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Why disability studies entails the study of everything else, part two

Welcome to the second (and final) installment of Douglas Baynton Should be Mandatory Reading for Everyone Working on the History of U.S. Citizenship Week!  Yeah, I know, it’s an unwieldy title.  That’s why we’re only doing two installments.

Here’s Doug on disability and gender:

Paralleling the arguments made in defense of slavery, two types of disability argument were used in opposition to women’s suffrage: that women had disabilities that made them incapable of using the franchise responsibly, and that because of their frailty women would become disabled if exposed to the rigors of political participation.  The American anti-suffragist Grace Goodwin, for example, pointed to the “great temperamental disabilities” with which women had to contend: “woman lacks endurance in things mental. . . .  She lacks nervous stability.  The suffragists who dismay England are nerve-sick women.” The second line of argument, which was not incompatible with the first and often accompanied it, went beyond the claim that women’s flaws made them incapable of exercising equal political and social rights with men to warn that if women were given those rights, disability would surely follow.  This argument is most closely identified with Edward Clarke, author of Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for Girls.  Clarke’s argument chiefly concerned education for women, though it was often applied to suffrage as well.  Clarke maintained that overuse of the brain among young women was in large part responsible for the “numberless pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic, hysterical, menorraghic, dysmenorrhoeic girls and women” of America.  The result of excessive education in this country was “bloodless female faces, that suggest consumption, scrofula, anemia, and neuralgia.” An appropriate education designed for their frail constitutions would ensure “a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements from the nervous system.” (41-42)

Scrofula!  Uterine disease!  Who knew?  Clearly education and suffrage were deleterious to women’s health.  Whereas corsets, say, were hazard-free.

But here’s the rub: at the time, most women (and advocates of women’s rights) made their case for citizenship precisely by distinguishing themselves from segments of the population that were properly considered diseased and disabled.  That’s the way the logic of abjection works, folks!  Just as dangerous professor Michael Warner argues, in another context, in The Trouble with Normal.

Back to Baynton:

A second powerful and recurrent rhetorical device for suffragists was to charge that women were wrongly categorized with those legitimately excluded from political life.  A popular theme in both British and American suffrage posters was to depict a thoughtful-looking woman, perhaps wearing the gown of a college graduate, surrounded by slope-browed, wild-eyed, or “degenerate” men identified implicitly or explicitly as “idiots” and “lunatics.” The caption might read, “Women and her Political Peers,” or, “It’s time I got out of this place.  Where shall I find the key?” Echoing this theme, suffrage supporter George William Curtis rhetorically asked a New York constitutional convention in 1867 why women should be classed with “idiots, lunatics, persons under guardianship and felons,” and at the national Woman Suffrage Convention in 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton protested that women were “thrust outside the pale of political consideration with minors, paupers, lunatics, traitors, [and] idiots.” (44)

Is this stuff still relevant today?  You bet:

While historians have not overlooked the use of disability to deny women’s rights, they have given their attention entirely to gender inequality and not at all to the construction and maintenance of cultural hierarchies based on disability. . . . [J]ust as it was left unchallenged at the time, historians today leave unchallenged the notion that weakness, nervousness, or proneness to fainting might legitimately disqualify one for suffrage. (43)

And that’s not to mention (to pick up from yesterday’s installment) racist cranks like Dinesh D’Souza, who wrote in The End of Racism that the civil rights movement failed because it did not consider its likely consequences, namely, that “racism might be fortified if blacks were unable to exercise their rights effectively and responsibly” (169).  Of course, we’re far more enlightened than the benighted creatures of the nineteenth century.  No one today would think of allowing racist cranks like D’Souza anywhere near national media, and no one would dream of arguing that “frailty” was a legitimate ground for excluding women from some aspects of public life.

Speaking of cranks!  It’s time for a . . .

David Horowitz Update: Yes, I’ve seen his latest.  I’ll have my reply tomorrow.  And don’t forget to set your TiVo for Hannity and Colmes next week—David is their guest every single night!  Five full hours of Horowitz!  Let’s hope he doesn’t say anything stupid or untrue.  Because, you know, that would be unfortunate.

Posted by on 02/09 at 11:09 AM
  1. A lot of people, when asked why they don’t vote, say, “I don’t have time” or “voting doesn’t change anything”.

    But I have a hunch (and in keeping with the ground rule regarding hermeneutic conservatism, I stress that it’s only a hunch), that for a lot of them, the real reason is “voting isn’t for people like me”. That is, they have taken to heart the franchise-narrowing discourse that was so prevalent, for example, in the discussion of the 2000 presidential election (cf Sandy-baby’s remarks during the Bush v Gore arguments to the effect that if a voter can’t follow the instructions on the ballot, maybe he doesn’t deserve to have his vote counted).

