Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Sarah Stone, the "Complete Midwife"

 Sarah Stone, midwife (letter dated 25 December 1736)


The daughter of a midwife and the mother of a midwife, Sarah Stone was an English woman who practiced midwifery, as she writes, for "five and thirty year," from about the year 1703 until at least 1737.  

Sarah Stone, title page,
A Complete Practice
of Midwifery
(1737)
Almost all that is known about Stone comes from what we can find in her book, A Complete Practice of Midwifery, which was published in 1737. The work seems to represent a culmination of Stone's life's work--intended as a practical guide for midwives, it seems to have been completed just as she was was ending her career. 

According to the title page of the book, Stone is living in London with her husband at the time the book appeared: the author of the work is identified on the title page as "Sarah Stone, of Piccadilly." A few pages later, at the end of her preface, she adds that she has been writing "from my house in Piccadilly, over-against the Right Hon[orable] the Earl of Burlington's."

Also included in her preface are details of where she has lived and practiced during her career as a midwife--she began her work in Somersetshire, in Bridgewater and in Taunton, where women's difficult and taxing work in "woolen manufactory" has "been the occasion" of many of the obstetrical difficulties they face. Stone has also practiced in Bristol, where, according to her preface, it has become "quite a fashion" for having a "Man-Midwife," a practice Stone altogether opposes.

Throughout her preface, Stone emphasizes men's lack of preparation for the profession of midwifery. A young man who has taken a course of anatomy as part of his apprenticeship to a barber-surgeon "immediately sets up for a man-midwife," she scoffs--as if "dissecting the dead" has prepared them for caring for living mothers and babies. 

For her part, Stone does not think it "amiss" to have "seen dissections and read anatomy," as she herself has done, but a midwife's training is, and must be, more rigorous. She notes that she had been "instructed in midwifery" by her mother and had served an apprenticeship (assisting as her "deputy") for "six full years." 

Following her preface, Stone includes a letter written to her husband (referred to only as "Mr. Stone") by "Dr. Allen of Bridgewater," dated 25 December 1736. This letter confirms details about Stone's career, beginning with the doctor's admission that when the couple had "removed from Bristol" and moved to London, he had fears about whether they could succeed there. "You know the only objection I had to your leaving Bristol for London," he writes, "was my fear how you would be able to get an acquaintance in London at your time of life." But, given their "knowledge and skill" in their professions and their "honesty, industry, and care" in their business, he seems convinced that the pair will "surmount" any difficulties they face.

The doctor praises Sarah Stone--according to the account of her career in his letter, she "began her practice" in Bridgewater with "great applause and success." Though she was "then very young," she had been "taught her skill by the famous Mrs. Holmes her mother, the best midwife that I ever knew." Allen adds further that, from Bridgewater, where Sarah Stone had started her practice, she had extended her practice into Taunton, where she "enlarged her experience," before moving on, as noted, to Bristol, which "perfected and fitted her for the Metropolis, London."

Following these introductory materials, Stone turns to her guide. This is no textbook for beginners--rather, A Complete Practice is a series of "observations," that is, forty-three case studies through which she illustrates her approach to challenging obstetrical problems.* From her narrative accounts of difficult births, we can fill in a few more details about Sarah Stone's life and practice. 

As Stone introduces each case, she notes where the birth that is the subject of each "observation" occurred: a farm in Huntspill (Bridgewater), for example, or the home of a gentlewoman living on Vine Street in Bristol. The range of locations shows how far a single midwife traveled as she was summoned at all hours by women in need. 

On rare occasion, a glimpse into her personal life emerges: she is called to attend a farmer's wife in Bromfield, noting that it is just three months after the death of her own mother, who had trained her in midwifery and with whom she practiced--the farmer's woman had been in labor for four days, but the woman's friends had persuaded her, at first, not to call on Sarah Stone because they thought she was still too young to oversee a birth on her own. 

In one of the last cases she describes, Stone includes a reference to her daughter, and this allows us to date her daughter's own practice to about the year 1726. According to the account she provides, Stone is faced with a woman in labor who is hemorrhaging. The midwife describes her successful treatment of this poor woman, who "flooded prodigiously." In describing how to treat this condition, Stone notes that her daughter, too, will be able to further spread this information for "the benefit of my sisters in the profession": "having a daughter that has practiced the same art these ten years, with as good a success as myself, I shall leave it in her power to make it known." (Presumably, Stone's published guide will also help in disseminating her successful treatment!)

After the publication of her guide for midwives, Stone disappears from the historical record. 

The most detailed study of Sarah Stone remains Isobel Grundy's "Sarah Stone: Englightenment Midwife," in Roy Porter's Medicine in the Englightenment (1995).

Still, with Stone's Complete Midwife easily accessible online, you can read about her life and work in her own words for yourself.

*Most references to Stone's Complete Practice repeat the same information--that there are 42 case studies, perhaps repeating Grundy's reference to "42 observations" (p. 132). Yet there are 43 numbered observations in Stone's book.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Beatriz of Portugal--Queen Consort of Castile, But Never Queen Regnant of Portugal

Beatriz of Portugal, queen of Castile (disputed queen of Portugal, "reign" ends 16 December 1383)


Another queen who might have ruled . . . 

queen of Castile
(detail from a sixteenth-century ms.,
Liber genealogiae regum Hispanie)
Born in February 1373, Beatriz of Portugal was the daughter of Fernando I of Portugal and Leonor Teles--I love the fact that Fernando is known as "the Handsome" (o Formoso) or "the Inconstant" (o Inconstante) while Leonor is "the Treacherous" (a Aleivosa). Whatever their nicknames, they were quite a pair.

Leonor Teles was married in 1365 to a Portuguese nobleman, João Lourenço da Cunha, with whom she had two children. a daughter who died in infancy and a son, Alvaro da Cunha. 

Fernando, meanwhile, inherited the throne of Portugal in 1367 but decided that wasn't enough, so when Pedro of Castile died in 1369, Fernando claimed the throne of Castile too. 

Fernando went to war to get it, but the resulting conflict with Enrique of Trastámara, who also claimed the throne, was so bad that the pope intervened--the terms of treaty settling the first of the so-called Guerras Fernandinas, negotiated in 1371, not only required Fernando to relinquish his claims but to marry Leonor of Castile, the victorious Enrique's daughter.

So, after this detour, a refresher is in order: in late 1371, Leonor Teles was already married, and Fernando of Portugal had promised to marry Leonor of Castile--but that didn't stop the two from marrying each other. Leonor Teles abandoned her husband and child, "married" Fernando of Portugal in a secret ceremony on 5 May 1372, and gave birth to Beatriz nine months later. Traditional marriage, huh?

Fernando would later attempt to ensure his daughter's legitimacy--and her ability to inherit his throne--by having Leonor's first marriage annulled. In 1376, the Portuguese Cortes affirmed Beatriz as her father's heir.

