|Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848–1884) Oil on Canvas, 1879|
I begin this essay with two stories:
A teacher I knew at a Catholic elementary school became pregnant with twins, and due to the inadequacy of her paycheck and her husband’s self-employment in construction, she had no health insurance. When the time came for her to deliver, she went to the emergency department at LAC + USC Medical Center. Once she had been signed in, she waited on a gurney in the hallway with a number of other similarly struggling mothers to await full dilation and crowning of the child’s head before being wheeled into the delivery room. Many of these women were screaming in agony, but were virtually ignored by the staff. The teacher, herself, wanted an epidural, but the nurse informed her it was too late and she would have to go naturally. She was worried about the fact that she would be birthing two babies, but was powerless to fight back and demand immediate medical attention. She was eventually pushed into the delivery room and gave birth to two healthy girls. A group of teachers from her school and I went to see her a day or so after the birth. The hospital policy did not permit visitors like us from going to her room on the maternity ward, so we waited in the lobby while the receptionist telephoned the nurses’ station to convey the message that she had company. We waited for quite some time before the elevator doors opened and a frail woman in a paper gown with paper booties on her feet stepped out. We did not recognize her. To me, she appeared as if she had had a stroke. One side of her face drooped and was scary in its pallor, a sickly grey. She walked toward us with a wan smile before anybody could recognize her. When we did, we all clapped and cheered, but only the women hugged her gently as if she were made of glass. I noticed that there were bright red drops of blood on her booties. She looked like a woman who had gone ten rounds with death resulting in a draw. Yet, she was defiant. She had banged out the girls and was ready to get out of the hospital. Only weeks later did she confide to others that she didn’t want her husband to touch her because she did not feel she could go through that suffering again.
At another school where I was employed as the English Department chairperson, we interviewed a candidate to fill a teaching position for the fall. It was early August and school would be starting in a week, so we were racing to find someone. A woman presented herself with excellent credentials, so we scheduled an interview. She was a tall, slightly heavyset, with a no-nonsense attitude and a thorough knowledge of the curriculum she would be required to teach. She had owned her own tutoring company, but now wanted to get back into full time classroom teaching. We went through the interview process, had her meet the Board of Trustees, and checked into her background, but since she had her own company for the last seven years, we could not rely on previous employers for recommendations. Time being of the essence, and the fact that she was a strong applicant, we decided to offer her a contract. Once she signed on the dotted line, she asked the principal when her medical benefits would start. He told her that thirty days on, she and her family would be fully covered. “Good,” she said. “I’m five months pregnant and will need to take the three months off to give birth. After that, I’m not sure I’ll be returning. It all depends on how things go.”
She knew we could not rescind the contract without leaving us open to a discrimination lawsuit, but she was not exactly forthcoming when we talked about teaching and her experience. She certainly never mentioned being pregnant, and because she was tall and wore flowing and loose clothing, we could not see the “baby bump.” We knew she had taken the job to get the health insurance that she could not afford being self-employed. So she worked from August to December, left for Christmas break, and never returned.
The body is a weapon. That is the thesis. A gun, a knife, a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire—those are extensions of the body to aid its weaponized power. It is best exemplified in the Greek comedy by Aristophanes, Lysistrata, where all the women get together and refuse their husbands sex to stop the Peloponnesian War. Human beings have only the weapon they are born with, and they must make the most of it as they can when fighting back against oppressive and abusive discrimination.
In Dolores S. Williams’ chapter in After Patriarchy, she speaks of the abuse visited upon black women in the time of slavery. Indeed, this is a prime example of white slave owners using their bodies as weapons against black women, torturing them sexually and physically, but it is also an example of the black woman’s body as weapon. In the “area of sexuality…slave women were forced to stand in the place of white women to provide sexual pleasure for white male slave owners.” This is horrific as a standalone fact, but it also gave the black women some power. These women, according to Williams, often became housekeepers rather than field workers, and enjoyed privileges not accorded to other slaves. Although wrong and an aberration, the white male oppressors needed the black women they victimized. It was indeed “coerced surrogacy,” but the weapon of the black female body could be used to coerce privileges and specialized treatment from their “owners.” Often, the black woman was characterized as a “Jezebel,” a sexually voracious exotic other far removed from the often distant and removed white woman. In this way, her body and her sex elevated her as a “counterimage of the…Victorian lady.” It was a tragic and brutal imbalance, but the abuser was as much trapped in the abuse as the women he victimized, and the woman to whom he was rightfully married was a victim as well.
