Feminist Conversations: Elizabeth Reis talks intersex

Feminist Conversations is a regular series here at Feminists For Choice. Today we are talking with Elizabeth Reis, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oregon and the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). She has also written Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England (Cornell University Press, 1997) and is the editor of American Sexual Histories (Blackwell, 2nd ed., 2012). 

1. What was the motivation behind writing Bodies in Doubt?

So much of the “history” of intersex begins in the mid-1950s with a critique of John Money and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University. This was an important period, of course, because Money’s protocols became widely adopted, but it was hardly the beginning of the story of the medical management of intersex. As an early American historian, I wondered what happened to those born with unusual bodies in earlier eras. I wanted to find out how the gradual process of medicalization affected our understanding of how male and female bodies were supposed to look.

2. Disorders of sex development (DSD) are actually quite common (approximately one in every two thousand people is born with genital anomalies) and there are many different types of DSD. Can you tell our readers a little bit about this?

The numbers are tricky because not every intersex condition is obvious at birth. It’s somewhat easier to “count” something as intersex if an obvious genital anomaly appears right when the baby is born. But there are some conditions that don’t manifest themselves until later, at puberty, for example. If a girl doesn’t start her period, her parents might eventually take her for an ultrasound where they find that she has internal anatomy typically found in boys. This is what can happen with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. The body is insensitive to androgens, and so the child looks typically female at birth, is raised as a girl, but then never gets her period. She has no uterus but instead has internal testes and XY chromosomes. Most people never get their chromosomes tested, and so we just assume that all girls are XX and all boys are XY. This isn’t the case, in fact.

You’re right that there are far more babies born with DSDs than most people are aware of.  This is because we have treated intersex as if it’s something to be ashamed of, which it is not.  Parents have been advised not to tell anyone, even their own child, what is going on.  Consequently, many children grow up with a sense of secrecy and shame about their bodies and unaffected people never hear that much about any of this. And when they do, it’s often mixed with a lot of inaccurate information and old-fashioned terminology. For example, intersex people used to be called “hermaphrodites.” This is now considered a derogatory term because it conjures an image of mythical creatures, not actual people!

3. You discuss how the ideas about stereotypical masculinity and femininity drove the treatment (both medical and social) of individuals with different types of DSD. Do you think the treatment of these individuals would have been different and less discriminating if we had more flexible opinions about gender and gender roles?

I do think that our conception of gender roles and gender presentation is very limited. I would say that in general, our understanding of “normal” of just about everything is quite narrow, and we desperately want to fit within those limited confines. What makes dealing with intersex even more complex is that parents are often asked to make decisions regarding their child’s body. Of course, parents want what is best for the children. They want them to be happy and they want them to grow up without being teased or ridiculed for having an unusual body. And so many parents might consent to “normalizing” surgeries for their child so that their genitals will look more typical, but sometimes these surgeries have negative consequences. For example, most girls do not have a very large clitoris. In the past, doctors generally removed or reduced large clitorises so that the girl’s genitals would look more like those of a typical girl. The problem with this approach is that now that girl will have reduced (or even no) sexual sensation. Today physicians are much more cautious about this kind of surgery, though it still happens because we are not used to seeing girls with such anatomy.

Boys had their genitals modified as well. Some born with what is known as a “micro-penis” had their genitals surgically altered to become girls, in the past. The thought was that a boy couldn’t possibly live as a successful boy with such a disfigurement. Since the late-twentieth century, attitudes towards these surgeries have changed, largely as a result of intersex activism that began in the 1990s. Some people who endured these procedures never felt right as girls, and would rather have been boys with different-looking genitals than girls. If, as a society, we felt more comfortable with difference, we might not be so eager to surgically repair bodies that don’t actually need repair.

4. You suggest changing the name “disorders of sex development” to “divergence of sex development.” Do you think that this will help show that DSD are more common than people know?

I would like to see the name changed from “disorders” of sex development to “divergence” of sex development, or even “variation” of sex development . . . anything that doesn’t encourage unnecessary pathology would be preferable. Perhaps, as you suggest, a different name might also suggest that it’s more common than people realize, but primarily my reason for disliking “disorders of sex development” is the use of the word “disorder.” Most people will assume that a disorder requires fixing, and that isn’t always the case with intersex. Of course, sometimes there might be an underlying metabolic concern that needs careful medical attention, but often the issue is merely cosmetic or social. I think that using the word “disorder” reinforces the notion that every body has to look a certain way, and that everything can be fixed. As many scholars and intersex people have demonstrated, often the medical “fix” can make things worse. Loss of sexual sensation, incontinence, scarring, in addition to the emotional trauma of constant surgeries. . . we need to ask ourselves if all of these things are worth the effort to normalize bodies.

