Last Tuesday, Landscape Surgery got personal and political and raised the issue of gender – seldom a hot topic in our research group, to the wonder of many a female surgeon, present and past.
The session entitled “Buns in the Oven, Bodies in Space: Women, Materials, Politics” was an opportunity to weave together Laura Price’s research on knitting, women, and the body, with Mia Hunt’s recent investigations into the politics of pregnant and maternal bodies and her embodied experience as an expectant mother.
Mia discussed how pregnancy brings the body back into view and stirs public anxiety about our societal need to control our bodily matter. As Laura explained, knitting too can be perceived as “matter out of place” and, while it can make the body less threatening, it also runs a similar risk of unravelling.
Knitting during pregnancy can be seen as a reaction to the anxiety surrounding separation of mother and foetus, but also a way to protect the baby once in the world. The knitted hat, for example, protects the baby’s head, which is still being “knitted together” post-birth (Pajaczkowska 2007). The conceptualisation of this separation, and the visualisation of the unborn baby, has had implications not only for knitting. Politically it has resulted in the idea of the “foetal citizen” and the social surveillance and governance of the mother – making even strangers feel vindicated in judging a pregnant woman’s body, behaviour, dress, and consumption practices. (See Deborah Lupton’s blog for further discussion.)
We explored a number of reasons why the UK’s rates of breastfeeding are among the worst in the industrialised West. In relation to public space, we discussed the continued prudishness around public breastfeeding, as highlighted in recent literature, personal anecdotes, the increase of quarantining breastfeeding rooms, and a video showing more than 170 “lactivists” breastfeeding in Paddington Station in 2011. Not only “lactivists”, but “craftivists” too have attacked the sexualisation of women’s breasts in the media, citing it as a contributing factor to public anxiety around seeing a non-sexualised breast. For example, crafted banners have railed against The Sun’s “Page 3 Girl”, and “boob caps” play with the perceived need for discretion.
Prudishness and micro-practices of public shaming have positioned breastfeeding as “out of place” and contributed to the shrinking life-worlds for many women. For us, this provokes questions about the right to the city and gender inequity. Breastfeeding in public makes women’s work visible. As the work by many craftspeople and artists illustrates, care-work in the home is often invisible and deemed non-work through its spatiality and politics of love and care.
In the second half of our session, we discussed the issues of work/life balance in academia and a paper provocatively subtitled: “How many papers is a baby ‘worth’?” (Klocker & Drozdzewski 2012). Although this is an issue for all, there are particular implications for early-career women academics: the most important time for academic productivity coincides with a dramatic decline in our fertility. As we try to “have it all”, the statistics on mothers’ challenges in academia are as disheartening as public breastfeeding rates, and cannot speak to the potential detriments to the children involved.
As a number of people highlighted, although we try to keep the body quiet and keep our care-work away from our academic lives, life and work are constantly smashing into each other. These are issues that institutions have been slow to take into account. That said, during discussion, Katherine Brickell noted that some headway is being made, citing the Women and Geography Study Group’s successful lobby for crèche facilities at the RGS-IBG annual conference. (See the current issue of Area for a debate on the future of the WGSG.)
Responses to our presentation were lively and varied. While some in attendance were incredulous that issues of public breast feeding still posed a challenge for women – or were still worth discussing – for many others, the stories, videos, crafts, and literature we presented seemed to highlight that women’s issues still demand attention, both in our research and in our institutions. Indeed, we don’t have to look very far to see that gender imbalances are still present within Geography’s hierarchies.
Click here to download the session’s supplemental reading list.
Brickell, K. & K. Browne (eds.) (2013). Special section: Gender or women? Debating the future of the Women and Geography Study Group. Area, 45(1): 2 -15.
Klocker, N. & D. Drozdzewski (2012). Career progress relative to opportunity: How many papers is a baby ‘worth’? Environment and Planning A, 44(6): 1271-1277.
Pajackowska, C. (2007). Thread of attachment. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 5(2) 140 -152.