As the game of thrones played out on the Iberian peninsula, a number of marriage alliances, with Beatriz as the pawn, were made and broken--a betrothal was made, first, with an illegitimate son of Enrique II (1376) and then, when Juan I inherited the throne of Castile after Enrique's death, with his son, another Enrique, the future Enrique III (1380). Still scheming to gain the throne of Castile with his English allies, Beatriz's father betrothed his daughter to Edward, son of the first duke of York (1381), then, when he changed his politics again, with Juan I's son, the future Ferdinand I of Aragon (1382), and, finally, not with the future Ferdinand I of Aragon after all, but with his father, Juan I of Castile (1383). Whew! 

This last betrothal stuck, and Beatriz of Portugal married King Juan on 14 May 1383, becoming queen of Castile. Her father, Fernando of Portugal, died just five months later, on 22 October 1383, leaving Beatriz as his only heir. The dowager queen, Leonor Teles, claimed the regency in order to preserve her daughter's inheritance. Despite her horrible reputation, the queen-regent was accepted in her new role and had her daughter proclaimed queen. But once the accession of Beatriz was announced, trouble ensued. 

Fearful that Portugal would be united with Castile (and its independence lost), resistance grew, with jealous factions pitted against one another. Many in the nobility could see benefits for themselves in union with a Castile, but popular sentiment ran hot against Beatriz and Juan and in favor of João of Aviz, the illegitimate son of Pedro I (and, thus, the half-brother of Beatriz's father, King Fernando). 

Civil war ensued. Leonor Teles was forced to flee from Lisbon, and she turned to the king of Castile for assistance, asking him to re-establish her regency and to establish Beatriz on the throne of Portugal. In January 1384, Juan of Castile invaded Portugal, but after months of battle, he returned to Castile. 

Although fighting continued, in March of 1385 the Portuguese Cortes declared Beatriz illegitimate and proclaimed João of Aviz as king of Portugal. Funny how that worked, isn't it? The Cortes decided that the marriage of Fernando and Leonor Teles had been invalid, making Beatriz illegitimate. João, meanwhile, was the son of King Pedro and a woman identified as Teresa Lourenço, making him also illegitimate. 

Juan of Castile returned to Portugal once more, but he was defeated by the new king of Portugal--by August of 1385 it was all over, and Juan of Castile was forced to give up the fight (though the official end of the conflict between Castile and Portugal would not come until 1411, with the signing of the treaty of Ayllón).

In the mean time, Beatriz did not renounce her claim to the throne of Portugal. Even after Juan of Castile's death in 1390, her inheritance rights remained a vexed question that would outlive the would-be queen herself.

As for Beatriz--she was only ten years old when she married the twenty-five-year-old king of Castile, and just eighteen when she became a widow. Her marriage had produced no children, nor did she remarry, unlike so many royal women.

There is no documentation for the year of her death--but her properties were either dispersed or returned to the crown in 1420, suggesting that she had died. 

Detail of the tomb of
Beatriz of Portugal, queen of Castile,
Monastery of Sancti Spiritus, Toro, Zamora
Meanwhile, Enrique III, whose mother, Eleanor of Aragon, had been Juan of Castile's first wife,  succeeded his father on the throne of Castile. In 1388, he had married a woman whom we have met before, Catherine of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and his second wife, Constance of Castile. 

And in 1387, João of Aviz, the man who became king of Portugal, had married Philippa of Lancaster, Catherine's elder half-sister, the daughter of John of Gaunt and his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. And Philippa was the mother of another woman we have met before, Isabella, infanta of Portugal and duchess of Burgundy

César Olivera Serrano's Beatriz de Portugal: La pugna dinástica Avís-Trastámara is available online; if you can read Spanish, you are in luck (click here). Otherwise, although they are quite dated and vehemently anti-Leonor Teles, Edward McMurdo's History of Portugal (click here) and Henry Morse Stephens's Portugal (click here) offer extended accounts of the Portuguese succession crisis and its aftermath. 


Sunday, December 5, 2021

Are Women Human? (Back to the Future, Part 17)

It's been nearly 49 years since the Roe v. Wade decision was issued by the US Supreme Court on 22 January 1973. Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" in the case, lived in Texas, where abortion was was illegal, except when the life of the pregnant woman was at stake. Opponents of abortion have never accepted the court's 7-2 decision, and the efforts to overturn Roe have been unending in the decades since.

Now, with a new Texas abortion law in place--one that clearly violates the Roe decision (and doesn't allow abortion even to preserve the life of a woman), and with the Supreme Court considering a Mississippi abortion case that could overturn Roe, the crazy train to Gilead is picking up steam as it barrels down the track--we're now hurtling back to the future at a breakneck pace. Who is behind the wheel?

Is it Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississipi, who insists on "individual liberty" and "my body, my choice" when it comes to vaccines, but is hell-bent on denying women the same control over their own bodies when it comes to pregnancy? 

Is it Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the most recently installed Supreme Court justice, who blithely hand-waves a woman's autonomy, agency, and self-determination--and who thinks it's perfectly fine to force a woman to give birth because she can just dump an unwanted newborn at a "safe haven" drop-box while she is on her way to the gym or the grocery store and, hey, problem solved!

Or is it Madison Cawthorn, unbelievably an elected member of the US House of Representatives, who has said the quiet part out loud--it's not like women are people, they are just like pickle jars, only made of clay instead of glass, "earthenware vessels," in his words, with a baby stuck inside instead of a dill. (He's so proud of himself he not only repeated his words in a tweet, he included a clip of his speech as recorded on C-SPAN.)

The truth is, no one is driving this runaway train. We're heading not just back to a time before Margaret Atwood's fictional Gilead or even before the U.S. pre-Roe--we're heading back to a much grimmer future.

And so I have posted here an essay I first wrote in August 2012--it was originally printed as an op-ed in my local newspaper, but I had only 800 words, hardly enough for what I wanted to say. I published this more complete piece on my own website in September 2012.

Without any revision, the piece is as relevant today as it was when I wrote it nearly ten years ago . . .*

Are Women Human?


Last March, just a month into the spring semester, a shy student who usually sat quietly in the back row came dancing into the classroom, waving a handful of printed pages over her head. Instead of climbing over chairs and other students and backpacks on her way to her usual retreat in the last row of desks, she came right up to me, where I was standing in the front of the room. What was she so excited about? She had a photocopy of Jessica Winter’s Time essay, “Are Women People?” in her hands, and she was excited because she thought it was a perfect piece for our class discussion.

Christine de Pizan,
from MS Harley 4431
(British Library)
She was right—it was perfect for our discussion. We had just finished reading Christine de Pizan’s fifteenth-century defense of women, The Book of the City of Ladies, on the very day that Winter’s essay had been published. And the question of women's humanity was very much on Pizan's mind as she wrote. 

But the fact that Winter was struggling with that same question more than six hundred years later was deeply unsettling. Are women people, she asks? “I’ve always assumed that women are fully autonomous human citizens—who vote, even!” Winter wrote, “but now I’m not so certain.”

The question of whether women are, rightly considered, “people” has a long history. Winter certainly isn’t the first to ask. And her wonderful piece, which appeared in the midst of the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy, is smart, articulate, and funny. (Are women people? “Only when they’re pregnant.” “They’re more like really expensive blow-up dolls.” “Not quite—they’re objects with certain people-like traits.”) But Winter doesn’t address the long history of the question she was confronting.

