Pragmatic Women and Body Politics

Margaret Lock and Patricia A. Kaufert (eds.)
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

This volume of thirteen essays provides rich ethnographic and theoretical insights into the dynamic ways in which gender and body politics are historically and culturally contextualized and at the same time individually experienced and negotiated. A number of essays take up issues related to reproductive health. Boddy and Gruenbaum examine issues of childbirth and maternal health and biomedicine in the Sudan. Handwerker and Kielmann’s essays address population policies and the consequences of infertility for Chinese and Tanzanian women. Lock discusses the use of reproductive technologies and genetic testing in relation to family formation in Japan. Lopez interrogates the persistence of sterilization as a means of birth control among Puerto Rican women living in New York. As a part of her analysis, Lewin examines the use of insemination by individual lesbians as a means to establish a maternal identity, while Abel and Browner explore the use of experiential knowledge and medical knowledge among women in a US setting who receive prenatal care and women who provide family care of the elderly.

Importantly, this volume also includes essays that examine non-reproductive aspects of women’s experiences with health and well-being. Schoepf, for example, demonstrates how the convergence of the medicalization of AIDS prevention and the dire political-economic situation of women in Zaire has resulted in increasingly complex negotiations of gender relations that often cost women their lives. Morsy describes how uses of scientific knowledge to critique potentially harmful development schemes in national-level debates in Egypt illuminate structures and relations that produce and reproduce gender inequality as well as other forms of inequity. O’Neil, Elias, and Yassi argue that Dene women of Saskatchewan resist the capitalist and environmental characterizations of uranium mining in an attempt to “broaden the local discourse on health risks to challenge the simple notion that increased economic opportunity equals better health” (p. 282). Kaufert’s essay offers insight into the breast cancer movement where women are simultaneously challenging existing structures of knowledge, treatment, and public policy. Nichter uses one woman’s life and medical history to examine how self-initiated medicalization reveals fundamental contradictions in the perceptions and assumptions of both patients and physicians about the role of care and cure in the US healthcare system.

The strength of the volume overall rests in the variety of ways that all the essays engage in ethnographic and theoretical elaboration of the complexity of women’s relationship with body technologies while at the same time placing these relations in local historical, political, and cultural contexts. This volume also succeeds in demonstrating how locally situated accounts help destabilize often unexamined concepts in biomedicine. Most importantly, the essays avoid the dualistic trap of defining women as either passive recipients incapable of self-determination or individuals distrustful of technological change and intervention. I would recommend this volume for the teaching in upper division undergraduate and graduate courses in medical anthropology, feminist theory and anthropology. All readers will find clearly written essays that weave feminist theory and ethnographic detail into fine grained but far reaching analyses of pragmatic women and body politics.

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