an inscription which stated, “To be almost a woman is a good way to conquer woman” (xxvi-xxvii). As Raittolbe attacks Jacques at the end of Chapter 9, he claims that he does so to make Jacques know “what a real man is like” (120). In the next chapter, Marie listens to Raoule’s assault of Jacques, and then presumably comes to his aid “since she was a real woman” (130). The parallels between these chapter endings suggest that the characters understand “real” men to be predatory and violent and “real” women to be nurturing, even as Raoule and Jacques’ relationship challenges these conceptions. To what extent do these scenes disrupt these power binaries, and to what extent do they perpetuate them?

Trafficking, Prostitution and Inequality: A Public Lecture by Catharine MacKinnon

We haven’t really talked about prostitution/sex work in this course, but I came across a video of this lecture by Catharine MacKinnon at the University of Chicago in December of 2011 and thought it might be of interest to some of you.

“Catherine MacKinnon, the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School specializes in sex equality issues under international and constitutional law. She pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment and, with Andrea Dworkin, created ordinances recognizing pornography as a civil rights violation and the Swedish model for addressing prostitution. Representing Bosnian women survivors of Serbian genocidal sexual atrocities, she won Kadic v. Karadzic, whcih first recognized rape as an act of genocide. Her scholarly books include Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), Sex Equality (2001/2007), and Are Women Human? (2006).

“In her visiting lecture to University of Chicago Law School students, Professor MacKinnon discussed issues raised in her book Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues. Her work exposes the consequences and significance of the systematic maltreatment of women and its systemic condonation by taking us inside the workings of nation-states, where the oppression of women defines community life and distributes power in society and government, and inside the heart of the international law of conflict to ask why the international community can rally against terrorists’ violence, but not violence against women.”

Gender essentialism in “Laugh of the Medusa”

In “The Laugh of Medusa,” Helene Cixous argues that woman must “write her self” and that her progress, advancement, and representation can be achieved only “by her own movement” (875). In response to critics who point out structural and social barriers to women’s autonomy, she notes that while the “effects of the past are still with us” (i.e., remnants of patriarchal structures still exist in 1976 when this article was published), she refuses to “confuse the biological and the cultural” (874). In short, Cixous refuses to accept biological arguments we read about in Thomas Lacquer’s “Orgasm, Generation and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” among others, to justify historical restrictions upon women’s movements, most recently, via theories of separate spheres in the 19th and 20th centuries. Cixous then may be arguing that the root cause of women’s oppression—which had tended to be attributed to biology—were actually socialized, that is, they have been constructed and reproduced in various cultural environments, but are not “natural.” This becomes more clear later in the essay, in which she contends that “sexual opposition, which has always worked for man’s profit…is only a historical-cultural limit” (883). If we are to read this as a commentary on the nature v. nurture debates, then it seems that Cixous would argue that sex-based differences in power are due to nurture, not nature.

At other points in her piece, it seems that Cixous promotes a theory of gender essentialism,which has been described elsewhere as a view that women and men have “uniquely feminine and uniquely masculine essences which exist independent of cultural conditioning.” While there are some obvious biological differences between (cisgender) women and men, there are certain behavioral characteristics which Cixous claims that all women or all men share. Perhaps this is why she thinks it is acceptable to refer to women (a group) as Woman (an individual). Cixous writes that “in women there is always more or less of the mother that makes everything alright” and that “she is her own sister-daughter,” suggesting that nurturing is an innate feminine quality (881-882). Though she claims that it is “impossible to define a feminine practice of writing,” she argues that this “doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist,” thus, implying that is does, and going on to claim that distinctions between masculine and feminine writing are not recognized primarily due to “ignorance” (883). (Personally, I am skeptical of gender essentialist arguments because while they may vary culture to culture, nearly always, essentially masculine qualities are portrayed as superior to feminine ones, and because they ignore the great variety of gender expression and performance that feels comfortable for women, men, and people who don’t classify themselves in that binary.)