Are women human? Philosophers, theologians, biologists and physicians, lawyers—well, all men, really—have been asking this very question for millennia. And for more than two thousand years, their answer to that question has pretty much been the same. Are women human? Sort of, maybe, well, in a way, but not really, no, I don’t think so.

My students had been shocked when they first began reading The Book of City of Ladies. There, in the opening pages, Pizan’s first-person narrator, “Christine,” is reduced to the depths of self-loathing:
I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which . . . is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature.
My students were horrified. How could a woman write such things about women? How could Pizan suggest women were "vile" or "abominable," much less conclude that they were the source of "every evil and vice"? Why would she even suggest the possibility that women were “monstrosities in nature”? And why would “Christine” pray to God in her agony, asking, “Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a male”? 

That’s when we had to stop to look at the complex, contentious, ugly history of the question to which Pizan was responding in 1405. Are women human?

When Pizan, through her first-person narrator, "Christine," refers to women as “monstrosities in nature,” she’s quoting Aristotle, whose profoundly influential views about women still reverberate in today’s political debates. From Aristotle’s perspective, men and women are clearly so different that it might well be asked whether they even belong to the same species: “One might raise the question why woman does not differ from man in species, when female and male are contrary and their difference is a contrariety” (Metaphysics). Although Aristotle ultimately decides that women do belong to the same species as men, he rejects the views of earlier philosophers that women, like men, contribute “seed” to reproduction. Women are cold, infertile, and passive; they contribute only matter or “stuff” to reproduction. Men alone contribute seed, soul, life force—in other words, the right stuff.

But Aristotle’s most influential “truth” about women is found in his biological work (On the Generation of Animals). A woman may be the same species as a man, but she is by no means his equal:
Just as it sometimes happens that deformed offspring are produced by deformed parents, and sometimes not, so the offspring produced by a female are sometimes female, sometimes not, but male. The reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male.
So there it is. Are women human? To be fully human is to be male. To be female is to be deformed, a failure of the reproductive process. To be female is to be almost human, just not quite.

And thus another question arises. What is the place of this almost-human-but-not-quite creature in society? To be male is to be fully rational—the human species is distinguished by its rationality, according to Aristotle. But to be female is to be irrational. Women have some rational faculties, but only within limits (Politics):
A question may indeed be raised, whether there is any excellence at all in a slave beyond and higher than merely instrumental and ministerial qualities. . . . Since they are men and share in rational principle, it seems absurd to say that they have no virtue. A similar question may be raised about women and children. . . .
Yes, a woman has some rational faculty, Aristotle decides, but her limited rational faculty is “without authority”—the child also has some rational faculty, “but it is immature.” Presumably, a male child’s rational faculty will mature; a girl’s will not. Without authority, a woman is bound to obey. She is a “natural subject”: just as the “free man rules over the slave,” “the male rules over the female” (and “the man over the child”). A woman’s “virtues” are silence and obedience.

The influence of Aristotle’s view of woman is incalculable. The Roman physician, Galen, adopted Aristotle’s conclusions about women. Women were necessary for reproduction, certainly: “there needs to be a female,” Galen concedes. “Indeed, you ought not to think that our Creator would purposely make half the whole race imperfect, and as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation” (On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body). The “advantage” to her “mutilation” is her role in reproduction. A woman can give birth.

Galen would remain the foremost medical authority well into the early modern world. Aristotle, meanwhile, was so important that he was, throughout the Middle Ages, known simply as “the philosopher.” No name was necessary. Thus Dante does not need to name him in the fourth canto of Inferno—there, in the middle of all the great philosophers, Dante writes, is il maestro di color che sanno, “the master of those who know.”

So famous and influential is Aristotle that when Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies in 1405, she didn’t need to identify the source of the view that women were “monstrosities in nature.” That wasn’t her view, or the view of “Christine,” her first-person narrator—that was Aristotle’s view and the view of all the male authorities who followed him. No matter what else they disagreed about, philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, doctors, poets, and politicians could “all concur in one conclusion.” They all “judged, decided, and concluded against women.” Women were the “vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice.” They were “monstrosities in nature.”

And it wasn’t just the Greeks and the Romans, of course—Christian theologians were also pretty clear on the subject. Consider the views of St. Augustine, one of the great Latin "fathers" of the church. On the one hand, he seems to reject a woman’s femaleness as a physical defect, rendering her less than fully human (male). “There are some who think that in the resurrection all will be men,” he writes, considering the view of those Christian thinkers who argued that, in heaven, imperfect women would find themselves perfected, losing their female bodies and becoming male. Augustine disagrees: “I think that those others are more sensible who have no doubt that both sexes will remain in the resurrection” (The City of God). He agrees that, after resurrection, “all blemishes of the body will be gone,” but a woman’s sex “is her nature and no blemish.” Both men and women inherit grace; “You created male and female, but in Your spiritual grace, they are as one” (Confessions).

But what happens after the resurrection isn’t necessarily true in this world, and while spiritually male and female “are as one,” that doesn’t quite translate to full equality. In his commentary on the meaning of Genesis, Augustine clarifies his position. How were Adam and Eve created, he asks. Adam is made in the image of God; he is complete, perfect. Eve, created from Adam’s rib, is not created in the image of God. What is her role? “Is it to work the earth with [Adam]?” Not at all, for “if the need was there, the help of another man would have been preferable.” Is it to be a companion? To be a comforting presence, in case “solitude weighed on him”? No again. “To live and to talk to each other, how preferable is the companionship of two male friends than that of a man and a woman!” Then what is a woman good for? What is her purpose? “I do not see for what goal woman would have been given to man as a helpmate if not for generating children.”

Are women human? Well, if to be fully human is to be made in the image of God, to be a helpmate in work, to be a companion in solitude, then no. A woman is sort of human. She is useful for one human function—she’s necessary for making babies.

In the centuries that followed, Christian bishops debated whether women could be called “human beings” (homines) since the word homo, used in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, meant, strictly speaking, “man” (just as adam is the Hebrew word for “man” of “mankind”) and whether women had souls. Some of these debates may be rumored or mythic—according to one such story, the Council of Nicea (323 C.E.) debated the issue of whether women had souls and took a vote, with the women-have-souls side “winning” by only one vote. Another such account has the Council of Macon (585 C.E.) deciding that women don’t, after all, have souls. Apocryphal or not, these stories were believed, their "truths" about women perpetuated through the centuries.

Meanwhile, Aristotelian “truths” were further melded with Christian thought and belief. The greatest medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas, asks a question that can at first seem rather startling to a modern reader: “Whether the woman should have been made in the first production of things?” (Summa Theologica). The answer is a foregone conclusion—the Christian God could never have made a mistake. In his answer to this question, which thus really isn’t a question at all, Aquinas replies that woman’s creation was “necessary.” He agrees with Aristotle that women are defective, and that women are “naturally subject to men.” Women are “the occasion for sin,” but if God had “deprived the world of all those things which proved an occasion of sin, the universe would have been imperfect.” God created women so that sin would exist! Oh, and women are also needed to be a “help” to man—their “matter” is needed for men’s “seed” in the process of reproduction.