Paula M. Cooey in her chapter discusses how the body can be redeemed in a post-patriarchal society. First, she notes that pain and suffering of the body are commonplace and expected, and it is through this turmoil that we can “make a better world.” The body can be starved, beaten, raped, strangled, murdered, but it still functions as a powerful symbol of that abuse and destruction. Think of the piles of bodies on Mexican streets murdered by drug lords. They represent a horrific crime, but they also represent an indictment of those criminals. They often argue that they do much civic good in the towns and villages, that they are only responding to the supply and demand from the U.S. They argue they are like Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men: steal from the rich and give to the poor. The piles of bodies say otherwise.
Without a doubt, the most potent symbol of body as weapon is the phallus—it is often characterized as a sword or club or gun barrel. Cooey notes that men achieve power by controlling “sexual interaction, reproduction, childbearing, medical practices, and work roles, often justified or rationalized on religious grounds.” Women in the world, now and in history, often lacked political power or social status to fight back against this phallic weaponry, but it is through a woman’s body that new life comes into the world. A woman is an incarnation generator, bringing flesh to life, and although women have been discriminated against and demeaned and violently abused throughout patriarchal history, only a woman can truly give life, is truly like God. In a post-patriarchal society that Cooey describes, all bodies yearn for redemption, and only in pain and injustice can this redemption take place. Male oppressors are at a distinct disadvantage in the search for redemption. The celebration of frailties in the human condition gives strength. Men, with their anatomical strength and raging phallus have much to answer for whereas women, the life givers, stand up through the denigrative and abusive history they have suffered. The abuse of another also taints the abuser.
Body-as-weapon has no better expression than that of a suicide bomber who believes in the explosion, his or her body will act as shrapnel to pierce the bodies of the enemy. Literally, they become the bomb that shreds the flesh of the unsuspecting victims. Their redemption comes through their destruction. They are promised something better beyond this life, depending on the translation—virgins, heaven, something. They are unworthy of salvation unless they turn themselves into a weapon for the Supreme Being in a misguided attempt to destroy in the name of a God. Men and women use their bodies as armaments. But what of Jesus? Is his body a weapon even as it is destroyed by the weapons of others—Roman soldiers, Pharisees, et cetera?
For all his passivity, for his eventual accepting of his fate, Jesus is a weapon, a potent weapon. Cooey focuses on the bread, or the Bread of Life, which is Jesus’ flesh mixed with blood as wine. Jesus literally gives his flesh up in an act of destruction. He is crucified, died, and was buried, to paraphrase the prayer. He did not envision his bones as slivers of shrapnel piercing the enemy, but his flesh as bread to save the lives of his followers and allow them to redeem themselves for eternal life. As a victim of horrific torture and abuse, Jesus also becomes feminine. Cooey argues that “The ethical dimensions of the redemption of the body are gynocentric, or woman-centered.” She tells us that violence is primarily directed at women: abortion, infanticide, neglect of female children, genital mutilation, forced pregnancy, and beatings, tremendous, incessant, fists pounding flesh leading to bruises, disfigurement, and death. Jesus was beaten, whipped, lacerated, crowned with thorns, nailed to a piece of wood; he suffered stab wounds, and probably asphyxiated to death as his body sagged on the cross. He suffers perpetually and in solidarity with all those whose suffer, especially women. But he also uses his man body as a weapon, giving up his flesh and blood for redemption of his followers, like some kind of self-sacrificing hero in an action movie.
After death, his body continues to be a weapon, first by its absence at the tomb and the threat that implies, and later by his appearances to his apostles and eventual ascension into heaven. He dies, but is still present, the ultimate triumph over the mortality of body. Death has no power. Death, as John Donne put it, need not be proud because he has failed. Jesus lives. In a post-patriarchal reading of this, through Jesus we embrace what is unique about human beings, and women can be redeemed in his ability to undergo immense suffering and survive. Saint Paul “distinguishes between psychological and spiritual bodies not by the logic of his or her soul or ego, but by the logic of the Spirit of God, a logic that would guarantee the body’s imperishability.” As Jesus lives, so do his followers.
In the opening stories of this essay, the teacher was not broken down by the horrific pain of double childbirth. She was empowered, emboldened, by her survival and triumph over pain. She also decided, going forward, that she would control her procreative future on her own terms. The teaching candidate knew she needed medical coverage for her child and herself and was willing to obscure the truth and not be forthcoming to get what she wanted. Is this dishonorable? In a world where people—women, the poor, the disenfranchised—have few tools at their disposal, she simply used what she had to get what she needed. She did work for the money—she taught every day from August through December. Beyond that, she owed the school nothing. And if she had revealed her pregnancy to the principal, a male, and to the Board of Trustees (one woman and eight men), she would not have been hired, of that I am certain.
Our bodies are weapons. The strength and breadth of their powers vary in situation and circumstance, but we use them as we can to right the imbalances in this world. Our redemption is the acceptance of pain and suffering in these battles. Victories always come at a great cost.
· After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions edited by Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel (Orbis Books, 1991)