Disability History and Women's History
March 27, 2013
In February, we celebrated Black History Month, and now we are reaching the end of Women's History Month. This got us thinking about how we define our shared histories through different perspectives, and how those various ways of seeing history can illuminate one another. In particular, we were interested in examining the intersection of Women's History and Disability History, so we knew exactly who to Skype for an interview.
Kim E. Nielsen is a professor of history and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in Green Bay, and is the author of A Disability History of the United States and two books on Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy.
Our interview was conducted by Grace Lapointe, an editorial intern at Beacon. Lapointe graduated from Stonehill College with a degree in English in 2011. She enjoys reading and writing fiction and would love to work in publishing someday. Disability history interests her personally because she has cerebral palsy.
Grace Lapointe: Did you find that researching American history through the lens of disability is similar to writing women's history, black history, or LGBT history? Or is there a different approach?
Kim E. Nielsen: In some ways it's similar: recovering pasts that have not been examined too much but really are central to the American story. It's a similar approach of claiming communities and identities that mattered, looking at sources that may not have been looked at before, and looking at sources with new questions.
Who is considered female has some variability over time, but it's relatively consistent. We define that around anatomy: vaginas, ovaries, and this kind of thing. Gender varies over time, but we still tend to know who fits into that category of "female."
But who is defined as disabled varies all the time, historically. It's so contextual, and sometimes very apparent, sometimes not apparent. Sometimes it changes over one's lifetime. That category of disability is so fluid and so permeable. It's trying to write the history of an ever-moving point. And so, I found that challenging but also really exciting. I always think about how my body today tends to be read as non-disabled, but I wear glasses and contacts. And a couple hundred years ago, this would have been a really significant impairment for me. So in that regard even, whether or not I would be identified as disabled changes over time.
Today I'm wearing pants, and that is not read as anything. But in the 1890s, if I was a woman who went out and wore pants, that could be read as a sign of a very deep mental illness. So, the definition of what's a disability changes all the time. The definition of what is a female does change, and there are variations, but it's not quite as slippery as disability.
GL: How does the history of disability in America relate to women's history? Was being female ever considered effectively disabling?
KN: Well, I think they're related at a really base level because lots of disabled people are women. But I also think that being female has been considered to be a disabling condition at different points in time, especially dependent upon race or class. Even for relatively privileged women, their bodies were considered to be defective, weak, and incapable throughout much of US history. So I think they overlap in that regard. The assumption was that women's brains were inadequate and in essence, deformed muscles, and that those ovaries had a big impact on the rest of their bodies. The arguments against women's education were simply that their bodies and brains were too disabled to withstand higher education.
Women, children, enslaved people, and people with disabilities have tended to share a similar legal status, having a limited legal identity and having their legal ability to act covered by somebody else. They have not been able to make legal decisions. So, if we go all the way back to the Constitution, people categorized as idiots were not given rights. But then, all women were not given some of those same rights. And slaves and children were not. So they shared that same legal category as well. They've shared the presumption of being incompetent.
GL: You mentioned in the introduction to the book that women and people with disabilities live disproportionately in poverty in the US. Are there any societal factors that create this disparity?
KN: One limit was educational access. It wasn't until 1973 that school districts even had to educate students with disabilities. Many of them refused to do so. So that's contributed to poverty. And I think still there's restricted or inferior educational access and segregation in education for students with disabilities. And then, when they go in the employment arena, people face discrimination and harassment. I think some people with disabilities face really low expectations, sometimes even from parents and schoolteachers their whole lives, and those low expectations sometimes limit the expectations people have for themselves, too.
Limited housing options can contribute to levels of poverty. Limited public transportation can limit what jobs people can get. My understanding is that people assume accommodations are going to be expensive in the workplace, and the vast majority, according to the Department of Labor, cost less than $500. But employers have it in their brains that it's going to be incredibly expensive.
Then you have the social segregation. We still live in a culture in which advancements often happen outside of the workplace, and when people with disabilities aren't included in that--the golfing on Sunday afternoons, going to a bar--the social segregation contributes to poverty as well.
GL: What are some of the biggest and most unique obstacles that women with disabilities faced throughout US history?
KN: I think that the various ways in which women with disabilities have been defined as inadequate to reproduce has been a relatively unique bar that they have encountered. It could be discouraging marriage or forced sterilization of women with disabilities. But it was assuming that women with disabilities are not fit to reproduce and also not fit to make their own sexual decisions. We know that women with disabilities have faced a lot of sexual assault and harassment throughout history, much greater than the already-too-high rate for women in general. So I think that these things are related, but that assumption that women with disabilities could not make their own sexual decisions while being placed in situations where they were sexually vulnerable.
At the same time, there’s the assumption that they can't be good mothers and that it's best for the nation if their reproductive capabilities are limited. Even today, disability is still something that is taken into consideration in custody cases. And parents with disabilities, particularly mothers, have a much greater chance of having limited access to their own children. All the studies today say that parents with disabilities are just as good and just as bad as parents without disabilities.
GL: Did disability rights activists use any similar tactics to women's rights activists, or did they interact with members of other equal rights groups at all?
KN: Some of the 19th century women's rights activists, like Dorothea Dix, advocated for reform of asylums and the improvement of insane asylums. So in that way, they advocated for people with disabilities.
But at the same time, there were suffragists who really tried to elevate themselves by disparaging people with disabilities. They were basically saying, "Look, you characterized us marvelous suffragists with these idiots, enslaved people, and American Indians as non-voters, but we're much better than they are." So they accepted the ableism that dismissed people with disabilities and the racism that dismissed others, but tried to distinguish themselves as better.
Particularly in the post-World War II period, disabled activists used strategies of simply insisting that as human beings, we have rights and should make our own decisions. Political protest, organizing, and lobbying strategies have been very much the same.
The civil rights legislation has often impacted more than one group. And there's been a lot of overlap. In the early disability rights movement, feminist groups, racial freedom groups, and some of the gay, lesbian, and queer movements were actively involved. They saw they had a common cause around rights and claiming personhood. That didn't mean they got together all the time, or they perfectly agreed on everything. When you have people involved in multiple movements and when there's the realization that if you can discriminate against that person, then people can discriminate against me, we all have common cause. I think those are the moments when things really happen.