Of course academics and scholars and linguists have contextualized, rationalized, explained, translated, retranslated, and interpreted these authors, their texts, and even their words for generations. And of course I am pulling quotations out of much larger contexts here. Of course I am not dealing with the nuances of the original Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts. But what I have indicated here is exactly how these “truths” and authorities have always been quoted, rationalized, explained, interpreted, and understood. That’s why we see them so clearly in Christine de Pizan, who wrote to defend women against such misogynist “truths.”

To the question “are women human,” Pizan responds unequivocally and unambiguously. Yes, women are human: “There is not the slightest doubt that women belong to the people of God and the human race as much as men.” she asserts. They are not “monstrosities in nature.” They are “not another species or dissimilar race,” they are fully human.

But Pizan was fighting a losing battle. Perhaps nowhere is that lost battle more obvious than in an anonymous pamphlet published in 1595, A New Disputation against Women, in Which It Is Proved That They Are Not Human Beings (Disputatio nova contra mulieres, qua probatur eas hominess non esse).** Whether or not it was originally intended as satire, it was not widely read as satire—it was reprinted, answered, translated, plagiarized, and adapted, including a 1647 variation attributed to one “Horatio Plato,” Che le donne non habbino anima e the non siano della specie degli huomini, e vienne comprobato da molti luoghi della Scrittura santa (Women Do Not Have a Soul and Do Not Belong to the Human Race, as Is Shown by Many Passages of Holy Scripture), which itself was then translated and republished. Indeed, the Disputation remained in print well into the eighteenth century (a French edition was published in 1766).

The anonymous pamphlet,
Disputatio nova contra mulieres,
1595
According to the argument presented, not even a woman’s reproductive capacity qualified her as sort of human— “the smith is not able to forge a sword unless he has the help of his hammer,” “the scribe is not able to write unless he likewise has the help of a pen,” “a tailor is unable to darn unless he has the help of a needle.” And, obviously, “a man is not able to beget unless he has the help of a woman.” But just as hammers, pens, and needles are so clearly not human, neither are women. And this is only one of the fifty “invincible” proofs offered to show that “woman is not human, nor is she saved.”

The uncertainty about women’s humanity—or, rather, the certainty that whatever they are, women aren’t fully rational, equally human—is at the root of so much of the institutional inequality that women faced and still face. In the American colonies, when Thomas Jefferson included the claim that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, he certainly didn’t mean female persons in his construction of “all men.” 

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that women gained some measure of legal, political, and economic equality, presumably a measure of their humanity, and not until early in the twentieth that they finally got the right to vote. Reproductive rights took longer yet. At the end of the twentieth century, it almost looked as if, in the United States at least, we were ready to answer the question “are women human” with an unambiguous “yes.” 

But lately things have taken a turn for the worse. Much worse. Here we are now, in 2012, right back where we started. Women have been reduced to their reproductive capacities. They are irrational and incapable of making decisions for themselves about their own lives. They can’t be trusted to know whether they’ve been raped or not—is it really “legitimate” rape? If they wind up pregnant, it's proof that they haven't been raped—women's imperfect, deformed female bodies have magical powers to prevent pregnancy if they are truly victims of rape. (The medical view that pregnancy cannot result from rape goes back to the Middle Ages—at least to the thirteenth century, when Thomas Aquinas was asking whether God made a big goof when he created women.)

If women can't even be trusted to know whether they've had consensual sex or been raped, what decisions can they be trusted to make about their own (imperfect) bodies? If they don't know what kind of sex they've had, surely they can’t properly make decisions about whether and when to have children. Those decisions must be taken out of their hands and placed in the hands of wise (male) humans. Like those of George Bush and the rest of these guys, shown here signing yet another bill limiting women's healthcare and reproductive decisions.

George Bush, 5 November 2003,
 signing the Partial Birth Abortion Act--
WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE??
Are women human? The Sanctity of Human Life Act (HR 212), introduced into the 112th Congress by Todd Akin (he of the "legitimate rape" and the magical ability of women's bodies to "shut that whole thing [possible pregnancy] down" if they are raped) and Paul Ryan, among others, declares that “the life of each human being begins with fertilization.” 

According to definitions helpfully provided in the bill, a “human zygote, a one-celled human embryo” has all the legal rights of a “human” or “human being,” by which the bill means “each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, beginning with the earliest stage of development, created by the process of fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent.”

Is a zygote human? According to this definition, a zygote is clearly and unambiguously fully human.

Are women human? Their autonomy, bodily integrity, and independence guaranteed under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment? Are they thinking beings? Are they entitled to make decisions about their own lives? That, unfortunately, is not nearly so clear.

The Violence Against Women Act expired at the end of September 2011. After nearly a year of wrangling, it still has not been renewed. Women are apparently not human enough to guarantee their protection from from violence. Sixty-eight U.S. Senators thought women were worth protecting, passing the renewal of the VAWA. In the U.S. House, meanwhile, 221 members, a majority of those voting in May, agreed that, while some women might be human enough to bother about, Native American women, LGBT women, and undocumented immigrant women were definitely not quite human enough to worry about; the House version of the VAWA left them out. If they have to be included, well, it's just better to forget about the whole thing. There has been no reconsideration of the Violence Against Women Act in the House since.***

Meanwhile, the Equal Pay Act was first passed in 1963, its aim to end wage differences based on sex. In that year, women earned 58.9 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today, nearly 50 years later (!), women earn just 77.4 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gain of less than half a cent a year. Are women human? Not according to our value of their work.****

And while they may have been "given" the vote, God forbid women should talk about what and who to vote for. Overcome by the sound of women's voices at the Democratic National Convention, CNN's Erick Erickson [in September 2012] responded, "First night of the Vagina Monologues in Charlotte going as expected." Although more than 30 men also spoke during the Tuesday session, no one tweeted "First night of the Penis Lectures going as expected" or "First night of the Dick Talks going as expected."

Because men are human—they have ideas, opinions, hopes, and dreams. We should listen to them. 

But do women have ideas, opinions, hopes, and dreams worthy our attention? Of course not. They are merely reproductive organs, useful for sexual intercourse and childbirth, not for thinking. Or, God forbid, for talking.

Are women human?

The answer still seems to be sort of. Maybe. Well, in a way, but not really. No, I don’t think so.

Or, as Jessica Winter concludes, “they’re objects with certain people-like traits.”

. . . 

*I've updated the links--some of the original links no longer worked--and added a few others for context (the Sandra Fluke/Rush Limbaugh controversy, for example).

**For the English translation of the 1595 text, see Theresa M. Kenney's edition"Women Are Not Human," an Anonymous Treatise and Responses. An Italian translation of the 1595 text was published in 1647, which spurred a savage response by Arcangela Tarabotti, Che le donne siano della spezie deglie uomini (Women Are of the Human Species, 1651). Kenney includes a translation of Tarabotti's piece as one of the texts in the volume.