On the other hand,  Cixous also states that “men still have everything to say about their sexuality, and everything to write” and, correspondingly, that “almost everything is yet to be written by women about femininity: about their sexuality, that is its infinite and mobile complexity” (885). This suggests that current understandings of gender and sexuality are flawed, and that there is much left to be explored, but that sexuality should be understood in gendered terms. Cixous argues that she lives in “a man’s world,” and that even the language she uses to write the essay has been composed in  “the language of men and their grammar” (887). While she may primarily be arguing that men should not presume to write for or about women, because they have historically done so, does her prescription here actually constrain further exploration of these terms by stating that men should study men and women should study women?

With these particular moments in mind, how are we to understand Cixous’s arguments? Are her arguments actually proposing a gender essentialism or is that a misinterpretation? Additionally, can gender essentialist arguments be considered empowering to women, or do they only benefit men because of what such views tend to prescribe as uniquely male qualities?

Sor Juana – “Hombres necios que acusáis a la mujer sin razón”

I’ve seen some debate about whether Sor Juana is appropriately considered a foremother of modern feminists, so I’ve attached a feminist art piece of Sor Juana I saw online. Also, here are a few links to one of her most famous poems about gender roles, “Hombres necios que acusáis a la mujer sin razón.” (I can’t find a satisfying English translation.)

Art source:


Regulating Desire and Sexuality

In “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology, Lacquer describes Galen’s ancient Roman understanding of orgasm in women and men, which held that “orgasm’s warmth, though more vehement and exciting, is in kind no different from other warmth and can be produced in some measures by food, wine, or the power of imagination” (7). This Tuesday, class discussion turned to manners in which Gandhi also grouped eating and having sex together, in his repeated discussion of how fasting related to his vow of abstinence, and how he considered sexual restraint not only as a means of limiting family size but, more importantly, as a mode of caring for the body. While Gandhi appreciates the difficulty he and others may face who choose an abstinent or celibate lifestyle, he claims that failure to restrain sexual appetite called “incontinence is the root of the vanity, anger, fear and jealousy in the world” (52). In other words, he argues that these common, powerful desires for sex and food should be regulated because of the deleterious effects they may have on social interactions, and Galen would agree with him to the extent that the effects of “indulgence” in sex and food are similar. However, Gandhi also states that sexual passion is characterized by a “madness” and that as “mind is the root of all sensuality,” regulating one’s food intake and sexual practices may lead to more rational decision making which presumably benefits society (53, 210). Thus, Gandhi prioritizes the effects regulation of these matters may have on society as a whole, rather than individual choice to partake in desires as one chooses.

Gandhi’s anxiety concerning “misplaced” desire has been present in other texts in this course, in which sexuality has been described as an overriding appetite, even an insatiable hunger, not completely unlike a desire for food and drink. For instance, gluttony and lust  or “excess” desires for sex and food , have historically been interpreted by the Catholic Church to be mortal sins, which theoretically threaten a person’s salvation. This belief is echoed in the Book on the Teaching of Nuns,  in which Saint Leander recalls one of Solomon’s visions, which includes meats and wines, but concludes that such things are but “mortal pomp,” insinuating that fulfilling “carnal” desires typical of humans are “mutable, ephemeral, and vain” pursuits, and that, as such, they should be viewed with suspicion and not pursued as ends in themselves (62-63). It is notable that while Saint Leander focuses on chastity and virginity, he suggests in this passage that gluttony should be grouped with sexual intercourse as sinful. While there are some parallels in discourse on gluttony and lust, it should be acknowledged that giving into lust or achieving orgasm is not necessary for human survival in the ways that consuming water and food are. Perhaps regulation of sexuality has been more effective and widespread (than strains of thought that Gandhi contributed to concerning fasting, for instance) because people need to eat to survive, while having sex or reaching orgasm through masturbation is not necessary for human survival, in spite of health benefits it may bring.

