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Is the body political? 

How the West has defined women's role in society according to their bodies

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Key words:  Politics, identity, nature, society, ideas.


This paper aims to assess how the body is political. The bedrock of this analysis is Aristotle’s body/mind dichotomy set up by his prioritization of the mind as the site of political knowledge (The Open University, 2016a). This dualism, taken up prominently by Descartes and later Enlightenment thinkers, has functioned along with correlated dichotomies creating a framework of ideas within which the “politicalness” of bodies has developed up to modern days (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012). Accordingly, this paper is concerned with how women’s bodies have been positioned in the West over time in relation to the private/public, the object/subject, the female/male, irrational/rational and the nature/culture dichotomies. This will firstly be observed through insights from Darwin and Mill about how women have been excluded from politics and relegated to household motherhood duties during the rise of capitalism. The following section uses Foucault’s ideas to show how women have reclaimed their bodies from state control of the female reproductive system. Finally, the thoughts of Tronto and Irigaray illustrate how overcoming women’s morality of care is a path towards liberating women’s bodies and reconciling Cartesian dualism. This paper concludes by arguing that since power relations have constructed and worked with the many dichotomies to make women objects of politics, overcoming these dichotomies is a way to free and grant, not only to women but, to all individual’s bodies equal political footing. 


In the eighteenth century science espoused a form of biological determinism, suggesting that sex has a deeply influences the human mind. The mind/body split of Aristotle is reversed, the body becomes the site of knowledge, despite the fact that the bodies of women, slaves and others, such as minorities or oppressed groups, are not considered. Darwin’s evolutionary theory has a very strong gender coding. According to him, man’s brain is larger and his superiority is evidenced “by his greater success in whatever he takes up whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the sense and hands” (cited in The Open University, 2015a). The female’s skull size, on the other hand, as a bodily evidence of her inferiority oscillates between that of a child and a man. Such ideas determined relationships within society. Social positions could be justified by man’s superiority, given his struggle for existence and capacities to create culture. Because of their bodies, women are not gifted with rationality, consequently it is obvious that only men are fit to express their political subjectivity in the public life. In contrast, during the same period, Mill suggested that pointing to the brain size as evidence of someone’s mental superiority is an inadequate criterion that would lead to discriminatory outcomes even among men. Yet he adds, “The generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal [woman]… whomsoever oppresses, always pretends to do so for the other’s own good…” (cited in The Open University, 2015a). Instead of supposed bodily natural disposition, his thoughts highlight the fact that circumstances and power relations such as social status and education, to which a person is subjected, are the variables that most heavily determine someone’s capacities. “The ladies of reigning families are the only women who are allowed the same range of interests and freedom of development as men; and it is precisely in their case that there is not found to be any inferiority” (cited in The Open University, 2015a).  


According to Darwin, women are different to men because they are naturally prone to tenderness and care towards their infants and often towards others. The obvious consequence is to position women in the private sphere of life where they become forever bound to the duty of care and objects of men’s subjectivity, similar to man’s relation to nature. However, Mill insisted that it was paradoxical to think that women could show exceptional capacities for matters that fell outside of traditional household tasks because while satisfying the family’s needs, women barely had time for themselves. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the rise of capitalism required the subjugation of women to the tasks of reproduction and care of the work force. Between 1851 and 1911 in Britain, and in 1891 in Australia, women’s domestic labor was classified as a mode of dependency (Hawkesworth, 2006). The campaign for a “family wage” paid to the male financial provider, supported by the trade unions, enshrined the principle of unequal pay for women by law. Thus, while downplaying women’s political freedom, the state reinforced female subjection to a patriarchal and capitalist society. Darwin reduced humans capacities to biology and did not appreciate the social circumstances that politically defined women over time. Yet, as he breaks down the difference between humans and animals, people can be thought of as a form of animal stock which needs to be bred. Women’s bodies further acquired a reproductive duty to the nation, with regards to the politics of nationalism and warfare, during the twentieth century. 


Foucault is interested in the ways in which people come to govern themselves and police their own behaviour without direct repression. This happens around societal practices and norms, closely connected with people’s notions of identity, which define some behaviours as normal. In order to discipline the body of the population, institutions such as governments, universities or families exercise what Foucault termed biopower (The Open University, 2016a). The family is a fundamental unit which is administered and also functions as a unit of administration. The fact that many women imagined their central purpose in life in terms of mothering within a tradition family was a predictable effect of biopower. But by the mid 1970’s, feminism unveiled how women in their traditional position became associated to nature, as an unchangeable object that contrasts with man’s subjectivity. Women started refusing this social subordination, a state-controlled sexuality and the idea that their reproductive work is their natural predestined role. The reclaiming of their bodies is evidenced by the collapse of the birth rate and consequent governments’ promotion of immigration. In the US, the number of births has fallen from 3.6 births per woman in 1960 to 2 in 2011 (Navarro, 2011). The state’s focus on aspects such as birth rate and public health, transforms human life into a kind of politics that comes to be known as bio politics. Biological life becomes politically decisive and restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom, backed by “natural” or “moral” discourses, could be seen as a way to regulate labor supply. This highlights the importance of unpaid domestic labor in capitalist economies and allows understanding that capitalism also functions through the making of a particular type of family, woman and sexuality.


