Plato, Maternity, and Power
Can We Get a Different Midwife?
CYNTHIA D. COE
The dominant construction of maternity in contemporary American culture has deeply Platonic roots, in three primary dimensions. First, the figure of the (literally) pregnant philosopher is a conceptual paradox—the analogy between Socrates and the pregnant woman works in our dualistic tradition on an exclusively metaphorical level. Second, maternity is constructed as a form of fragility, a state fraught with multiple and constant dangers. Through intense medical control and surveillance, pregnant women are made to experience their own bodies as delicate and alien objects. This construction reinforces the Platonic idea that maternity—far from being a life-giving power—creates merely mortal beings, and is thus connected to imperfection and death, in ways that intellectual reproduction is not. Third, children are perceived as beings who are profoundly vulnerable to a great variety of physical, psychological, and social threats. In this essay, I argue that the anxieties cultivated around pregnancy and motherhood perpetuate disempowering visions of the self in its relation to others and the world around it. Given how powerful the dichotomies of vulnerability and virility, embodiment and intellect remain, particularly in relation to maternity, we must pursue a much larger conceptual shift in order to work free of our Platonic melancholy.
As many scholars have noted, Socratic dialogues make remarkable use of reproductive metaphors in describing the transformation that philosophy