***As indicated in the headnote, this piece was written and first published in August 2012. Since then, unfortunately but not surprisingly, efforts to permanently enact the Violence against Women Act have failed. 

After the VAWA reauthorization failed in 2012, it was temporarily reauthorized in 2013, but it expired once again on 21 December 2018. Reinstated once more in January 2019, it expired again just a month later, 15 February 2019. Another attempt to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act was made in April of 2019, but negotiations to pass it stalled in November.

HR 1620, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act, was introduced into the 117th US Congress on 8 March 2021. It passed the House on 17 March 2021 by a vote of 244 to 172 (yes, you read that right--apparently 172 members of the House seemed to think violence against women was okay). The bill was received by the Senate on 18 March 2021. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings seven months later, on 5 October 2021. And there it remains . . .

****I have written several posts on the issue of equal pay--to read more, click on the label "pay equity," below. In 2021, women still make only 82 cents for every dollar earned by men--though obviously these broad figures do not take into consideration the wage gape for women of color or the terrible price working women have paid during the global pandemic.

Finally, on this same question--"Are Women Human?"--you might enjoy Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Consideration of the Major Error in the Discussion of Woman Suffrage" (access here); two essays by Dorothy Sayers, "Are Women Human?" and "The Human-Not-Quite Human," published in a single small volume (click here); and Catharine A. MacKinnon's 2007 collection of essaysAre Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, which puts the question into a global context (her 1999 essay, "Are Women Human?" is available here.) 

Update, 11 December 2021: Here's another conductor on the crazy train. Governor Greg Abbott, who signed Texas S.B. 8, effectively banning abortion, strongly supports your right to bodily integrity: "This is whether or not somebody is going to have something put into their body that they do not want put into their body. That’s more than freedom, that’s the right to control and secure your own body. And that’s exactly why we’re winning on this issue." Except, ooops, he doesn't mean women who object to forced pregnancy--he means he doesn't want to have to get a COVID vaccine. These guys just can't help themselves, can they?

Update, 16 March 2022: As if you needed any more information about Republican views of a woman's humanity . . . On Monday, 14 March 2022, the Idaho Legislature, led by Republicans, passed S. B. 1309, which is now awaiting Republican Governor Brad Little's signature--the bill grants the right to control a woman's body to relatives of a "preborn" fetus. But here's the twist on the vigilantism of Texas S. B 8--in Idaho, random strangers can't sue anyone who helps a woman who is seeking an abortion. Nope--as legal experts Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern note, the Idaho law would allow "the father, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles of a 'preborn child' to veto an abortion. The law applies not just to minors, but to any adult seeking the procedure." And no wimpy $10,000 bounty either--in S. B. 1309, damages start at $20,000 (plus, of course, attorney's fees). 

So, no, woman, you're not human, not a grown-up person, capable of making decisions for yourself--crazy old Uncle Harry can make that decision for you and just veto the whole damn thing. 

And, hey, no worries if you happen to be a rapist!!! Be assured, you can still collect: "The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Steven Harris, has confirmed that if a rapist has 10 siblings, each can sue for $20,000." Not only can the rapist cash in, his family can too: "The bill therefore makes it incredibly easy for a sexual assailant’s family to further victimize the woman by profiting from her pregnancy."

In case you were wondering--Republicans hold a 28-7 majority in the Idaho Senate and a 58-12 majority in the Idaho House of Representatives. S. B. 1309 passed in the Idaho Senate by a vote of 28-6 and in the Idaho House of Representatives by a vote of 51-14 (also good to know--a couple of House Republicans voted against the bill because they wanted to ban abortion from the moment of fertilization, and this bill doesn't do that . . . ) 

Update, 22 March 2022: Are women human? Another big answer in the "NO" column. This time it's Oklahoma, where many Texas women have been seeking healthcare after the passage of Texas S. B. 8. No fooling around with a six-week time limit for women to exercise their control over their own bodies. Nope. Oklahoma House Bill 4327 grants full personhood to an "unborn child" that is "in any stage of gestation from fertilization until birth," and bans abortions "at any point during pregnancy."  And, by the way, according to the bill, "pregnancy" is understood to be "calculated from the first day of the woman's last menstrual period," but the bill bans any abortion counting "30 days after a person’s last menstrual period." 

Ha ha ha! Fooled you there! That word "person," as in "after a person's last menstrual period"? That's from reporter Mariel Padilla's piece posted at The 19th News. The only time "person" is used in the Oklahoma bill is in the bill's lengthy discussion of the way the law will be enforced: "This act shall be enforced exclusively through private civil actions." As in the Texas bill, a person can bring a civil action and sue everyone and anyone involved in an abortion. Yup. Another one for vigilante "justice." 

Anyway, I've been a woman for 70 years, and the confusing way this bill calculates when pregnancy begins just doesn't make logical sense--much less medical sense--to me.

Update, 23 March 2022: Calling it "unwise" (no kidding), Idaho Governor Brad Little--a Republican, in case I need to spell it out for you, signed Idaho's S. B. 1309. What the fuck, Brad? He believes that "this legislation risks retraumatizing victims by affording monetary incentives to wrongdoers and family members of rapists," but he signs it anyway? Because women can't be trusted to make sensible decisions?

Update, 5 April 2022: And now it's Oklahoma, with the state house passing S. B. 612, a total ban on abortion. The bill passed without any questions being asked, much less floor debate. An update to the update: the bill was signed into law by the governor on 12 April.

Update, 13 April 2022: Kentucky's H. B. 3, vetoed last week by the state's governor, overrode that veto and takes effect immediately, banning all abortions. In addition, 
the law institutes new regulations for patients who have abortions, including requirements that many patients with abortions file “birth-death certificates.” Physicians who perform abortions also have to report each procedure to the state, along with the method of abortion and substantial biographical detail about both the person who received the abortion and their sexual partner, including their age, race, ethnicity, hometown and health information.
HB3 also enhances the state’s power to audit abortion providers, create a state website that publishes the names of all physicians who provide abortions in Kentucky, bans telemedicine for medication abortion, further restricts the circumstances under which minors can get abortions. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Go, Kentucky, first state in the nation to go all-in on denying women personhood.

Update, 14 April 2022: Okay, no surprises, I guess, but today it's Florida. I would say it's the same old, same old, except this ban has an extra-dose of cruelty: no exceptions for rape, incest, or human trafficking. (Although maybe, in the deluge, I've just missed that in other laws.)

There seems to be no point any more in keeping up these "updates." Let's just say that, soon, the question "Are Women Human" will be answered, in a majority of states, with a big, fat "NO."

Update, 2 May 2022: That didn't take long. This answer from the Supreme Court is clearly "NO."

Update, 2 May 2022: And now, Louisiana has decided that "equal protection of the laws" should be granted to "an individual human being" from the "moment of fertilization"--though, obviously, this law does not apply to a female human being. House Bill 813 would also classify abortion as a homicide, allowing for women to be charged with murder, and would limit birth control options (such as oral contraceptives that prevent implantation and IUDs). Also, good to note: Louisiana has the highest maternal mortality rate in the U.S. 

Bottom line: women aren't real people, but a fertilized egg is. 

