We were told of disabilities,—a long array of these,Till one would think that womanhood was merely a disease;And "the maternal sacrifice" was added to the planOf the various sacrifices we have always made—to man.Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Women Do Not Want It"
Disability, Intersections, Aesthetics
Rosemarie Garland Thomson observes, "Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies" (19). In this regard it would be hard to imagine early-twentieth-century psychoanalysis without so-called women's diseases like hysteria or neurasthenia. Female sexuality and reproduction have, historically, been monitored by male-dominated medical and psychoanalytic professions. Fashion, building design, and juridical definitions of identity have reinforced the idea that, as Iris Marion Young says, "women in sexist society are physically handicapped" (qtd. in Wendell 15). Concepts of aesthetic perfection and beauty are often figured around idealized (often naked) female bodies despite their armless (Venus de Milo) and headless (le Victoire de Samothrace) forms. Much Western literature is constructed around the volatile bodies of the Medusa, the madwoman in the attic, and the consumptive heroine. Feminist and queer theory have been at the forefront in recognizing how gender and sexual difference have been articulated through the nontraditional, excessive, or abnormal body, making gender and sexuality visible by positing an idealized norm of physical and mental perfection.
This special issue of Legacy features scholarship on American women writers from the antebellum period to the 1930s. Essays in the volume foreground issues of race, illness, cognitive disability, deafness, blindness, mobility, dependency, [End Page 1] and the related reform movements in which women were often activists. Despite our focus on more modern periods, we can see the intersection of disability and gender in the inaugural formations of US literature. Anne Bradstreet, speaking of her anxiety over the publication of her 1650 book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, compared what she saw as her "flawed" poems with an unruly, crippled child:
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw,I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,Yet still thou run'st more hobling than is meet.("The Author to Her Book" 13-16)
Bradstreet's comparison of her uneven meters to the limping gait of a child instantiates a feeling among many early settlers that a woman who writes violates her proper maternal role and thus produces a "defective" child.1 Bradstreet's deployment of what Wendy Martin calls "subversive piety" expresses a woman's darker anxiety about agency in a frontier environment, an anxiety expressed through male fears of uncontainable sexuality or demonic possession. Female biology often becomes the site for fears of contamination, both national and theological. Cotton Mather's account of the Salem witchcraft trials is filled with references to the physical disabilities resulting from contact with women heretics and freethinkers. In his history of the antinomian controversy, John Winthrop remarks on one of the heretics interrogated by the synod of 1637, "Mistris Dier brought forth her birth of a woman child, a fish, a beast, and a fowle, all woven together in one, and without an head." He then describes Anne Hutchinson, who similarly "brought forth not one . . . but . . . 30. monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another; few of any perfect shape, none at all of them (as farre as I could ever learne) of humane shape" (214). If Native people and a hostile climate were external threats to settlement, women often provided an internal threat to the community of saints.
A later antinomian, Emily Dickinson, rearticulated these fears of female agency and biology by rhetorically cross-dressing as male and in the process undergoing a disabling physical transformation:
Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!When they dislocate my Brain!Amputate my freckled Bosom!Make me bearded like a man! [End Page 2]
Blush, my spirit, in thy Fastness—Blush, my unacknowledged clay—Seven years of troth have taught theeMore than Wifehood ever may!
Love that never leaped it's [sic] socket—Trust intrenched in narrow...