Biopower dismisses the liberal rhetoric of the private domain beyond the reach of the state, evidencing that the family is a political entity. Women enter the public sphere as objects rather then subjects, like men. The neoliberal reorganization of the economy has increased employment of women while state supply of services has shrunk (States News Service, 2016). In the US, part of the work of hospitals has been privatized and transferred to the home while decentralization of production has theoretically allowed many women to conciliate the care of family members with earning a salary. But the actual result is the continuation of a sexed division of labor that reiterates women’s household responsibilities for a wage below the average in comparison to what they would receive if performed in a formal setting (Federici, 2011). By suggesting that everyone shares the capacity to deliberate in the public space, the liberal rhetoric of equality abstracts the difference of treatment of men’s and women’s bodies enshrined in the public-private dichotomy. Yet, in this sense, whereas mind is universal, women’s bodies remain obliterated from politics. Thus, when a government precludes the opportunity to abort or does not support an access to it, it pushes poor women to a life of hardship and misery. When a government does not grant paid maternity leave, it makes it impossible for women to compete in the job market on an equal basis with men. Despite the fact that household chores have been redistributed and made marketable, women still do most of the unpaid domestic work (Federici, 2011).


The opposition between mind and body is correlated with the male and female dichotomy. As such, whereas men are labelled as rational, the female has been associated in her bodily existence to irrational thinking. Evidencing that women can contribute to politics from a unique perspective might be significant for women's struggle to liberate their bodies from their traditional relegation to the private sphere of life. In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan has worked within the framework set by Darwin’s biological determinism by accepting that women have their own distinct morality (The Open University, 2016b). The morality of care suggests that women’s psychology is prone toward relationships and interdependence. Her claim is based on empirical studies of the late 1970s featuring girls and boys. She concludes that there are two kinds of moral reasoning, since boys more often prefer justice solutions and girls more often prefer care solutions when confronted to different problems. This thesis is understood in opposition to a universal liberal rationality that aims to secure individuals’ equality through autonomy. In contrast, a framework grounded in women’s experience perceives the self and others as interdependent, thus making individualism and autonomy problematic. However, the morality of care which sheds light on the natural cognitive differences between the sexes, conflicts with current social trends. Between 1990 and 2006, the number of people living alone in the US increased by 30% as a result of the decrease of marriages, which suggests a pattern that might distance itself from a morality naturally dictated by interdependence or relationality (Federici, 2011). 


Tronto, on the other hand, points out that the women's morality argument is controversial (The Open University, 2016b). The concept of care might be a function of women’s subordinate social position that furthers the existing structures of power and inequality. Equating care and femininity is questionable because there is not enough evidence to link gender differences with distinct moral perspectives. Additionally, the fact that the masculine/feminine dualism is the only framework where the individual’s specificity can be defined allows the assumption that the category of “woman” encompasses a predefined and stable identity. As De Beauvoir stated, it is increasingly recognized that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (cited in The Open University, 2016c). Liberating women’s bodies means overcoming any biological essentialist thesis and acknowledging that the ethic of care is a kind of morality that can pertain to women and men alike. In this sense, feminist epistemology should aim to deconstruct all dualisms correlated to the masculine/feminine dichotomy. [5] In accordance with the framework which has subjected women to the weak part of Cartesian dualisms, Irigaray believes that change will occur only if society challenges its perception of nature as unthinking matter to be dominated and controlled (cited in The Open University, 2016c). Thus, while women must achieve subjectivity, men must be allowed more varied roles. Both men and women have to reconfigure their subjectivity so that they both understand themselves as belonging equally to nature and culture.[6]  Moreover, bodies become sexed and gendered through a mutually influencing process of biological and social construction set by heterosexual gendered norms. Merleau-Ponty says: “Everything is both manufactured and natural in man, as it were, in the sense that there is not a word, not a form of behaviour which does not owe something to purely biological being” (cited in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014). The point of this argument is not to assert that anybody should be bearer of a given morality or pattern of behavior, but rather that in order to liberate an individual’s body, dichotomies should be overcome.


In conclusion, this paper has tried to observe how the body is political. In order to answer this question, an assessment was made of how, in the West, women’s bodies have been positioned over time. Darwin reversed and used Aristotle dualism to exclude women from the public sphere because of their body. In contrast, yet arising during the same period, Mill’s arguments point out that power relations embedded in society during the ascent of capitalism were the true determinants which subjugated and reduced women’s role to the private setting and activities correlated with motherhood. In the 20th century, Foucault’s insights gave evidence of how the functioning of capitalism objectified and politicized women’s bodies. In this sense, women’s reclaiming of their bodies can be seen in the collapse of the birth rate. In trying to liberate and give space to women in the public sphere of life, Gilligan’s morality of care furthers Darwin’s biological essentialism arguments. The insights of Tronto and Irigaray suggest that in order to liberate woman and give all individual voices a subjective stand in politics, Cartesian dichotomies should be overcome. Bodies have been subjected and discriminated by power relations dominated by the ideal type of man, but the notions of normality regarding human embodiment should be widened or rejected altogether. This should empower people and give them equal political power regardless of their body or the behaviour they may have. 





Federici S. (2011), A Feminist Critique of Marx, The end of capitalism, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 23.03.2016)


Hawkesworth M. (2006)Gender and the ‘Public’: A Theoretical Overview, [online], Available from:  (Accessed the 24.03.2016)


Navarro M. (2011), Breaking a Long Silence On Population Control, The New York Times, [online], Available from:


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016), Dualism, [online], Available from: (Accessed the 20.03.2016)


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014), Feminist Perspectives on the Body, [online], Available from: (Accessed the 27.03.2016)


States News Service (2016), International women's day 2016 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 27.03.2016)


The Open University (2016a) How is the Body Political?, in DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online], Available at: (Accessed the 25.03.2016)


The Open University (2016b) Care or Justice?, in DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online], Available at: (Accessed the 22.03.2016)


The Open University (2016c) The Body and Sexuality, in DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online], Available at: (Accessed the 25.03.2016)



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