And if women aren't real people in Louisiana, god help Black women, because the state sure won't. In an interview for the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (19 May 2022; the series is called Public Health on the Brink, I did you not), Senator Bill Cassidy had this to say about the state's horrific maternal mortality rate: “About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear.” Yeah, he actually said that--just don't count Black women. He's a fucking doctor! M.D., Louisiana State University--for shame. Best online comment in response to Cassidy's dumbassery: "Prostate cancer death rates are only bad if you count men."

Update, 3 May 2022: Oklahoma again. This time a vigilante law--S. B. 1503 "would also allow private citizens to bring a civil lawsuit against a person who performs or induces an abortion, intends to perform an abortion, or knowingly aids or abets an abortion, such as paying for the procedure. Under the bill, relief would include at least $10,000 in statutory damages for each abortion the defendant performed or aided in violation of the act, legal fees and compensatory damages." At least this Oklahoma bill doesn't allow a woman's rapist to collect the bounty. (Looking at you, Idaho.)

Update, 10 May 2022: In the U.S. Senate today, Steve Daines (Republican, Montana), compared women to sea turtles and eagles, arguing that if we protect "pre-born baby turtles" and "pre-born baby eagles," we should ban abortion. Or something like that . . . Pretty sure that he must think that women are animals, just not human animals. (Neither a turtle nor a bird is a mammal, so I'm not even sure what class of animal women might be . . . )

Update, 19 May 2022: Jeez, Oklahoma is back at it, adding even more draconian measures just for fun. As if the two previous bills passed in the last month+ weren't bad enough, the Oklahoma House today passed S. B. 4327, this one banning abortion "from the stage of 'fertilization.'" In case you were in any doubt, Governor Kevin Stitt signed it into law.

Update, 26 May 2022: What is going on in Oklahoma????? Just a day after the state enacted a law that bans all abortions from the moment of fertilization, now gubernatorial candidate Mark Sherwood claims that life begins before conception: "I believe life begins in God before it begins at conception.” And as if the new Oklahoma law isn't enough, he wants to enact some kind of law that will increase punishments for abortion. WHAT????? The chyron running under his interview, broadcast on Real America's Voice, identifies him as a doctor--he's a doctor of naturopathy. Evidently naturopaths don't study biology. Or is he saying that men who masturbate will now be punished for abortion? I could almost get on board the crazy train with good old Mark Sherwood if that were what he was claiming . . . 

I suppose this doesn't really have anything to do with the "are women human?" question any more, but somehow I can't quit.

Is it time to quit now, when Roe is overturned? (click here)




Thursday, October 7, 2021

Garsenda of Forcalquier, "A lady doesn't dare uncover her true will"

Garsenda, countess of Forcalquier (7 October 1209), regent (?) of Provence, and poet 


It is easy to get your Garsendas confused--the Garsenda I am writing about today, Garsenda of Forcalquier, was the daughter of a woman named Garsenda and the mother of yet another woman named Garsenda.
Garsenda, as she is depicted on 
her seal

The eldest Garsenda, also known as Garsenda of Forcalquier, was born about 1160, the daughter of William IV, count of Forcalquier, and Adélaïde de Béziers. This Garsenda (I suppose we could refer to her as Garsenda I) married Rainou (or Rénier) of Saban, and gave birth to our Garsenda (Garsenda II) about the year 1180.

The elder Garsenda was William IV's only child and heir, but she predeceased her father, probably dying about the year 1193. Her daughter, our Garsenda (or Garsenda II), thus became her grandfather's heir.

In the mean time, William IV had become part of an "anti-Catalan" alliance that had gone to war against Alfonso II, king of Aragon (and also the count of Provence--for the time being, Forcalquier was independent of Provence). But in 1193, William IV was compelled to sign the treaty of Aix-en-Provence in order to settle this conflict. (To see their "accord," click here and scroll to p. xxx.)

According to its terms, his granddaughter (and now heir) Garsenda would marry Alfonso, the second son of Alfonso of Aragon and his queen, Sancha of Castile (in 1185, his father had made the younger Alfonso the count of Provence, though the king himself would continue to govern it himself until his death in 1196). In her discussion of this agreement, writer Meg Bogin notes that the purpose of this alliance is "transparent": Garsenda's marriage would be "the token of her family's subjection."

As one of the key provisions, of the treaty, William had retained for himself until his death the right of usufructus, the right to enjoy the use of his county of Forcalquier. But a conflict soon arose--according to Jean-Pierre Papon, the eighteenth-century historian of Provence, the marriage settlements might have been agreed upon, but the ceremony itself would not be held for "a few years." 

It is this delay that seems to have triggered the conflict between Garsenda's grandfather and her husband. William "revoked part of the rights to Forcalquier." To underscore his intentions, William IV married off his remaining granddaughter, Garsenda's younger sister, Béatrix, and threatened to leave Forcalquier to her.*

Even as Alfonso went to war with his wife's grandfather, his court in Provence attracted a circle of poets. One of these poets, the troubadour Gaucelm Faidit, writes Alfonso into his work, characterizing Alfonso as his rival for the love of a woman named Jourdaine d’Embrun, while another, the Catalan troubadour Ramon Vidal, describes his visit to Alfonso's court at Aix-en-Provence and praises Garsenda for her patronage. A third troubadour, Elias de Barjols, refers to Alfonso as his literary patron. 

During this period of political conflict and courtly culture, Garsenda gave birth to two children, a son, Ramon Berenguer (born in 1198) and a daughter, Garsenda (Garsenda III), known as Garsenda of Provence, probably born around the year 1200. 

The conflict between Garsenda's grandfather and husband came to an abrupt end when both men died in 1209. In February, Alfonso died in Palermo, Sicily, where he had traveled for his sister's wedding, and William died the following October. While their deaths marked an end to their disputes, it did not mean that Garsenda would quietly inherit Forcalquier and her son, Provence. 

In November, in an effort to protect her children's inheritance from disaffected (and self-interested) Provençal rivals Garsenda executed a "donation" in which she ceded Forcalquier to her young son, Ramon Berenguer, joining it once more to Provence and thus ending Forcalquier's period of independence.** (To see the "donation" of Garsenda, click here and scroll to p. xxxviii.)

In his will, Alfonso of Provence had named his elder brother, Pedro of Aragon, as his son's guardian, so Garsenda sent the boy to the Templar Castle of Monzón (according to some accounts, Ramon Berenguer was "kidnapped" and held captive there). Pedro also gave the regency of Provence to his uncle, Sancho (the brother of Alfonso of Aragon). As for Forcalquier, newly rejoined to Provence? A nephew of William IV's now claimed the county and the title for himself.

With her son in Spain, Garsenda remained in Forcalquier, Deprived of any role in government, she nevertheless enjoyed, in Papon's words, the "honors" that were due to her rank and birth. In the difficult years after her husband's death, she continued to patronize troubadour poets, and, in the courtly tradition, two of them, Elias de Barjols and Gui de Cavaillon, claimed to have been in love with her--according to the brief biography, or vida, included in manuscript collections of his poetry, Elias de Barjols dedicated two songs to her, praising her merit, her courtesy, her honesty, and her taste. 

