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Knowing the Body
2004 Final Web Report
On Serendip

Gender, Sexuality, and Political Agency

Maryssa Doyle, Gilda Rodriguez, Sierra Jorgensen and Rebecca Mao

1. Women's Opposing Roles During Times of War - Maryssa Doyle
2. The Political Performance of Motherhood: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo - Gilda Rodriguez
3. The Systematic Destruction of Women's Agency in Juárez, Mexico - Sierra Jorgensen
4. An Analysis of Gay Bashing Through Exploration of the Matthew Shepard Event - Rebecca Mao


As citizens, people rely on the state as an agent that acts on their behalf, by providing them with benefits such as basic protection, healthcare, and education. However, the state itself derives its power (or agency) from the fact that its citizens give up some of their individual agency in exchange for the benefits that belonging to a state provides. People are, thus, both the creators and the subjects of the state. The essays in this book explore the relationships and constant struggle between private and public agency in different contexts as they relate to issues of gender and sexuality. It is especially important to examine the interplay between these two types of agency because of the way that they affect groups that have traditionally been outside of the political sphere, like women and homosexuals.

War has traditionally been the way in which a state protects the interests' of its citizens from another state or force, while at the same time requiring people to give up their lives to protect the state. For many years, women were officially excluded from warfare, although, as Maryssa Doyle finds in the first essay in this book, they have found other ways of participating in armed conflict and thus expressing their agency. During conflicts such as the United States Civil War and the American Revolution, women pledged to refrain from buying luxuries as a sign of solidarity with the troops; they also became nurses and often read letters from home to troops as a way to improve morale. It was rare, but not unheard of, for women to disguise themselves as men and become soldiers themselves. Other women subverted the government and became spies, relying upon the prevailing notion that killing a woman, even a traitor, was an unspeakable evil. Even if women could not appear in uniform alongside their brothers, they did not let law and social mores hamper them in fighting the enemy as best they could.

The "enemy" is not necessarily another state, but sometimes it is the state itself that battles with women. The Madres of Plaza de Mayo is an organization of Argentinian women dedicated to protesting the disappearance of their children during a period called the Dirty War in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Gilda Rodriguez shows us how these women, despite the societal limitations to female political action in the Argentina of the time, managed to get their voices heard. By redefining the same constructs that made up their roles as mothers, the Madres turned their motherhood into a political performance. Although agency had been denied to them because being a mother was seen as a private role, these women managed to shake up the state power's structure without abandoning their position in society.

In her book Three Guineas, writer Virginia Woolf claims that economic independence is the key to a woman's freedom and agency. But, in the case of the women of Juarez, Mexico, a small measure of agency had literally deadly effects. In Juarez, an unknown number, estimated between 300 and 600, of young women have disappeared and been murdered in the last decade. They are all young, poor, workers or students who look similar. Often the girls are beaten and gang-raped before being killed. Very little is being done about these murders at the governmental level in Mexico, but they have drawn national and international attention. Women gather weekly in Mexico to protest and hold vigils to send a message that these murders must be stopped. While on three different occasions suspects have been arrested, the murders continued, often within days of the arrests, and the cases of the suspects were mishandled. These murders have occurred in a political and social climate where women, by, among other things, working in factories known as maquiladoras, are gaining a small amount of economic independence and therefore agency. This agency is threatening to a higher patriarchal system and assumed values. Men are reacting to this threat and attempting to remove that power. Sierra Jorgensen's piece in this collection looks at the extent to which Woolf's ideas apply to the situation in Juarez. It also examines the government and maquiladoras' failure to protect the women who have given up a bit of their agency with the understanding that they will be protected. Jorgensen also explores how this issue is (or is not) changing the overall landscape of Mexican culture.

The state fails to perform its duty as a protector of its citizens when they become harmed under its watch, as in the case of the Juarez's women. Gay bashing illustrates incidences all in which bodies experience physical injury. In modern U.S. communities various militant conservatives individually target homosexuals in "gay bashing." Though few conservative political groups explicitly avow targeting gays for physical violence, some of their members individually carry out anti-gay brutality. The government supports an anti-gay atmosphere by permitting the medical and legal institutions to use the "homosexual panic" defense in the legal justice system. The brutal murder of Matthew Shephard, a young gay man, in 1998 illustrates a relatively recent incident in which the human body becomes politicized. Basing her exploration on Michel Foucault's discussion of the state's use of torture in his book Discipline and Punish, Rebecca Mao examines the relationship between the state and Shephard's murder. What is the process by which the pain and death of Shepard's body transform the personal into the political? Mao conceptualizes Shepard's attackers as agents of the state in an analysis of torture's role in gay-bashing.

A good balance between the agency of the state and that of its citizens is hard to establish because of the strong connection between the personal and the political. The essays compiled in this book illustrate how a state's use of its power can be limiting and/or detrimental to groups outside the traditional political system, such as women and queers.

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