Autonomy Feminism Excludes Disabled Women
An appreciation of Rebecca Taussig's Sitting Pretty
One brief reading recommendation: I loved’s discussion of taking turns barn raising:
Some of my friends have created a spreadsheet for 2020. In it, each of us has listed a project that needs doing, and the dates we’re available to work. Each month, one family will host the rest of us, and we aim to get their project finished.
And this week, with one snow closure, one two-hour delay, and one “who knows!” slated for tomorrow, I’ve been very grateful for the three families who pitched in to drive my kids so I didn’t need to bike when the temperature was in the teens.
I first encountered Rebecca Taussig’s writing in her Romper essay, “My Disabled Body Prepared Me For Motherhood Like Nothing Else Could,” and this paragraph stood out to me:
Culturally, we’ve inscribed so much meaning into the images of a pregnant belly and a visibly disabled body. The former is shorthand for life in abundance, while the latter is so often reduced to brokenness. And we seem to have very little experience seeing the two entwined. As this baby grew in my paralyzed body, we busted through the tiny boxes allotted to us. It wasn’t that I proved my body wasn’t damaged — it very much is — but the brokenness and abundance folded into one another. As I splayed my fingers across my belly and felt our baby’s lively kicks and rolls the night before he was born, I felt awe at our stubborn, sturdy defiance.
Pregnancy, labor, and parenthood are a blend of capacity and incapacity. A yes to the baby means a no to many other parts of your previously “normal” life, whether it’s nausea changing your ability to cook, an increasingly rotund belly changing what you can reach, or the interruptions of breastfeeding changing what kind of sustained work you can take on.
Brokenness and abundance lie alongside each other, but we don’t always have the scripts to acknowledge or support this time of strong contrasts. (It reminds me a little of how G.K. Chesterton describes the strong both/and of the Catholic church in calling for justice and mercy, celibacy and children, etc. He writes in Orthodoxy: “It has kept [these virtues] side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink.”)
This made me excited to pick up Taussig’s memoir Sitting Pretty (which concludes before her baby is born). Taussig is a feminist—she cares about the ways women can be excluded, ignored, or punished for being women in male-normed spaces, but she notes that some kinds of feminism don’t have space for women like her.
There’s a kind of independence-focused feminist anthem or rhetoric that casts her as a failed woman.
I think of Micah taking off work and flying with me to a speaking gig so he can help me navigate the airports and stretch my spasming legs before bed and first thing in the morning. This year my body has deteriorated rapidly, and I've been leaning heavily on this man. I might even say I've become some kind of dependent on him, just as he was dependent on me when he broke his femur a couple of years ago. It doesn't feel stifling or limiting or disempowering (like the claustrophobia I felt in my first marriage). It feels sturdy.
As Taussig sees it, these anthems express a partial truth, which gets mistaken for the whole. She’s grateful for songs like Kesha’s “Woman” (warning: profanity) and likes letting off steam. But it doesn’t work as a way of life.
Do we lose something when we worship independence and villainize dependence? I get why freedom is everything, but do we miss out on interdependence when we cling so tightly to autonomy? I wonder, what could disabled women add to our conversations about the possibility of being an empowered independent/ dependent woman?
The kind of negative freedom (freedom from) that autonomy and resistance focuses on can be important to secure breathing room. But, once you’ve made a little space from an oppressive relationship or environment, you need to answer questions of positive freedom (freedom for).
In some feminist spaces, the question of what it means to be a woman is so focused on what women have to resist that it doesn’t leave as much room for what women are. There’s a strain of feminism that Taussig feels leaves her out of the category of “woman”—because womanhood is defined by resisting objectification and harassment.
[W]hen I see women represented, when women have the microphone, when women talk about being women—my grip on my role as a card-carrying Woman feels less secure. […] I can feel myself straining to fit into a constructed notion of what it actually means to be a woman—the verified version. Womanhood means enduring harassment, men staring at your boobs…
Taussig is rarely cat-called, but she received plenty of unwelcome attention to her body—it’s just more centered on her disability than her potential sexual life.
If being a woman is defined primarily by the negative experiences of misogyny, then the less relevant those concerns are to your lived experience, the less womanly you become. The most empowered, safest, happiest woman graduates from womanhood, and becomes… a neutral person at last? Unsex me now, indeed.