Despite the pleasures of her court, Garsenda witnessed members of her own family attempt to acquire her son's inheritance for themselves. The attempts of both the pope and the emperor to secure peace in Provence were not successful. And then, in 1213, when Pedro of Aragon died, Sancho became regent of Aragon and passed the regency of Provence (and Forcalquier) to his son, Nuño Sánchez, inflaming the situation in the disputed territory even more. It was at this point, in the hope of reducing tensions, that Garsenda herself was recognized as regent of Provence.

The donation of Garsenda to her son, made in 1209, was ratified in 1214. (To read the ratification, click here and scroll to p. xliii.) In November of 1216, Ramon Berenguer finally left (or escaped) the fortress of Monzón and headed to Provence, in order to reclaim his inheritance. Once there, he reunited with Garsenda. At last, on 29 June 1220, he was able to dispatch the warring claimants who, in his absence, had sought his inheritance.

As for Garsenda? Although she was nominally the regent of Provence in 1213, after Nuño Sánchez returned to Spain, she does not seem to have exerted much power, although her mere presence in Provence was crucial. By remaining there, despite all the dangers, she maintained her son's interest in the disputed territory. 

Garsenda stayed in Provence after her son reestablished his rights as count, her continued presence there, as historian Mariacristina Varano notes, representing a kind of "guarantee" in his effort to establish his "new power." In 1225, Garsenda of Forcalquier retired to the abbey of La Celle

Although some sources suggest that Garsenda of Forcalquier may have lived until 1242 or even 1257, it seems most likely that she died in 1232 (Varano, p. 750). She is buried in the abbey of La Celle.

Garsenda of Forcalquiet's tomb,
Abbey of La Celle
(photo by Michel Wal)

Garsenda did more than support--and perhaps inspire--troubadour poetry. She herself is credited as the author of one of the few surviving troubadour lyrics by women, a tenson, a  literary dispute in which the two debaters speak in turn. In this two-stanza tenson, the lines of the female speaker are by Garsenda, the lines by the male speaker usually identified as composed by Gui de Cavaillon.

Here is Garsenda's stanza, first in its original Occitan, and then in Meg Bogin's translation:
Vos que.m semblatz dels corals amadors,
ja non volgra que fossetz tan doptanz;
e platz me molt quar vos destreing m'amors,
qu'atressi sui eu per vos malananz.
Ez avetz dan en vostre vulpillatge
quar no.us ausatz de preiar enardir,
e faitz a vos ez a mi gran dampnatge;
que ges dompna no ausa descobrir
tot so qu'il vol per paor de faillir.
You're so well-suited as a lover,
I wish you wouldn't be so hesitant;
but I'm glad my love makes you the penitent,
otherwise I'd be the one to suffer.
Still, in the long run it's you who stands to lose
if you're not brave enough to state your case,
and you'll do both of us great harm if you refuse.
For a lady doesn't dare uncover
her true will, lest those around her think her base.

Garsenda's daughter, Garsenda of Provence, viscountess of Béarn (Garsenda III), was a formidable woman. To read Jennifer Speed's "The Notorious Garsenda of Provence," click here.

And our Garsenda, Garsenda of Forcalquier, also had four notable granddaughters. Her son married Beatrice of Savoy, and we have met the couple's four daughters before, the "four queens": Margaret of ProvenceEleanor of Provence, Sanchia of Provence, and Beatrice of Provence. 


*For an extended discussion of William IV's war with Alfonso of Aragon, the settlement of the conflict, the details of the marriage negotiations, and the ongoing conflict between William IV and his new son-in law, see Mariacristina Varano's Espace religieux et espace politique en pays provençal au Moyen Âge (pp. 460-82).

**Forcalquier's independence lasted about a hundred and fifty years.


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Back to the Future, Part 16: It Sure Helps To Be White If You Go Missing, Or, The Case of Gabby Petitio

Back to the Future, Part 16: A Young White Woman Goes Missing and We All Go Nuts--The Case of Gabby Petitio

As a mother and grandmother, I can't imagine the pain of losing a child, much less if that child went missing under mysterious circumstances. No attention would be too much--I would want all eyes, everywhere, searching for my child.

But the frenzy over the disappearance (and likely death) of Gabby Petitio while traveling in Wyoming is about more than one missing woman, no matter how precious she may be to her family and friends. 

Since the report on her disappearance was filed on 11 September 2021, Petitio's story has occupied hours of TV and radio time, but the obsessive and relentless coverage has been driven by newer media outlets. Petitio has become the focus of hundreds of posts on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, and Facebook, her story broadcast by and for the "true crime community" on multiple podcasts and the subject of hundreds of YouTube videos (as of this moment, 1,850 YouTube videos, to be precise).

The overwhelming public interest in Petitio's disappearance serves as one more reminder of the inequities in American life. What about the hundreds of other women who have gone missing from Wyoming? Women who were not young, white, "petite," blonde, and blue-eyed? 

As only one example of all these other missing persons: according to Missing & Murdered Indigenous People, a report recently published (January 2021) by the University of Wyoming's Survey and Analysis Center, "Between 2011 and September 2020, 710 Indigenous persons were reported missing [in 22 of 23 counties in Wyoming]. Some Indigenous people were reported missing more than once during the time period, resulting in a total of 1,254 missing person records for Indigenous people." Of these 710 missing persons, "[e]ighty-five percent were juvenile, and 57% were female."

Meanwhile, nationwide, "In 2016 [the most recent annual figure available], 5,712 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), an electronic clearinghouse of crime data used by criminal justice agencies. . . ."

How many of these missing persons have you heard about? 

I am reposting here an edited version of an op-ed commentary I wrote sixteen years ago, "Missing Woman Would Be Bigger News If She Were Blond," published in The [Tacoma-Seattle] News Tribune, 7 August 2005. Insight 4. In the column, I was limited to 800 words. In 2014, I posted this longer version on my personal web page, but I removed it two years ago in a refresh of my website. 

 Who Cares about LaToyia Figueroa?


The photo of LaToyia Figueroa
that first drew my attention
when published in the New Tribune
Nicole. JonBenet. Amber. Chandra. Elisabeth. Laci. Natalee. We are on a first-name basis with all of them. Say their names, and their faces appear before our eyes. Young, female, pretty, blonde—mostly blonde, anyway—and mostly dead. We like them dead. And then there’s LaToyia Figueroa.

While the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba has occupied the mainstream media for the last two months—breathless, round-the-clock coverage on the all-news channels and, at the very moment that I sit here writing, some 257,000 hits in .05 seconds on Google—where is LaToyia Figueroa? Her story seems to have all the elements we find so irresistible: She’s young (just 24), very pretty, pregnant (5 months), and she has disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

LaToyia is not blonde, though neither was Chandra Levy or Laci Peterson. But Latoyia is not white. Since her disappearance on July 18, there have been no screaming headlines, no hourly updates on Fox or MSNBC, no Larry King Live interviews with members her distraught family, no FBI rushing to the scene, no Katie Couric or Stone Phillips or Dateline. It wasn’t until 9 days after her disappearance that CNN finally mentioned the story. And then, in the bottom right corner of the third page of our Friday News Tribune, was the brief wire-service story that caught my eye: “Family Calls Attention to Missing Woman.”

