Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Pathologizing the Female Body: Phallocentrism in Western Science

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Pathologizing the Female Body: Phallocentrism in Western Science

Article excerpt

A woman's body reaches to the end of the world Deeper than any meaning, further than what she knows, Long, endless, yearning, unappeasable, profounder Than our touches, unconquerable, never to be mastered--

Theodore Holmes "Woman's Body"


The history of the human body is, as Michel Feher states, a field where life and thought intersect (11). It is a locus that reflects the laws and prohibitions of different cultures at different times. As such, it is the point of inscription for a civilization's norms relative to the individual in society, the relationships between the sexes, and the hierarchy of order. The history of the human body is also the history of medical research, political activism, and labor relations and, as Snezhana Dimotrova notes, "the history of institutions such as marriage, family, army, school, etc., which impose the ruling values" (19). To trace the evolution of the human body as it has been conceived and conceptualized at different times in different places is to trace the evolution of human culture in general. To trace the evolution of the female body as it has been compared and contrasted with the male body down through the ages is to reveal not only the prevailing ideologies of woman as she has been envisioned throughout the centuries in various societies, but likewise to trace the changing status of women and the patriarchal reactions to these changes.

To explore what Sondra Farganis designates the "phallocentric construction of sexuality," this investigation exhibits how for most of Western history, woman--and more specifically, the female body--was conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters that defined her not relative to a normative standard for woman, the female body or female sexuality but rather relative to a normative standard for man, his body and his sexuality. Limiting my research to Western culture, this study demonstrates how science, and in particular biomedical science, was used and misused to uncover "facts" of woman's inferiority in order to legitimize male superiority and maintain male authority. To underscore this myopic reading of experiential research and data, this examination illustrates that, while professing to be a neutral searching for empirical truth, Western science was indeed quite biased as it was dominated by men, shaped by men, and hence reflecting the ideals, the desires and the fears of men.

In his well-known work Making Sex, Thomas Laqueur contends that the conception of human sexuality evolved from the ancient Greeks' one-sex model to modernity's two-sex model as events surrounding the French Revolution prompted a desire to see difference and therefore a need to create difference. In particular, Laqueur argues that it was the struggle for power between those advocating enfranchisement for women and those opposed to this which led to the reconstitution of the human body and in particular the female body. Extrapolating on Laqueur's assertion that the female was conceived as an inferior version of the male in Antiquity and an opposite but complementary version of the male in the Enlightenment, this work demonstrates how, by the late nineteenth century, woman came to be designated not only the opposite of man--physically, intellectually and morally--but then also opposing man. Expanding the scope of Laqueur's research to encompass additional fields of scientific inquiry, this study reveals to what extent men of science (mis)read the findings in their respective fields in order to maintain their control of power and of women. Using numerous primary sources, This analysis illustrates how the scientific abstraction and obstruction of woman at the end of the nineteenth century led to yet another reconstitution of the female body--this time a pathologizing and criminalizing that branded "unruly" women as sexual deviants and social miscreants.

A Brief History of the Human Body: The Single-Sex Model

The human body has not always been neatly categorized into the two binary sexes we now identify. …

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