5. In regards to the reproductive rights of individuals with DSD, what would you like to see happen in the future?

I would like to see ALL people be treated with dignity and respect, no matter the shape of their genitals or the composition of their internal organs or chromosomes. I would like to see all people told the truth by medical professionals, even if the truth is less promising than what they think people want to hear. I would like parents of intersex children to be in contact with other parents who have gone through similar circumstances so that they can compare notes and not feel like they’re the only ones with a child they weren’t expecting. I would also like prospective parents to know about the possibility of intersex births so they don’t feel pressured to make permanent decisions about their baby’s body right after they’ve given birth.  Most intersex births do not require emergency surgeries, and parents should be told that. I would like intersex teens to have a chance to meet and support each other. There’s a wonderful group of young people in the U.S. called Inter/Act that works with Advocates for Informed Choice. They just published a brochure designed for parents and doctors that is just fabulous. Mostly, I’d like to see intersex discussed more openly and honestly, and I’d like to see our understanding of what is “normal” broadened.

On the Anniversary of the Veil Law, Let’s Consider the Future of Abortion in France

On January 17, 1975, France enacted the Veil Law, which decriminalized abortion in certain circumstances. The law is named for Simone Veil, a driving force behind the law (which is itself a continuation of the Neuwirth Law, which legalized contraception in 1972.)
Under the Veil Law, medical termination of pregnancy can be performed according to very specific and well-defined conditions:

  • Will of the mother
  • Serious and incurable disease in the extent of current knowledge of science
  • Authorization of experts
  • No other alternatives

The Act also legalizes abortion, which can be performed under the sole control of the mother within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Later-term abortions are also performed in cases where the woman’s health is seriously threatened, or in cases of serious fetal malformation.

The Veil Law was passed during a heightened atmosphere in the country around reproductive rights. On April 5, 1971, the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published the manifesto of the 343, a declaration signed by 343 women admitting to having had an abortion, thereby exposing themselves to criminal prosecution. The manifesto, which was also known as the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts” or the “Manifesto of the 343 Bitches,” inspired another one: the manifesto of the 331, a petition published in February 1973 in Le Nouvel Observateur, and signed by 331 doctors claiming to perform abortions, despite the ban on France law.

Almost forty years after the law passed, what do women, doctors, and the French think about abortion now? [Read more...]

Are You Related to a Suffragist?

I love me some genealogy, and I love me some suffragists. And if I ever found out that I had some sassy suffragists in my family tree, I might just pee my pants with excitement.

A few folks in Britain are about to find out what being related to a famous suffragist is like. British suffragist Emily Davison made history when she ran in front of the king’s horse and died as a result of her injuries.

British TV Show “Find My Past” is a series that tracks individuals who find out that they are related to important historical figures. In this week’s episode Philippa Bilton, Katy Arnander and Matt Jopling find out they share a connection to Emily Davison.

The episode of “Find My Past” airs Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 9:00 PM on Yesterday (Sky channel 537, Virgin TV channel 203 and Freeview channel 12), and it will be repeated daily throughout the following week. More information about the series is available on their Facebook page.

If you found out you were related to a famous suffragist, such as Emily Davison or Emmeline Pankhurst, your reaction would be _________?


The Evolution of Menstrual Products

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the phrase, “on the rag?” I know I have. Many of us conjure up images of women in the “olden days” using clumps of rags to absorb their menstrual blood. But is this version of women’s history accurate?  After doing a little Google digging, come to find out . . . it is.

Menstrual Pads
Menstrual pads have been around as long as women have been having periods, although their form has changed drastically over the centuries. We can’t accurately say what women were using in ancient history, since men wrote the history records and they didn’t really give a damn about what women were doing, let alone what women were using during their lady time.

Historically, pads have been made from silk, cotton, wool, animal skins, and even wood pulp. Pads eventually evolved from just being loosely placed on pantaloons to being secured with belts or string. Disposable pads were introduced around the 1920′s, replacing the reusable cloth pads in the name of convenience. But adhesive tape wasn’t added to the bottom of the menstrual pad until the mid-1980′s. Today we have wings, ultra-thins, and many other styles of disposable pads available on the market. [Read more...]

MoveOn.org Launches Awesome Pro-Choice Campaign

Between now and February 23, MoveOn.org will be airing a pro-choice ad on cable television channels. In the 30-second spot, the actor Lisa Edelstein slowly walks down a dimly lit hallway, and in a voice-over, she says, “Decades ago, women suffered through horrifying back-alley abortions.” As she reaches the end of the hallway and opens a closet door to show a wire hanger, Edelstein asks, “why is the GOP trying to send women back to the back alley?

MoveOn’s “We Won’t Go Back to the Back Alley” campaign is simple and effective. Both the ad and the petition at MoveOn’s website highlight the recent steps that Republican politicians have taken to severely restrict women’s access to safe, legal abortion, and in fittingly blunt language, stating that “… all attempts to erode a woman’s right to choose must stop.” I’m frankly impressed not just at MoveOn’s action, but also with Edelstein’s participation.

[Read more...]

Dr. Henry Morgantaler is a Hero of Canada

Today’s post comes to us from Pedgehog, who usually blogs over at Anti-Choice is Anti-Awesome. Pedgehog works at a Morgantaler Clinic in Toronto, Canada.

