I recently finished reading Kim Q. Hall’s Feminist Disability Studies, which is basically a collection of groundbreaking work that is being done at the intersections of feminism and disability studies. Before you go getting your dander up at me not having read this work sooner, know that it was very recently published (2011) and while I had not read most of the pieces in the volume, I have read nearly every work or author/theorist that the pieces are about. This is the case of Alison Kafer’s piece, “Debating Feminist Futures: Slippery Slopes, Cultural Anxiety, and the Case of the Deaf Lesbians.” While seemingly disparate at first, Kafer utilizes Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time to talk about assisted reproductive technologies (ART) and the selection for particular traits like deafness. While I found Kafer’s piece very engaging and her examples to be intricately connected, I found a serious flaw in the way in which she used evidence out of context from Piercy’s work.
While I agree that a feminist disability studies analysis of the novel is in order, the way that Kafer does so is problematic. Having recently read the novel, I can firmly state that I do believe that Piercy engages with the “Mixers vs. Shapers” debate very well for the time at which she wrote. It is certainly a disappointment that no one in the utopic Mattapoisett has a physical disability, but Piercy does introduce a meaningful debate for both the time in which she wrote as well as the time in which Kafer and I are reading her. As Kafer points out, a dystopic future also exists within the novel—one that emphasizes the conformity of genetically engineered men and women. It seems then that Mattapoisett is engaging in the debate regarding human diversity, but the dystopic society has already made this decision—to the detriment of their population.
My final critique of the piece centers around the way in which Kafer describes the way that some members of Mattapoisett leave for unspecified amounts of time to deal with their own mental and emotional needs. While Kafer describes this action as a way of segregating these mentally “unstable” individuals from the community, in the context of the novel it can be juxtaposed to the way that Connie and her fellow mental patients are dealt with in New York City in the 1970s. Here, decisions about mental health are made for these women by “medical professionals,” leaving no room for self-care. This was a common anxiety for feminists of the 1970s; hence, the publication and wide-spread popularity of Our Bodies, Ourselves (first published in 1971). Therefore, in the context of the novel’s themes and well as the social and political climate in which it was written, Mattapoisett’s encouragement for individuals to leave and reestablish their own mental health without impositions from other members of the community can be viewed as a liberatory feminist practice.
It is with these critiques in mind that I accept some of Kafer’s analysis and also harbor a desire for her to engage with a more nuanced interpretation of the text.