Ire of the Eternal Feminine

​The very soil from which we sprout, as a biological human species, has been one of the most plundered and disputed lands throughout human history, incarnated by the female struggle for liberty against the explorations of man. In fact, within the thick network of power relations and oppressions, the female strings seem to be those that sing the loudest, throwing an ever-lasting cry into the gulf of the coming days. In the context of this dure and repressive tolerance which, although seemingly legitimised, still does not coincide with freedom, the male conquistador has been attempting to colonise what Freud defines as the ‘dark continent’ of female life and sexuality.

In spite of the many generations who belong to this eternally militant continuum, to this day women are faced with the infringement of the basic right to their own bodies. A recent example of this is represented by the protests that took place in Poland in the last weeks, after the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) attempted to further restrict abortive practices when the foetus is diagnosed with an irreversible condition.
In order to fully understand the terms involved, it is crucial to look to the historical and societal context in which the dispute is happening. Amidst the horrors of post-communist Poland (1989), which was essentially committed to the extirpation of the previous communist regime, was the fight against what had been one of the most liberal abortion policies in Europe. The debate on abortion therefore has been focally recurring, with a ban introduced by the Polish Parliament in 1993, and the settling of this decision in Constitutional Law in 1997. Within this framework, the debate has taken on three major ideological positions, which reflect radically different approaches to women’s rights and democracy, in general. The first view is the profoundly Catholic conservatist which opposes abortion by arguing for the unconditional right to life and dignity of the unborn child; in opposition to this, the liberal pro-choice position takes on the same logic by adopting, on the contrary, a negative discourse on right, defending rights of non-interference and state neutrality. The third pro-choice discourse finally is that of feminist ideologies, developing in the pure language of women’s rights. This last view, in fact, is not merely contextual or structural, but seeks to put forth a view in which women are able to gain not only reproductive self-determination, but also autonomy and parity. Within this last strain of thought the debate sheds light on the real issues, that involve not the liberal but the feminist perspective as a main locality for the reconsideration of women, and how they are defined or define themselves.
Here the real problem arises, and must be solved, within feminist terms. In fact, the social and political rights granted to women lose meaning if the debate on abortion focuses firstly on a foetal dimension or an institutional/deontological stance. The preeminence of a fertilised cell over the integrity and autonomy of a living human, already embedded within society and possessing an identity, and publicly considered as a social being, clearly undermines their dignity. No universal claim for life could possibly overtake the claim for a good, or free life. The principle of sacrality of life which is so often wielded in defence of foetuses, is self-defeating if the sacrality of a woman’s life is not taken into account first, but rather is limited in its potential decision-making and autonomous self-defining capacities. As well as this, the moral implications involved in the killing of a foetus are not biologically comparable to those of infanticide, and therefore cannot be put in the same terms of ‘murder’. Therefore, against this conservative debate, the sacrality of womanhood should be preeminent. Furthermore, if we refer to the liberal pro-choice view, we could also consider arguments not against the view that abortion is wrong, but against the laws which prohibit abortion. However, this argument would flee from the point and not consider the real matter which is at stake, that is the undermining of female experience and its legitimacy. In fact, we should aim to implement this monolithic ethic of rights, of a purely legal nature, with what feminist philosopher Carol Gilligan defines as an ‘ethic of care’, embracing a more feminine concept of relationships which is non-hierarchical and non-economic, keeping in mind that our values are always carried outside the home.

The difference between what, in the Polish case, is defined as the liberal pro-choice and the feminist pro-choice view is that whilst the first is concerned with emancipation, in terms of rights and duties, the latter focuses on a holistic and substantial liberation, which aims to understand and comprehend sexual differences and not simply formalise them. In the words of contemporary psychoanalyst, Luce Irigaray, the instrument used in this struggle should no longer be a mirror, held up by women for men to define and assert themselves, but a speculum, the instrument of female self-exploration and redefinition. Only through the understanding of themselves, women will be able to realise that their diversity is not an absence, a hollow and empty deficiency, but a positive and enriching dissimilarity.
Being moved by the deep fear and uneasiness that comes with the incomprehension of difference leads to humanist catastrophes, such as the rape reported in January 2019 and uncharged in a criminal court in Lima, Peru, because the victim was wearing red underwear.
Our society in fact is dominated by what Julia Kristeva terms a ‘symbolic order’, in relation to the father, defined by language and dominant ideology, as opposed to the ‘semiotic order’ which includes all natural communication and signs that the mother enacts when interacting with her child. We learn to exist in this world through the latter, and then define ourselves according to the first, in society. The semiotic, unthinking act of female reproduction implies the creative act of generation which transcends any cultural significance. It is possible in fact to consider any woman’s generation as purely biological, and not socially determined. However, in our social living, the issues of femininity have become more and more embedded within the political order, becoming conditioned by a new ‘biopolitics’ which seeks to merge biology and politics by administering and controlling biological functions within a social body. In this framework, which lies at the core of our modern constitutional politics, we must realise that the key to this debate is that the feminine question truly belongs to and must be considered in the political space; there cannot be plausible attempts to define this outwith the boundaries of politics. Only by realising that politics is not, in truth, limited to solely constitutional terms, and by acting and aborting compliance to this fundamental biopolitics, we can bury the seeds of equality.

We must realise how far back we belong and owe to this ‘eternal feminine’, as defined by Goëthe. The feminine, just like the earth, must receive the reverence it deserves, as the true possessor of the creative force of life, as the continuum which sews together our origins and future. This veneration is the very soil upon which the whole of life rests.



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Erin Rizzato Devlin

Erin Rizzato Devlin

Independent writer based in Glasgow and Padova; politically and philosophically engaged with the rest of the world.