Tag Archives: disabled women

Lines in the Sand: Daly, Showalter and Tactics of Exclusion

The second-wave radical feminist theologian and professor Mary Daly died earlier this month, and there has been a veritable outpouring of eulogies from various feminist blogs.

Few of these eulogies have acknowledged Daly’s transphobia and racism.

I do not deny that Daly was an important figure in second-wave feminism, but to mourn her passing without a nod to her work’s more problematic aspects, or explorations of these aspects, are, to put it mildly, not good. In particular, the intense, hateful transphobia found in some of her writing, and her issues with unexamined white privilege and racism — which both QueenEmily at Questioning Transphobia and Sungold at Kittywampus cover very well in recent posts — strikes many as both deeply disturbing and an old pattern that has, and continues to, rear its grotesque head in certain segments of contemporary feminism. I include myself among those who are deeply troubled by Daly’s transphobic sentiments and her questionable record when it came to examining the entrenched racism and issues surrounding white privilege in the second-wave feminist movement.

I should probably mention at this point that I do not mean to appropriate or co-opt the struggles of trans* folks in any way, although my cis privilege will most likely be unintentionally reflected at points in this piece. Though the struggles of trans* people, trans feminists and PWDs and disabled feminists are not the exact same, some exclusionary tactics of certain cisgendered feminists and those of abled feminists sometimes take similar forms, especially within the mainstream feminist movement. The oppression of trans* folks and PWDs in cis, abled culture intersect in a number of ways; this post, however, barely scratches that surface. I believe that the many issues present in Daly’s work–as well as the reaction to her death around the blogosphere–can serve as just one entry point to discussions of the similarities in oppression(s) that trans* people and PWDs face. There are also clear differences, among them the fact Daly used language that can only be called genocidal, while many other feminists of her generation did not advocate such an extreme path when it came to keeping certain individuals out of feminism. I will be focusing on feminism’s exclusion of trans* and PWDs as reflected in the work of two very influential second-wave feminists here, but there is, of course, much more to these stories.

Daly’s penchant for exclusion and outright hatred (particularly of trans* individuals) couched in oddly phrased academic rhetoric unfortunately brings to mind another famous second-waver’s similar issues with people (particularly women) with disabilities. Princeton scholar Elaine Showalter — best known for bringing feminist literary theory to the fore in the academy at a time when such a discipline was, for the most part, inconceivable — dismissed disabling conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome and mental health issues such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (referred to in the text as Multiple Personality Disorder) in her 1997 book Hystories.

In Hystories, Showalter attempted to debunk “modern media epidemics” such as the aforementioned disabilities as well as more traditionally disproven phenomena such as alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse. In the book’s chapter on Chronic Fatigue, Showalter rather disingenuously declared that she did not want to “disparage the suffering” of people with such conditions only a few pages before she called CFS an extension of Western “fin de siecle [end of the century] anxiety.” She followed this stunning assertion with the claim that the Western news media was primarily responsible for making CFS into an escalating “psychogenic epidemic” (117, 131).

Like Daly’s severe opinion of trans* people as dupes of the medical industry (which Kittywampus cites in her post), Showalter also seemed to be taken with the idea that people with CFS are somehow being duped into thinking that they are ill because of the media focus on their condition. She wrote that many CFS patients and their defenders are “hostile to psychiatric or social explanations” of the condition, and that many of them react in a way that is not friendly to the labeling of CFS as “psychiatric” (128). However, the reactions of these same patients make sense if considered from a non-abled perspective. Showalter also seemed completely mystified by these “hostile” reactions. If CFS is just a manifestation of “fin seicle anxiety,” as she contended (adding that “emotions have tremendous power over the body”) she seemed to push the conclusion — without any scientific or medical proof — that many people with CFS have somehow been brainwashed into believing they have it; thus, the media-driven “hysterical epidemic” has worked.

Nowhere are feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or related conditions consulted; the not-so-feminist implication here is that feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome either do not exist or are just victims of a “hysterical” media-led epidemic and therefore cannot be “real” feminists. This is similar to how trans* feminists were erased, excluded and castigated by Daly as somehow not “real” women or feminists, and as benefiting from patriarchy in a way that “real” women and feminists could not. To put it crudely: This is exclusionary bullcrap, and it does not do trans* people, people with disabilities, feminists who fit either (or both) of these categories, or the feminist movement as a whole any favors whatsoever.

Exclusion is not radical. It has never been radical. It is, in fact, extraordinarily status-quo. No one should be able to arbitrarily pick and choose who “belongs” in the feminist movement and who does not, especially if those who are being excluded because of their gender identity, sexual identity or disability actively identify as feminist. Feminism should be for a wide variety of people; exclusion, however, is something that is not — and has never been — very  feminist.

