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"Disabling Transgressions"

smalina's picture

Entering the book looking for intersections between gender, sexuality, and disability, I found that these strands (especially in relation to marginalization and oppression) were interlocking in ways far more deep and extreme than I had anticipated--while I expected to find anecdotal reference to the unique, interesecting oppressions experienced by disabled women, what I have read of Nielsen's text instead references notions of disability embedded within female bodies. Reading through history, it became increasingly clear to me that these multiple oppressions didn't just coexist; rather, they were actively used to justify each other in sickening ways.

Culturally, it seemed that in different time periods and in different communities referenced (from Native Americans, to colonial Americans, to enslaved populations), notions of who exactly could be disabled was dependent on expectations that already existed for a given body. For example, when disability was perceived to be related to ones ability to perform labor (whether physical or intellectual) and contribute to the economy, women were inherently brushed aside as "ineligible" for the status of disabled. In explaining the positionality of women after wartime, Nielsen writes: "As noncombatants, women could not receive disability service pensions. Could they be disabled? Women's lives did not easily mesh with the definition of disability as an inability to labor" (Nielsen 86). Because women's worth has been so consistently defined by an ability to produce children, they have historically been held to very different physical and mental expectations than men. As Neilsen writes: "The English Puritans who settled in New England did so as families and households who sought to establish permanent settlements built on religious ideals. Their leaders thus considered female bodies appropriately able-bodied for their colonial hopes" (20).

If disability meant an inability to perform as one was "built to," then it should not matter whether or not women could work in a manner generally accepted to be "masculine"--in fact, it was when they did perform this way that they were deemed disabled, as their gender deviance was in some way a marker of dysfunction or mental instability. Those women who performed gender in a manner outside of the norm could be labeled "female sexual perverts" (116). And this extended beyond more "obvious" displays of masculinity like a desire for independence--even pregnancy, if achieved at an unusually early age, could be considered a sign of perverse hypersexuality, and could in turn be "interpreted as proof of [. . .] moral and intellectual feeblemindedness" (112). 

And yet, while Nielsen raises the question of whether women could ever be considered disabled based on the expectations held for them, it seems that they are, at the same time, perpetually disabled. For while women's acting out in a "masculine" manner would earn them the title, it was their supposed existing and inherent disability that rendered them unable to ever achieve what men did--if they tried, they would risk further impairment. Referencing Edward H. Clarke, a professor at Harvard Medical School, Nielsen writes: "A higher education, he warned, could and had 'permanently disabled' such women. [. . .] No woman, he warned could simultaneously use 'a good brain' and 'a good reproductive system that should serve the race.' It was simply too much of the female body" (94). This notion of the female body as inherently disabled was used to justify further exclusions from society and citizenship, as "medical expertise regarding women's biological deficiencies buttressed the exclusion of white women from higher education, voting, and property ownership," thus creating an oppression that was both sexist and ableist.

In gender and sexuality studies courses, I have already come to understand the hypermasculinity expected of men as another example of misogyny/sexism--because it implies that femininity is ultimately of less worth (though it fits the female body, it is still what renders women powerless and worthless beyond childbearing). The connections Nielsen draws between the expectations of masculinity for men and the resulting label of "disabled" when they "fail" in this manner only reinforces this notion; femininity is a disability, and one that is simply unavoidable for women. The one hope women have to avoid the "fate" of the disabled is to live within their expectations--if they attempt to move beyond them, they face the fate of the doubly disabled, those who are "feebleminded" enough to expect anything more than their oppressive status.