- “Embodied Histories of Violence, Maternity, and Reproduction”
The articles assembled in this issue place women’s bodies at the center of historical debates on violence and vulnerability, technologies of reproduction, and the meanings attributed to motherhood and childbirth. We begin with three articles that situate acts of sexual assault in diverse but revealing contexts: the Holocaust, the Great Chinese Famine under Mao Zedong, and fin-de-siècle Australia in the age of white settler migration. They are followed by a pair of articles that consider how the body’s reproductive capacity was defined and deployed in the battles for and against assisted conception and surrogacy in the late twentieth-century United States. A final selection on the material culture of motherhood reads artifacts to decipher what the experience of childbirth meant to women in late medieval London.
Nicole Ephgrave’s “On Women’s Bodies” opens this issue with an exploration of “gender-specific trauma” during the Holocaust. She argues that even if both men and women were subjected to starvation, forced labor, deportation, humiliation, and death, “only women had to cope with pregnancy, amenorrhea . . ., abortion, rape, and invasive gynecological examinations.” Thus many of women’s corporeal experiences of the genocide were unique, despite the universalizing tendencies of the prevailing scholarship that stresses how Jews were targeted as Jews and not gendered beings and how anti-Semitism rather than sexism was the key ideological motor of the Holocaust. Yet according to Ephgrave, to subsume women’s experiences under those of men’s ignores how “women were dehumanized and experienced dehumanization in distinct ways from men that specifically targeted their bodily integrity.” For example, she shows that Jewish women’s testimonies discussed their fears of pregnancy and sterilization in the context of Nazi racism, where they were targeted as potential mothers of racial enemies. Expectations of modesty and beauty, moreover, were different for women and men, and therefore it is likely that nudity and head shavings produced different “feelings and experiences of degradation for women.” Ephgrave also notes that while sexual violence occurred in women’s homes before deportation, and in ghettos, prisons, brothels, and concentration camps, researchers “have minimized or ignored issues of sexual vulnerability and assaults against women.” But so too have female survivors who, in their testimonies, tend to omit details about rape. Thus the “split between genocidal and gender-specific trauma . . . not only exists in the memories of witnesses but also is often reified in the historical reconstruction [End Page 7] by scholars.” Since the Holocaust often serves as starting point for comparative research, Ephgrave’s article cautions against assuming a nongendered body when assessing other human rights tragedies and traumas.
Bin Yang and Shuji Cao note a similar pattern of silence regarding sexual violence in the historiography of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In “Cadres, Grain, and Sexual Abuse,” the authors examine charges made against local officials in Wuwei County, China, between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s and, specifically, during the Great Famine. While scholars have neglected or shied away from discussing sexual abuse in this period, Yang and Cao conclude that it was “rampant”: male cadres exploited the “monopoly of power and resources at the crucial moment of economic scarcity,” committing rape, molestation, harassment, and other forms of abuse. Corrupt cadres at the local level used jobs, promotions, and party membership, as well as access to grain in the context of a devastating famine, to demand sex from “vulnerable women” who were no longer protected by the “traditional patriarchal institutions of family, lineage, and clan.” The victims typically were young and unmarried women, many of them peasants, workers, and wives, or low-ranking cadres subordinate to male overseers. Because nongovernmental institutions that might have challenged the party-state did not exist and the Chinese Communist Party had “deprived” men of their “traditional power and right to protect women,” local officials had undue influence over women and at times exploited them. In a stinging critique, Yang and Cao conclude that the “patriarchal party-state” of Mao’s China did not bring about women’s liberation but rather the institutionalization of sexual abuse.
While the articles by Ephgrave, Yang...