by Sarahann Moser, UNC Charlotte
In the United States, women are giving birth while shackled to the bed. This happens in 27 out of 50 states, and it is appalling. Mistreatment of women and their wombs can be traced back hundreds of years to Francis Bacon and his “champion” of Science. In terms of the Baconian and patriarchal approach to Science, incarcerated women are the epitome of the disorder that Francis Bacon and his advocates pin on women and nature. They are examples of nature gone wild; subjects that must be punished for their unruliness. In the modern world, controlling a woman’s womb finds its origins in the early modern world where the womb was believed to have occult properties. Bacon believed that, if not controlled, nature engendered as female could be dangerous. The notion that modern incarcerated women have broken a law or laws-ones put in place to maintain a stable justice system-is appalling to men and women who push patriarchal doctrines. To atone for this, their wombs must be punished and controlled.
Basis for the mistreatment of women in the judicial system can be traced to witch trials, as Carolyn Merchant observes in her article, “Dominion Over Nature.” Merchant connects the mechanical devices used to punish and torture women who were accused of witchcraft to the introduction of Baconian mechanical contraptions to sequester and interrogate nature (69). Similar contraptions- chains and handcuffs–are used today to punish women. Not only are imprisoned women forced to endure the pains of labor alone, without family, shackled by chains to the bed, but there are reports of women’s pregnant bellies being chained. This is an ultimate portrayal of control, chaining both the woman and the innocent life inside her. Mary Floyd-Wilson acknowledges early modern English perspectives of the womb in her book with the chapter titled “Women’s Secrets and the Status of Evidence in All’s Well That Ends Well.” Floyd-Wilson points out that the womb was believed to have occult properties (30). That premise of placing women in “belly chains” and handcuffs for their doctor’s appointments can be connected to the fear of the power which the womb commands. In early modern England, the womb was a highly fantasized feature of the female body which men would depict in problematic scientific diagrams.
The unknown woman and her ability to grow another life in her body intimidated Bacon and his contemporaries. As with feminized Nature, it was necessary for scientists to dissect, manipulate, and dominate the study of the womb. The interpretation of the womb and mother as dangerous and intimidating continues today in that pregnant mother’s bellies are chained. Profoundly, if this is done to protect the child from his or her mother, it is highly hypocritical. Once said woman’s child is born, she will only be allotted twenty-four hours to spend with her baby, forced to care for and breastfeed her child while in shackles and handcuffed. This greatly hinders the formation of a bond between mother and child at a severely critical developmental period in the child’s life. The connection between Baconian scientific practices and modern practices associated with ‘disorderly’ women, that is, incarcerated women, is clear. Had it not been for a fear and intimidation of the female’s ability to grow life, negative associations that the womb needed to be controlled would have never cultured. Today’s mistreatment of pregnant women is an explicit example of modern implications of Baconian Science. Men controlling women and their wombs is an age-old concept.
Floyd-Wilson, Mary. Occult Knowledge, Science, and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Merchant, Carolyn. “Dominion over Nature.” The Gender and Science Reader, edited by Mauriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch, Routledge, 2001, pp. 68-81.