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(Response Paper) Elizabeth Spelman: Centuries of a Woman’s Body as a Gift and as a Curse

In response to: The Elizabeth Spelman essay “Woman as Body: Ancient Contemporary Views” from the journal “Feminist Studies”

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

I find philosopher Elizabeth Spelman’s “Woman as Body: Ancient Contemporary Views” as an eye-opening essay. It helped me better understand the oppression of women through the centuries, while making me realize the importance of really knowing iconic figures in history more than the popular accounts about them. This becomes of extreme importance in the case of the most revered philosophers because of the wisdom they impart to humanity from generation to generation. For Spelman, “it is tempting to regard their expressed views about women as asystemic: their remarks on women are unofficial asides which are unrelated to the heart of their philosophical doctrines.” At this point, I should readily mention Plato who, as she expressed, “constitutes a veritable litany of contempt” against women. After reading this essay, I now see Plato as an older form of today’s hard-core misogynist – a male chauvinist pig who firmly believed that a woman’s body (actually, many of his statements would indirectly say all bodies) is evil and is probably a curse to humanity.

Plato used many arguments to denigrate women. His view of women applied to his philosophical insights apparently showed how much he despised them, ultimately because of their bodies and their actions in relation to their bodies (or that’s what he tried to believe or maybe what he wanted the world to believe). To quote this essay in initially presenting Plato’s insights about the soul and the body, “only the soul can truly know, for only the soul can ascend to the real world, the world of Forms or Ideas.” He believed that the body is the irrational part of the soul in this world. For him, women are unable to exemplify states of philosophical ideal because women live bodily-directed lives instead of soul-directed lives. For him, women manifest the traits of the body that is a source of all undesirable traits a human being could ever have – to the point of comparing women to men who are not knowledgeable like sophists, tyrants, and cowards. He even suggested his own concept of reincarnation where a life well lived means climbing up the hierarchy to become a man, while a life wasted means stepping down to become a woman or even stepping down further to become a brute. Plato also had contradictory sides. Spelman mentioned his stand on the equality of men and women in one of his works, yet he continued to impose countless misogynistic statements about women, even to the point of saying that women’s lives are “the kinds of lives that are not acceptable philosophically.”

Spelman aptly noted Plato’s case of “psychophilic somatophobia” where there is that seemingly looming fear of the body and how it works. Ultimately, he associated women with body and bodily functions. His grounds for women’s inferiority over men very much lack proper articulation in his auspicious body of work. In his writings, he described the body so badly, the way he did so with women, children, young men, and men who loved men. Spelman made a good point saying, “if our bodies are not essential to who we are, then it doesn’t make a difference, ultimately, whether we have a woman’s body or a man’s body.”

As Spelman presented a handful of important names in feminism, she also made a good argument on how even certain feminists found the woman’s body as not only a crucial source of her oppression – her body is the very problem of her being and her becoming. French intellectual and activist Simone de Beauvoir suggested that, “to be human is to have mind prevail over body” and the woman should prevail in her transcendence over her immanence. Implicitly, she tells us to be “the people men have dreamt themselves to be.” Betty Friedan remarked on “the absence, in women’s lives, of the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit.” She seemed to imply that men achieved more than women and women should be like men. Canadian-American radical feminist and writer Shulamith Firestone clearly expressed her hate of pregnancy and childbirth. For American radical feminist philosopher and theologian Mary Daly, her general notion of women was summed up by another American theologian and activist Judith Plaskow as “a vision of wild and ecstatic, but essentially contentless and disembodied, freedom.” With all these feminist responses seemingly affected by some form of somatophobia, it is indeed a tradition that has been so hard to shake. This concern even extends to political issues and racism. Even homophobia exposing the fear of sexuality seems to root from this problem. It is really quite sad to hear all these from feminists. However, after attempting further introspection, perhaps, I should treat all these as part of a process of finding that elusive means of understanding the oppression of women in the society. Perhaps, articulating all these, alongside Plato’s misogynistic words from centuries back as crucial example, should pave way to reaching that state of cognizance we all hope for in the future. 

It was a breath of fresh air to read about American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich with Spelman expounding about her insights showing us why the “use of the mind/body distinction does not give us appropriate descriptions of human experience; and she has begun to remind us of the distance we keep from ourselves when we try to keep a distance from our bodies.” This look offers a different lens that is not centered on how patriarchy imposed the society’s ideologies on childbirth and motherhood. It was great to hear the words, “We can come to regard our physicality as resource, rather than a destiny.” I agree with Spelman’s theories of embodiment to help in strengthening feminist discourse. The woman’s body should not be used as a source of her oppression. The idea of becoming liberated from her body should not mean devaluing the body. The society should value every person’s wholeness regardless of gender. I believe that to really understand and appreciate the world, women should accept who they are both inside and out. For those who continue to ostracize women, and in one way or another, blame their physical bodies and femininity to oppress them, perhaps, they should be reminded of how men are born from women, and in many cases reared by women – so what does that make them? They are born and reared by women who they think are less than them and they expect themselves to be better than them in the process? 

People should not be estranged from their bodies. There is a reason why a person has a mind, a heart, a body, and a soul – they should work together. They make the person. Not even one of them should be branded as evil. I believe people won’t truly be able to “ascend to the world of Forms and Ideas,” as Plato expressed, if they are not in harmony with themselves and the world they live in. Women also need to appreciate their bodies where their souls live in this mundane world.

Work Cited:

Spelman, Elizabeth. “Woman as Body: Ancient Contemporary Views,” Feminist Studies, Feminist Studies, Inc., College Park, 1982.

Related Readings (Film Theory and Criticism):
Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions.

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