In 2005, Dr. Henry Morgentaler was given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Western Ontario. If you are not Canadian, chances are you don’t know what any or all of that means. Neither did I, at the time.

I remember when it was in the news that Dr. Morgentaler would be receiving the degree, because we were discussing it at the dinner table. A friend of mine was attending UWO (or ‘Western’ as it is more commonly known) at the time and her mother objected to the famous abortion provider being honoured there. All I knew about Dr. Morgentaler was that he had something to do with the legal status of abortion in Canada. I had no interest in the pro-choice movement at that point, having only just begun to discover my feminist self.

My father was firm in his support of the honorary degree, and in an uncharacteristically passionate outburst, he declared: “Henry Morgentaler deserves that degree, and an Order of Canada on top of it! That man has done more than anyone else for women’s rights in this country.” [Read more...]

Stop Co-opting Susan B. Anthony Already!

Sarah Palin has a new book out. Didn’t even know she could read, but it’s true. She’s got another book on the shelves. And the loopy lies about how she’s the rightful heir of the first wave of feminism makes me barf a little in my mouth. Palin claims that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a conservative Christian, and that Palin is cut from the same mold.

Um, news flash, Sarah Palin. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was anything but a conservative, or a Christian. You’ve probably never heard of The Woman’s Bible (notice how I don’t think you know how to read), but Stanton got the boot from the National Women’s Suffrage Association because she published that book and took a bold stance decidedly against religion. Read a book Sarah, and then get back to me on how you and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are cut from the same cloth.

And while we’re on the subject of my favorite sister suffragettes, can you and all your wingnut friends stop co-opting the memory of Miss Susan B. Anthony? For the love of blog! Susan B. Anthony was not anti-abortion. In fact, she never talked about abortion. Just ask her biographers. Susan B. Anthony may have started out with a broad focus (temperance, abolition, women’s rights), but after the Civil War she was very single minded – it was about suffrage or nothing. To return to the issue of The Woman’s Bible, Anthony would tell people to talk to Stanton if she was asked about it, because religion wasn’t her issue. She kept her eyes on the suffrage prize. If Susan B. Anthony were alive today, she would decidedly be pro-choice because she did make speeches in favor of family planning while she was alive. So read a freaking history book and stop spinning the facts to fit your agenda. [Read more...]

Wednesday Roundup: Women’s History Month

Our last Women’s History Month 2010 Click List is full of fantastic women’s history reads. I am looking forward to keeping the excitement going for the rest of the year!

Happy Women’s History Month: Heroes. YABOOKNERD

Teaching Girls Better Year-Round. The Philadelphia Inquirer

Assuring Women’s Stories are Told. Huffington Post

Women’s History Month: Reflections on Female Clergy. Progressive Christianity and the Law

Women’s History Month: A Statement in Honor of my Mother. Liberian Observer

Women’s History Month Profile: Vineeta Rastogi. HYPHEN

Women’s History Month Profile: Mai Neng Moua. HYPHEN

Women Writers and Artists of Color. University of Minnesota

Women’s History Month: Famous Female Firsts. Discovery News Online

Complacent? Not the feminists I know.

The expansion of the Internet as a means for feminists to share information and opinions with each other has made this Women’s History Month one of the best in memory. All month long I received Tweets and Facebook updates about women’s history blog posts, celebrations, articles, games, opinion pieces, and history “highlights.” We here at Feminists for Choice highlighted women from Frida Kahlo to Kalpana Chawla and provided readers with women’s history Click Lists almost every day. I heard about celebrations for both International Women’s Day and Women’s History month taking place all over the country. At the end of the month I sit here convinced that today’s feminists have a deep respect for the history of our ancestors.

Despite this passion I also read a lot this month about the generation gap, about the passiveness of young feminists, and even the “failures” of my generation of feminists. Last week Kansas State University reported on a campus Women’s History Month event in which a history professor, Sue Zschoche claimed that the disinterest among young feminists for history is hindering the movement. One of the pieces of evidence she uses to make her point is the low numbers of feminists enrolling in her history classes. If history was relevant to feminists, she says, they would be enrolling in her courses. (One important fact that she misses is that more and more college feminists today are attempting to shape careers to take their feminism to a professional capacity. I personally did not take any history courses as I grad student because I was too busy with classes teaching me to be an effective manager in the nonprofit industry.)

Professor Zschoche’s statements reflect sentiments that I often hear from “older feminists”; “young feminists don’t do this, young feminists don’t do that, young feminists should be doing this but don’t.” Instead of opening their eyes to the wonderful work that my generation is doing, they have, without our knowledge, decided for us what we should be doing, and then label us complacent when we fail to live up to their secret unwritten rules. [Read more...]

Thursday Click List

Abortion in Ancient Rome – Feminists For Choice
Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times – Islam Online
Women’s History Month Quiz – Feministing
After Divorce, Men’s Income Increases While Women’s Income Decreases – The Guardian
Women Entrepreneurs in Rwanda – Zuky
Is Dolly Parton a Feminist Icon? – The Guardian
Doctors’ Moral Views Influence Advice They Give to Patients – Washington Post