    The thing we need to tell all those people, whether they are disabled, or merely have class anxieties (only upon reading your last 2 posts did it occur to me that the disabled, and disaffected non-voting proles have as groups more similarities than differences), is, if you are smart enough to ask your father/daughter/preacher/neighbor who to vote for, you’re smart enough to vote.

    Posted by  on  02/09  at  01:18 PM
  2. kth, the only people who I’ve seen recently who have said that they don’t vote because it doesn’t change anything have been literary types who think that their attempts at self-definition will be harmed by an hour spent voting for someone who does not agree with them.  The people who say that they don’t have time often really don’t have time; they have bad job and child care situations.

    I don’t think that there’s a real need for psychological theories of voter suppression at this point.  Tried and true methods of police intimidation, ballot spoiling, underprovision of voting booths so that long lines are inevitable, and straightforward electoral fraud appear to be more than adequate.

    As for Horowitz, his immediate “Herr professor” Godwin’s Law violation means that he loses, right from the start.

    Posted by  on  02/09  at  01:54 PM
  3. literary types who think that their attempts at self-definition will be harmed by an hour spent voting for someone who does not agree with them

    Well, we don’t allow any of those types around here.  We may be a humble blog, but we have some self-respect.

    Posted by Michael  on  02/09  at  03:05 PM
  4. Scrofula!  Uterine disease!  Who knew?  Clearly education and suffrage were deleterious to women’s health.  Whereas corsets, say, were hazard-free.

    Well, there’s that, as well as those other strange assigned maladies of the mid-20th century: vapors, hysteria, hydrophobia (they used to force the women to swim in those “special” institutions), etc..  All manner of names for defining the disabilities of femaleness, whilst men were capable of keeping their “emotional selves” locked up and controlled. 

    I am wondering if there is substantive research on the role and presence of women during the Great Depression in keeping families intact and functioning.  Likewise on the “value” (economic sustainability) of female immigrants versus male ones (esp ‘illegals’wink?  This could go back to the Scandinavian immigrations of the late nineteenth and others: Italians, Irish, Eastern Europe, and so forth??

    Posted by  on  02/09  at  03:53 PM
  5. Did he say his book is best enjoyed by gas-people?  ‘Cause my daddy told me ”never trust a man what’s made of gas.”

    Not you, Gleep Gop, you’re one of the good ones.  (Oh wait, I see he didn’t.  But my response makes more sense than his.)

    Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman  on  02/09  at  04:19 PM
  6. They don’t like you ”liberal alphas” much either, Michael.

    Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman  on  02/09  at  04:22 PM
  7. I assumed that T.V. had just mistyped when he or she referred to Berube as a liberal alpha.  Or that there was another well-known Berube or something.  MB as “liberal alpha” is too much like MB as “dangerous professor”; I don’t even want to start thinking about dealing with that kind of rhetoric from all sides in America instead of just from a few Horowitz types.

    Posted by  on  02/09  at  05:06 PM
  8. Michael, these essays on disability studies are really suggestive; plus they reveal this massive hole in my own thinking about social justice today. I’m struck by your line about how the logic of abjection works. Julia Kristeva is pretty interesting on this very subject, but she goes at it a little differently. Abjection for her is a process through which an object (matriarchy) strives to become a (self-defining) subject in patriarchy. The abjection is misplaced for the same reasons you and Warner note. But there is a secondary misplacement too, where we (the reader) direct our critical attention at the act of one weak group seeking to strengthen itself at the expense of another oppressed group. In this, we miss the larger picture of domination and subordination and wind up blaming a victim. I think this dual conception of abjection could work to reinforce your larger claim about disability studies as a window onto the larger, unjust order. Thanks so much for the reading list!

    Posted by  on  02/09  at  08:53 PM
  9. Additionally, even today, women are still much more likely to be diagnosed with diseases and disabilities of the nerves (i.e. depression, anxiety, etc). 

    Thanks for the reading recommendations.  I keep meaning to add some disability studies reading to my list, but I haven’t known where to start.

    I suppose one option is to stop reading altogether so that I can properly protect my uterus from all that harmful education and knowledge.

    Posted by S  on  02/09  at  09:16 PM
  10. They don’t like you “liberal alphas” much either, Michael.

    Oh, heaven forfend I take issue with Chomsky in October 2001 calling the war in Afghanistan a “silent genocide.” That’s treason to that wing of the left, I gather.  You’re either with ‘em or against ‘em.

    Posted by Michael  on  02/09  at  10:43 PM
  11. Someone needs to explain to DHo the difference between a blog and a post.

    As for tomorrow, I’m looking forward to something not-so-arbitrary, but FUN!

