The histories and meanings of ‘feminism’ and ‘reproduction’ are so deeply intertwined that it is impossible to disentangle them from one another, or from the histories of sex and sexual inequality to which they are central. Both terms are fundamental also to the meaning of ‘modernity’; yet, as feminist writers and activists have long argued, canonical accounts of modern life have excluded the radical transformations of reproduction and gender since the late seventeenth century. These opposing feminist emphases – on the crucial importance of gender and reproduction to all aspects of modernity, and their absence from social, political and economic analysis – combine to produce a dilemma of two halves. While feminists have sought to raise the profile of reproduction within accounts of social organization and political economy, they have at the same time worked to separate ‘women’ from their perennial association with reproductive labour and biology. Key to this effort have been consistent challenges to the reductive determinisms that have naturalized women, reproduction and ‘the facts of life’. These determinisms include the privatization of domesticity that has separated the home, childcare and housework from the public sphere, and the individualization of citizenship that has equated personal freedom with autonomy.
Feminist scholars from several disciplines, and historians in particular, have long pointed to the difficulty of defining ‘reproduction’. In her account of the mid-eighteenthcentury borrowing of this term to describe the generation of new life, Ludmilla Jordanova claimed that its introduction by authors such as Buffon reflected an abstraction and professionalization of knowledge about ‘the process of producing new individuals of the same species’. Similarly for Londa Schiebinger, the intersection of reproduction and the early life sciences marked a turning point in the development of the concept. Barbara Duden had already noted that by around 1850 ‘reproduction’ was moving to the centre of political economy. With an increasing emphasis on economic production, its use to describe the composite functions resulting in childbirth indexed the process through which the uterus came to be seen as both a workhorse of the body politic and ‘living proof of the natural origin of economic concepts’. In the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century, Adele Clarke argued, ‘reproduction’ became central to the science of biology – with a consequence that a process formerly linked to interdependence, fruitfulness and spirituality was depersonalized, professionalized and ‘disciplined’.
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