Marika Seigel. The Rhetoric of Pregnancy (University of Chicago Press, 2014)
Sheri Rysdam, Utah Valley University
(Published January 9, 2018)
As a woman, a feminist, a rhetorician, and a doula, I see Marika Seigel’s first book, The Rhetoric of Pregnancy as relevant to both scholars and mothers. Here’s why: Seigel’s book is a rhetorical analysis of the key texts surrounding pregnancy (guidebooks, manuals, instructions, and medical text) and a subtle feminist rhetorical critique. Seigel analyzes one of the genres most relevant to the treatment of women’s bodies: the pregnancy manual. She traces the history of these unique texts back to their origins and examines the ways attitudes about women and gender have changed over the years and the role these texts have played in shaping beliefs and behaviors about women’s bodies. Seigel writes about the ways in which the heavily-relied upon texts surrounding pregnancy reveal the structures that can and do work on a large cultural scale to subjugate women. Understanding the arguments that work to control women’s bodies is key to dismantling that control and that is why the field of rhetoric must do this work.
This work is, in part, inspired by Seigel’s experience with her own pregnancies and now in her work in Rhetoric and Technical Communication at Michigan Technological University. She writes that the manuals on pregnancy that were available to her encouraged her to view her “pregnant body as a risky body and to undertake a program of self-discipline—under the supervision of a qualified medical professional—that would keep those risks in check” (2). Seigel shares that during her childbirth experience, some of her desires were ignored. For example, she writes that her daughter “was given formula even though I requested—in person and in writing—that she be fed only the breast milk that I was pumping” (3). She writes, “I did not know how and when I could question the system, only how to comply with the system” (3). Seigel argues that the motivation for women to comply with the system is related to the concept of “pieties,” or unquestioned “truths.”
Some examples of the “truths” surrounding pregnancy include the following: “the pregnant woman recognizes the fetus as a separate and distinct individual rather than a part of her own body” (46), or “the rights of the fetus may be at odds with the rights of the mother” (50). This particular piety has evolved over time, as Seigel explains, “Until the 1980s…the fetus’s interests were assumed to be identical to those of its mother and father, and cases were prosecuted on the mother’s and/or father’s behalf, not against them. In the 1980s, pregnant women who were seen to be maliciously threatening their fetus’s normal development through substance use of through other practices—like failing to follow doctor’s instructions—began to prosecuted for “abusing” their unborn children” (96). Now the government sides with corporations and the fetus instead of the woman/mother.
The concerns of governments and corporations are increasingly prioritized as they work to seize legal control over women’s bodies like never before in US history. The legal right to women’s most physical, reproductive body—in many ways, the self—has been increasingly threatened. Women’s abilities to make decisions about their sex lives, contraception, and reproduction are increasingly limited. In recent years, the Supreme Court granted Hobby Lobby the right to discriminate against women on religious and ideological grounds (Burwell). As a woman, it is difficult to express how surreal and disconnecting this feels, that a) government and corporations have such sway over the physical and medical treatment of a woman’s body, and b) that women’s bodies and needs are so overgeneralized.
Given the diversity of bodies and birth experience, rigid medical and governing policies are ineffective, resulting in dangerous intervention. Seigel writes, “the pregnant woman...is to work at disciplining her body and practices in accordance with public pregnancy narratives and to submit to the authority, guidance, and surveillance of medical professionals” (13). Because pregnancy manuals and medical and government guidelines so often present women with only one ideal body and only one ideal narrative of birth, most bodies will fail. In the case of pregnancy and childbirth, failure looks like an increased reliance on surgeries, an increase in physical trauma and pain, dysfunction in the breastfeeding relationship, and various forms of birth trauma as women’s bodies are (sometimes violently) given over to the system.
To address these problems, Seigel effectively argues for “critical, rather than functional, access to the technological system of prenatal care” (141). Seigel advocates for labor support, such as doulas, so that women “rather than technologies, would be in control of childbirth” (143). She refers to Ina May Gaskin’s work. Gaskin guides women on “which aspects of the technological system of prenatal care to engage with and disengage from in order to achieve a good birth outcome” (146). Gaskin uses “real bodily experiences as sources of expert knowledge” (148). Here’s where the subtle activism is evident in her work. Ultimately, Seigel advocates for replacing current dysfunctional models of birth care with “feminist, woman-centered ideologies” (151).
Seigel’s work is urgent to the field in that it expands our understanding of how this rhetorical work can help make new meaning and demonstrates the ways in which the language used about pregnancy shapes policies and beliefs that have a real and demonstrable impact on women’s wellbeing. Finally, Seigel’s work provides a clear way for feminist rhetorical agency in a culture surrounding birth that too often works to suppress that agency.
Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al. 13-356. Supreme Court of the US. 2014. Supreme Court. Web. 6 July 2014.