Reading Notes for March 4


The Body as Property: A Feminist Re-vision

by Rosalind Pollack Petchesky


In this chapter, Petchesky sets out to examine ideas of rights to or ownership of one's own body. She wishes to reclaim for feminism the idea of "self-propriety," and of property in general from Western, capitalist notions of property.

Petchesky sets up a critique of some feminist criticisms of the notion of property in terms of the "narrow conceptual framework"(388) of Lockean individualism that they use as the basis of their criticisms. She offers rethinking the meanings or ownership as an alternative to being trapped in this framework. This includes taking a cross-cultural look at ideas about ownership that don't separate the individual from the body as a commodity.

The idea of property is widely variant across cultures. Petchesky argues that property is better thought of as a right or a relationship than a thing, and that notions of private property emerged and exist under particular historical and cultural circumstances. Western ideas about property as "things" can also transform people into things to be exchanged or "owned." Petchesky offers several examples, such as the Wok meri women, that challenge Lockean notions of property. For the Wok meri, owenership is about caretaking and a "collective authority" over resources. This serves to provide a possible model by which to reframe ideas of property within feminism.

The idea of owning one's own body emerged among early-modern European radicals as an offensive against the interference of government or other authorities into their bodily and sexual lives. She offers an explanation of the Levellers and of a woman in France who claimed the right to her body in terms of the right of a lord over the land. For Petchesky, these examples lead toward her own ideas about how property should be reconcieved. These radicals had a notion of self-ownership that emerged from "popular protest and popular access to public space."(393)

Petchesky argues that Locke's notion of property helped cause the shift in thinking about property under absolute, individual and masculine terms. Under his theory, ownership of one's body is a means to and is justified by ownership of things. A person owns what they work with and produce. The ideas of ownership in terms of owning one's sexual and bodily life is abandoned or ignored by Locke. Petchesky's arguments are summed up well with, "...the idea of self-ownership...originated in a European context among folk who were directly and collectively opposing market relations, not defending them. This idea was intertwined with notions of sexual autonomy, gender equality, and communal identities and with democratic participatory values and radical political movements, al of which Lockean thinking aimed to co-opt, rechannel and contain."(394)

Petchesky next critiques the feminist criticisms of the idea of property. She claims that they are limited in focusing on Lockean or Marxist notions of property, rather than looking at women's claims to self-ownership in terms of their subversive nature. An examination of those claims is what Petchesky herself seems to have aimed for with this article. She examines the ideas of Pateman, who thinks that ownership of one's body under the masculine "language of the individual" simply leaves women free to sell their bodies. They are in essence detached from them as a man is from his sperm or labor power. Petchesky argues that Pateman remains trapped in debate with this masculine political theory, and that it is possible for feminists to argue for self-ownership without becoming a masculine property owner. In order to rethink self-ownership, one must look beyond the Lockean model.

Petchesky points to feminists of color int the U.S. who have presented alternatives to the Western model of property in terms of reclaiming, or reappropriating the notion of self-propriety. She examines black feminist notions of motherhood as communal and caretaking as the precursor to or evidence of property. "Women's bodily integrity" is not individual or privatized, but rather communal. Petchesky offers Harriet Jacob's, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" as an example of a narrative in which this reclaiming of body in a communal sense takes place. Rather than discarding the language of property, the individual etc., as Pateman and others would propose, we need to broaden the frame of reference.

Petchesky concludes with a final argument for the reclaiming of women's bodies by ourselves. This is important not only as individuals, but for women as citizens in a collective context as well. In order for this to take place, Petchesky argues that women must have access to social resources necessary to maintain the well-being of their bodies. For Petchesky, "self-ownership and proper caregiving go hand in hand with shared ownership of the commons."(403) Feminists must fight for the right to communal resources which are necessary to self-ownership.

I think Petchesky makes a strong argument. It may have been helpful to present more examples of alternative ideas of ownership in order to strengthen her arguments about communal resources. Also, she could have presented some of her concluding statements earlier in the article and drawn them out more.