Margaret Sanger’s Case for Birth Control (1924) proposes a regulation of sexuality that does not classify sexual desire as misguided or inherently sinful as Tuesday’s texts did. Instead, she focuses on potentially deleterious social effects that pregnancy may have when parents are under a certain age, were recently married, already have some number of children, cannot economically support their children, or have had a child who was born with some special need or condition. It seems somewhat practical though very prescriptive, even commanding in its language and layout of nine reasons to not have children. Amartya Sen would likely taken a skeptical approach to Sanger’s article in light of her own discussion of contemporary international anxiety about distributing family planning information and materials to third-world countries, in support of a disputed “world population problem.” Margaret Sanger played a prominent role decades after her 1924 manifesto was written in the development of the Pill, which has widely been understood as empowering to women as a means to enhance their bodily autonomy. However, in light of Sen’s article, how should we interpret birth control efforts that target women of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged women? Should they be understood as further regulation of women’s sexuality? On the other hand, are distributing birth control methods and providing abortions inherently empowering to women because these services allows them to prevent or end pregnancies, which clearly temporarily compromise their bodily autonomy?


On another note, re: Lacquer, attached is a more recent article about female orgasm. I thought this passage was particularly interesting as we consider how debates about the connection between conception and orgasm in women has changed so much over time.

“The female orgasm is like the male nipple. It has a clear function in one sex, but not in the other,” she says.

The male orgasm positively reinforces ejaculation and therefore encourages males to propagate the species, Lloyd says. Women get a parallel ability as a “fantastic bonus” because their tissues and nerves are laid down at the same time during fetal development.

In support of the fantastic bonus theory, Lloyd points out that only about 8 percent of women reliably have otherwise unassisted orgasms during penile-vaginal intercourse, while nearly all men do. In addition, these women seem to be benefiting from an accident of physiology — they happen to have clitorises that are close to their vaginal opening, according to new research by Lloyd and Emory University psychology professor Kim Wallen, PhD, in press in Hormones and Behavior.

“Very few women can climax through intercourse alone, but in Hollywood, that 8 percent [of women] is portrayed as 100 percent,” she says. “It’s like, in some misguided bid for equality, we are trying to make women’s orgasms serve the same function as men’s.”

‘On Equal Terms:’ Educating Women at the University of Chicago

The link above leads to an online summary of a 2009 Special Collections exhibit about women in UChicago history. I’ve attached a few pictures and a general description from the website below.

University of Chicago Youth Committee Against the War, 1939. Archival Photographic Files.

University of Chicago Youth Committee Against the War, 1939. Archival Photographic Files.

Mrs. James R. Ahrens and Candace Benton, 1946. Archival Photographic Files. Local media covered the phenomenon of returning male GIs on campus and the resulting community of wives that formed in the prefabs.  "There's a lot of neighborliness," one newspaper reported, "such as visiting in each other's houses, at the clothes lines, and over the fence that holds the garbage pails."

Mrs. James R. Ahrens and Candace Benton, 1946. Archival Photographic Files.
Local media covered the phenomenon of returning male GIs on campus and the resulting community of wives that formed in the prefabs. “There’s a lot of neighborliness,” one newspaper reported, “such as visiting in each other’s houses, at the clothes lines, and over the fence that holds the garbage pails.”

Women's Coffee Shop poster, ca. 1970s. University of Chicago Office of Student Activities Records. Feminist activism on campus ranged from the overtly political to the creation of realms for women's artistic and personal expression.

Women’s Coffee Shop poster, ca. 1970s. University of Chicago Office of Student Activities Records.
Feminist activism on campus ranged from the overtly political to the creation of realms for women’s artistic and personal expression.

This Web exhibit is based on the exhibit “’On Equal Terms:’ Educating Women at the University of Chicago” which was on view in the Special Collections Research Center, the University of Chicago Library, March 11 – July 14, 2009. The exhibit was curated by Monica Mercado and Katherine Turk, graduate students in history, with input from Professor Deborah Nelson. From the time the University welcomed its first students in the fall of 1892, women have had very different stories to tell about the experiments in co-education and faculty diversification; the experience of the classroom, the laboratory, the dorm, and the streets of Hyde Park; the issues of mentorship, intellectual community, and career advancement; and the opportunities for political action and community involvement, for friendship, romance, and sexual experimentation. The exhibition draws from the rich University archives located at the Special Collections Research Center, and from a group of more than 70 oral histories taken from alumni, faculty, and staff from 1935 to the present day collected by students and faculty affiliated with the Center for Gender Studies. Kerri Sancomb, Special Collections Exhibition Specialist, produced the exhibition; and Julia Gardner, also in Special Collections, served as its coordinator.