According to the reporter who wrote the story for the Knight Ridder news service, the people who know and love LaToyia “can’t understand why it took so long to get her disappearance into public view,” but I don’t believe that claim for a minute. I think LaToyia’s family and friends know exactly why no hordes of reporters have descended on her Philadelphia neighborhood in the now-familiar feeding frenzy that is regularly triggered by the disappearance—and possible rape, torture, mutilation, murder, or other unspeakable torment—of a pretty, young woman, whose smiling face will be imprinted in our hearts and dreams forever.

The police say that it is “rare that a minority missing persons case has attracted so much attention.” They are undoubtedly correct—LaToyia Figueroa is not a “missing person,” she is a “minority missing person,” and that’s exactly why no one much cares where she is. That’s why on-line references to Natalee Holloway mount up at the rate of thousands a day; meanwhile, 11 days and counting after her disappearance, I found only 539 references to LaToyia when I Googled her name, many of the posts arguing about whether she is Latina or African-American. My point exactly.

Leave it to Tucker Carlson to defend us all against racism—“there’s another dynamic involved here,” he claimed on the 27 July edition of his MSNBC show, The Situation. That other “dynamic”? Well, when “someone” (“not just a black person or a Hispanic person,” he was quick to say) lives in a “tough neighborhood,” such things are to be expected. A case like LaToyia’s isn’t news because “it’s like planes that land safely aren’t news.” A young white woman disappears, and it’s news, it’s the equivalent of the crash of a Boeing jumbo jet with hundreds of passengers on board. A young woman of color disappears, and it’s the same old same old, another uneventful arrival of a cheap Southwest hop from L.A.

Carlson and his crew even managed to find humor in the whole thing, suggesting that the case hadn’t gotten much national attention because, after all, if you were a reporter, where would you rather “vacation,” Aruba or west Philly? At that point, the show’s transcript indicates “LAUGHTER.”

Despite Tucker Carlson’s denial, this is racism. But it’s not only racism. It’s not just the absence of Latoyia Figueroa’s story, it’s the presence of all those other stories and what they reveal about our obsession with sexualized brutality, cruelty, and violence, and about our voyeuristic fascination with the torture, torment, and mutilation of the bodies of young women. We fetishize their stories. We revel in the lurid details.

The struggle for power, domination, and control has always played itself out on women’s bodies. We can look as far back as Homer’s account of the Trojan War—the clash of civilizations inscribed on the body of one woman, Helen of Troy. And we have only to look around us today—whether it’s the systematic rape of women in Darfur, the burqaed women of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, or a U.S. pharmacist refusing to fill a woman’s prescription for birth control pills, we see political, racial, social, economic, and religious ideologies using women’s bodies for their battlegrounds.

And, as comforting as it might be to think so, our pleasure in these battles is not just confined to rap music and Grand Theft Auto. It’s where you might least expect it: in our churches and in our schools and in our great books. I could never understand why saints’ tales were so popular in the Middle Ages until I read a few, and there it was. Every kind of sexual perversion, twisted torment, and painful death enacted on the bodies (but not the souls, it goes without saying) of one beautiful young woman after another. We were all introduced to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at some point in high school, but my college students are horrified at the stories he collects in his Legend of Good Women. Dido, betrayed and abandoned. Lucrece, raped. Philomela raped and mutilated, her tongue cut out to prevent her from naming her attacker. All of Chaucer’s “good” women suffer, and they all die, either at the hands of the men who have assaulted them or by their own hands, to save the honor of their fathers and husbands. As one surprised student blurted out recently in class, “Is Chaucer saying that the only good woman is a dead woman?”

And all of those beautiful Renaissance love sonnets? I’ll be teaching them again this fall. There are thousands of them, addressed to Stella, Delia, Diana, Phyllis, Chloris, Cynthia, and countless other idealized young women, all of whom are beautiful and most of whom are blonde. Although these poems are all addressed to women, they’re not really about women, but about the lovers themselves, who anatomize their beloveds, describing in lingering detail their eyes, noses, lips, thighs, breasts, even their nipples. The women in these poems are not unique, thinking, feeling, desiring persons—they are body parts, examined and displayed for the reader’s enjoyment.

And so the women in our music videos, on our television screens, and at our favorite multiplex. Female bodies displayed, exploited, abused, assaulted, and served up for our entertainment.

And so the stories of Nicole, JonBenet, Amber, Chandra, Elisabeth, Laci, and Natalee. Their terrible stories are commodified for our pleasure, neatly packaged up like one of Chaucer’s legends of “good” women. We enjoy all the lurid details. We are transfixed by the agony of their mothers and fathers. We greedily consume the graphic accounts of their sufferings and deaths, and we are moved by how much we care. The candlelight vigils, the flower-and-teddy-bear memorials, the prayers we say as the cameras record how much we care. And then the apotheosis, as each martyred young woman joins our pantheon of angels and saints. We promise that we will never forget them, and we don’t, not really, until the next young, pretty, blonde, white woman disappears.

Our stories reveal our values. They tell us what—and who—is important. The story of Natalee Holloway tells us a lot about what we value in women. We like our women lost, weak, threatened, endangered, fearful, exploited, controlled, silent, and, to be honest, dead. We prefer these dead women to be young and pretty and blonde.

We don’t want to pay attention to women who are too fat or too old or too unattractive. We don’t much care about poor women, who cost us money and have too many children, and we don’t want to have to think too much about homeless women. We’d rather not train women as soldiers, arm them with M-16s, and send them into combat, unless we can rescue them, like we did Jessica Lynch—who is young, pretty, and blonde, and whose shattered body, while not dead, still made a good story. We don’t much appreciate women if they are too powerful or successful or demanding or loud. We don’t much like them gay, unless they’re funny like Ellen or hot like the women on The L Word. We don’t think much about women who are working hard, making ends meet, struggling through life. And we don’t pay much attention at all to the more than 22,000 missing women in the United States who aren’t Natalee Holloway.

Nearly 9,000 of the women missing in the United States at this very moment are women of color.

One of them is Latoyia Figueroa.


Update, 2006: LaToyia Figueroa was reported missing on 18 July 2005. A month later, on 20 August, Stephen Poaches, the father of LaToyia Figueroa's unborn child, was arrested; on 17 October 2006, he was convicted of two counts of murder and is currently incarcerated in the State Correction Institution—Houtzdale (PA). The lack of news coverage in LaToyia Figueroa's case sparked a controversy, dubbed the "missing white women syndrome," commonly attributed to PBS news commentator Gwen Ifill.

In March 2014, a Google search for "LaToyia Figueroa" produces 8,360 results. A search for "Natalee Holloway" produces more than 4 million hits.

For the most recent statistics on missing persons in the United States, with information about the age, sex, and race of those reported missing, see the 2020 NCIC [National Crime Information Center] Missing Person database (click here).