    Posted by Roxanne  on  02/09  at  11:32 PM
  12. the only people who I’ve seen recently who have said that they don’t vote because it doesn’t change anything have been literary types who think that their attempts at self-definition will be harmed by an hour spent voting for someone who does not agree with them

    Hm, my experience is that the people who ‘don’t bother to vote’ or ‘don’t have time’ (because they’re busy playing World of Warcraft) simply don’t want to stick their necks out, mentally speaking. Voting implies taking a position, and that means others might disagree with your position--and what if it turns out you are wrong?! Horrors! Better to keep a careful protective shell of cultivated apathy.

    Posted by mythago  on  02/10  at  02:48 AM
  13. "Michael, these essays on disability studies are really suggestive; plus they reveal this massive hole in my own thinking about social justice today.”

    Hell, I’m raising two autistic kids and I am seeing problems with my own philosophy on the topic.  I don’t think people should feel bad if they have a moment of self discovery about their own flaws.  On the contrary, one should feel good about this because it means you can do something about it.  Of course, I always feel miserable myself.

    There is an argument posed by some high-functioning autistic people that autism is not a problem, it is their personality - that treating autism in a manner to eliminate autistic tendancies, rather than therapy to assist autistic people to function in the larger world, is degrading.  I don’t really have a good argument to counter this.  Autistic tendancies can tend to interfere with education, but the same could be said of a sense of humor.  I suppose that’s not a great example, as a lot of people would probably like to eliminate humor too.

    Posted by  on  02/10  at  12:38 PM
  14. Interestingly, folks on both sides of the ‘gay marriage’ debate also use disability arguments to make their case about the necessity for inclusion and exclusion of rights and/or obligations that derive from the state. Activists who want to see same-sex marriage have too often pointed out that folks with mental disabilities are able to marry--as if the logic of that assertion was transparent in its application to the state’s interest in marriage.

    From the wing-nut right, one gets these kinds of arguments.

    Which just goes to show you that most arguments of these sorts don’t have a uniform progressive/regressive politics attached to them. Equal opportunity wingnuttery! And the ideological work that the arguments perform is remarkably similar despite the political interests of the writer.

    Posted by Tyler  on  02/10  at  12:57 PM
  15. "The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 sanctioned the use of the bogus U.S. Army IQ scores of World War I promoted by eugenic racists) to “scientifically verify” the supposed hereditary mental inferiority of Jews, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Spaniards, and other non Anglo-Saxon Protestant racial and ethnic groups.

    The screening was designed to address the fears expressed in Charles Davenport’s influential bestseller of 1911, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, where he prophesied that if unchecked by genetic national security agents, “the population of the United States will, on account of the great influx of blood from South-Eastern Europe, rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and art, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, and vagrancy than were the original English settlers.”

    Davenport even wanted to send eugenics inspectors to Europe to examine all would-be immigrants for genetic flaws. In the end, this task passed to his German admirers. “

    from Alexander Cockburn.

    Posted by  on  02/11  at  02:26 PM
  16. As a lapsed (backslid?) academic with five disabilities I have so many mixed opinions on this discussion I don’t know where to begin.  I’ll carefully maintain my company manners and say that the study of disability as a window into the larger fields of racism, sexism et al has to be a good thing.  It must remain a field of value for all to study or it will just become an eccentric corner of the lecture series, the sabbatical research project, or the narrow focus advanced seminar.


    Hearing the able debate on which school of thought is or isn’t valid gets my hackles up. I want to say “While you’re wrangling over the fine points, society at large continues in the mindset that doesn’t care to see us as we are...”

    Sigh. Apologies for that last.  No, I don’t have any better ideas, you’re right...I don’t have the money, time or energy to be a student at this point.

    I will say that I am glad to see the work of those with disabilities within the writings about disability.  I suppose I’ll cease my grumblings, as long as there continue to be PWD scholars writing and working within the disability studies discipline along with the interested and committed able bodied scholars…

    Posted by imfunnytoo  on  02/18  at  09:52 PM
  17. I share that feeling of strangeness.  Seeing the grand picture in which women were falsely accused of being disabled is certainly different from the real world in which a real person with a disability must deal with social stricture and stigmata, for example, Was it your fault that happened?  Can I be infected by you?  Can a space eight feet by twelve feet in a nursing facility really be called a ‘home’?

    In short, large numbers of the actually disabled are put in what is, for all practical purposes, a prison, segregating them and making sure they don’t get ‘out of hand’.

    And this is not a small fear for the public as we see it- they envy the holder of a disabled card, and fret endlessly about how aging babyboomers will consume everything.

    Perhaps for many readers the point is most easily illustrated with a feminist history, but it doesn’t seem to address the piquancy of the plight of the profoundly disabled in America today.

    Posted by  on  02/20  at  09:10 PM





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