Author’s note: I will be moderating this thread with an iron fist; please have the courtesy to not try to tell me how Daly really was an ally to trans* folks, or how Showalter didn’t mean what she said about CFS *that* way, or that either author’s influence on the feminist movement somehow excuses their hatred and bigotry. Thank you.

[Cross-posted to Ham.Blog]

The Cautionary Tale of the Kehoe Twins: Is This About Surrogacy, or Whether or Not Disabled Women Can Parent?

Note: This post has been edited to include Amy Kehoe’s correct diagnosis, which was erroneously stated as schizophrenia in an earlier version. I apologize for the error and for not fact checking more thoroughly before publishing. -meloukhia

A story is brewing in Michigan.

Amy and Scott Kehoe wanted babies, but couldn’t have them on their own. So they selected egg and sperm from donors and made arrangements for a surrogate. In Michigan, paid surrogacy is not legal, and the law on surrogacy contracts is slippery, with details primarily being handled by doctors. However, the Kehoes and their surrogate, Laschell Baker, worked out an agreeable arrangement within the framework of existing law.

All went well until Laschell was supposed to surrender the resulting twins to the Kehoes.

Amy Kehoe has a psychotic disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).

Laschell Baker has a problem with that. Or, she decided that she wanted to keep the children, and felt that using mental illness as the fulcrum for the case would be the best way to win, which brings up an entirely new set of issues about surrogacy and the public perception of mental illness.

Because Michigan tends to support surrogates rather than the people who contract with them in custody disputes, Laschell Baker won custody of the twins. The Kehoes decided not to fight it, giving up the opportunity to raise the children they thought they would be adopting and had prepared for because they felt that they could not win the case.

Surrogacy itself is a very complicated issue with a lot of feminist implications; I’m not discussing it here because I don’t want this post to balloon into an epic pile of words, not because I don’t think it’s important. There are a lot of things going on with this case, many of which merit discussion in a feminist environment, I’m just focusing on one particular angle today, which is one disability issue: Whether or not women with disabilities are competent parents, according to society. There’s also another disability issue here, of course, embedded in the use of donor eggs and sperm selected for “intelligence.”

In this case, when mental illness was brought up, Kehoe’s doctor wrote a letter in her support, arguing that she would be an excellent parent. Social services freely said that mental illness is not a barrier to adoption when it’s clear that a parent is making regular doctor’s appointments, taking medication, and demonstrating that the mental illness is clearly being managed. As far as child services is concerned, Amy and Scott would make great parents. They would be allowed, for example, to adopt or foster.

Yet, custody still went to Laschell Baker.

This case is being framed in the media as an example of the complicated issues surrounding surrogacy and the fact that it is largely unregulated. “Painful implications if surrogacy goes awry,” says the Seattle Times. “Surrogacy: Testing the Boundaries of Third-Party Reproduction,” reads the title of a slide show in the New York Times featuring the Kehoe case (related story, for those interested in reading it, is “Building a Baby, With Few Ground Rules“). These are definitely issues which need to be discussed.

But what also needs to be discussed is the inherent ableism in this case. In this instance, Laschell appears to have decided that mental illness made Amy Kehoe unable to parent, if we are to believe the media reports. And talked in quite graphic terms about being worried about “what might happen” if Amy didn’t take her medication. This was clearly a wedge which helped to cinch the case.

In the media reporting, the reporters mention the fact that mental illness is not a barrier to adoption, but seem almost suspicious of this, and don’t discuss the obvious implications of this situation, in which the spectre of mental illness was used to argue that Amy Kehoe should not be allowed to parent.

There’s a widespread belief that people with disabilities cannot be parents. This is especially true in the case of mental illness, which is viewed as a barrier to parenting by many able people (and, often, by the government, which throws up plenty of barriers to parenting while disabled). Many of the articles I found seemed almost sympathetic to Baker, making sure to emphasize that she was “tricked” when Kehoe didn’t undergo psychological screening or disclose her mental illness. Kehoe, the implication goes, was under an obligation to prove her psychological fitness to be a parent, because she is disabled and therefore suspect when it comes to parenting skills. Presumably Baker did not undergo similar screening.

Is this case really about the murky waters of surrogacy law? Sure it is, in part. It highlights a lot of serious problems with a process which is not tightly regulated, or which is regulated with a very coarse framework which disserves more than it serves. And it brings up a whole host of ethical issues related to surrogacy, egg and sperm donation, and assisted reproductive technology.

But to my eye, the social implication of this case are about whether or not disabled parents should (continue to) be put on trial to prove that they can be parents. Whether or not disability should be evoked as a barrier to being a good parent. Whether disabled women, in particular, should be barred from parenthood. This case evokes forced sterilization and a host of other unpleasantries which have been perpetrated on disabled women to prevent them from having a chance to parent.

And that’s what troubles me about the case of these twins, who have been treated like pawns and objects in a very large and dangerous game.