Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog
mmo Books

The system is not on our side

The Boundaries of Her Body:
The Troubling History of Women’s Rights in America

Debran Rowland
Sourcebooks, Inc., 2004

Review by Margaret Foley

One step forward, two steps back” would also be an appropriate subtitle for Debran Rowland’s fascinating and well-written study of women’s rights in the United States. Rowland interprets the historical experience of women through the prism of the legal system. By focusing on laws and their interpretations, Rowland vividly demonstrates the central thesis of her book— that women’s rights are never easily won and that once won, those rights are often in danger of being restricted or rescinded.

The book’s four sections cover the status of women from the seventeenth to the early-twenty-first century, reproductive rights, female adolescence, and violence against women. Although the bulk of The Boundaries of Her Body analyzes the second half of the twentieth century to the present, the historical background illustrates the long-standing pattern of legal advancement and setback in women’s rights. The earliest documents of American history, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, gave women rights only through their association with men. It was, and in many cases still is, a commonly held belief that men needed to regulate female sexuality and procreation. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the situation began to change. Women began to own businesses, run households, become educated, and enter the workforce.

Historically, each gain women won led to others. Education led to agitation for information about birth control, revised family laws, and entrance to professions, such as medicine and the law, formerly off-limits to women. Voting rights led to larger political participation, which led to civil rights laws, laws against pregnancy and gender discrimination, and to contemporary battles over abortion and same-sex marriage.

But, restrictions often accompanied gains. Women have never been accorded the “natural rights” given to men. Any law regarding women occurs within the cultural framework of the time, leaving women at the mercy of a “debate over what a woman is; what a woman ought to be; and what a woman should, therefore, be allowed to do.”

While the book covers a wide range of topics such as discrimination, same-sex marriage, assisted reproductive technologies, and the effects of technology and globalization on women’s rights, three of the most interesting portions of the text cover abortion rights, female adolescence, and violence against women.

A benefit of Rowland’s legal focus is that she can show how a small shift in the legal landscape has wide-ranging repercussions. Most people are familiar with the rights conferred by legislation such as the Civil Rights Act, Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or Supreme Court rulings, such as Roe v. Wade, but legal language and laws can be used in much subtle ways to undercut rights.

An example of this is her discussion of the push by the anti-abortion movement to make the fetus a person. Anti-abortion activists have successfully inserted their terminology into public discourse. For example, Laci Peterson is described as carrying an unborn child, not a fetus. The use of unborn child confers a sense of personhood that the word fetus does not. While court cases have often upheld the constitutional zone of privacy around women’s bodies, the cultural shift in what defines a child created a new set of ways to attack abortion rights. These include charging pregnant women with child abuse, attempting to take unborn children into custody (which effectively means taking the mother into custody), attempting to issue death certificates for fetuses, and interfering in medical decisions, such as whether or not a pregnant woman has the right to refuse medical treatment.

Supporters of these methods and laws argue that they are only trying to protect women and children, but they do the opposite by making it more difficult for women to make informed decisions about their reproductive health. The net effect is to “seek to elevate the status of unborn fetuses over those of living women— that Roe v. Wade was supposed to settle. The rights of women were supposed to be superior to those of the ‘fetuses.’”

Rowland treats attitudes and laws regarding female adolescence as part of this larger trend to control women’s sexuality. The problem for adolescent girls is that society and the legal system send contradictory signals as to when someone should be treated as a girl and when someone should be treated as a woman. For example, a female minor can have access to birth control, be married at age 18, have two children by the age of 20, but not be allowed to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.

In today’s society, Rowland argues, being a girl is not easy:

[I]n attempting to detail the modern world of today’s pre-woman, there are at least three “girls” to be spoken of: (1) Biology’s Girl, the female child moving through the stages of becoming a woman; (2) Society’s Girl, the young person urged by the pressures of modern culture to live in the guise of a woman; and, (3) the Law’s Girl, who remains legally incapable of engaging in adult, “womanly” behavior unless the state has consented.

This type of social construction is dangerous. Current research documents the increase in precocious puberty, the increase in sexual pressure, and the increase in the numbers of girls who have sex before the age of 16 and/or have sex with adult males. The American legal landscape does not acknowledge the everyday environment of adolescent girls. To the threat of rape, unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual harassment in schools, and social and media objectification, the state answers with laws that push abstinence, restrict access to abortion and contraception, and half-heartedly attempt to regulate the damaging effects of American culture.

These contradictory impulses are also seen in laws that purport to protect women from violence. Violent acts are committed against women everyday, and this violence “runs the gamut from the clearly urgent— bumps, bruises, and fractures— to the less immediate, though in many ways just as controlling.” Unfortunately, it’s only the sensational stories of child molestation, missing or dead pregnant women, and serial killers that gain widespread attention. Many policy experts, theorists, and academics spend more time explaining why violence against women occurs rather than offering viable solutions to the problem.

In fact, many assault laws are written on the basis of assumptions that are false. Rape and assault laws assume that the victim does not know the perpetrator, but, in fact, the majority of victims have had some contact with the perpetrator. As a result, many cases turn on the credibility of the victim, rather than on the facts of the crime. “[W]here ‘prior relationships’ exist between a victim who charges rape and the defendant who is accused of it, judges, juries, legislatures, and attorneys have long proved more skeptical of the women charging rape than of the men accused.”

This leads to situations is which lawyers have attempted to subpoena women’s gynecological records, and, in the case of the recently dropped charges against basketball player Kobe Bryant, successfully argued to admit the plaintiff’s past sexual history, regardless of the fact that it had little to do with the events surrounding the rape charge.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act is another example of how the court system limits legal protections. The act stated that people “have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender” and it allowed, for the first time, gender crimes to be tried in the federal court system. Many human rights groups considered the federal remedy for gender-motivated crimes essential because “state agencies often systematically failed to ‘vigorously’ pursue cases involving violence against women.” However, in 2000 after hearing two combined court cases involving the rape of a female student by football players at Virginia Polytechnic, the Supreme Court ruled that placing gender crimes in the federal system was not allowed under the constitution. This ruling returned such cases to the inefficiencies and arbitrariness of the state courts.

The Boundaries of Her Body has some minor problems. Many topics are introduced and then dropped without analysis. Legal terminology is not always clearly explained, and while interesting, information about policies in other countries often disrupts the narrative flow, rather than adding to it.

That said, the book reads extremely well and is an excellent study of women’s rights’ law in the United States. Critical ideas, laws, and cases are summarized in sidebars, which makes the book a useful reference tool. Most importantly, the book sounds a clear warning to those who believe the law and the courts often succeed in redressing social and legal inequities. They don’t. As women we need to be aware that very often, the system is not on our side.

mmo : November 2004

Margaret Foley is a writer and historian living in Portland, Oregon.
What are you reading? Let us know. Send your recommendations to editor@mothersmovement.org
Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online