Womb Genealogies: Conceiving the New World

Open Access
Sparling, Nicole Lynn
Graduate Program:
Comparative Literature
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 04, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Sophia A Mcclennen, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Sophia A Mcclennen, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Djelal Kadir, Committee Member
  • Susan Merrill Squier, Committee Member
  • Lorraine Dowler, Committee Member
  • Laurence E Prescott, Committee Member
  • reproduction
  • biopolitics
  • bare life
  • twentieth century
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Ariel Dorfman
  • Carlos Fuentes
  • Toni Morrison
  • Clarice Lispector
  • Diamela Eltit
  • inter-American
  • comparative literature
  • Americas
  • America
  • 1980s
  • female body
  • womb
  • fetus
  • gender
  • nation
Despite the advancements made by feminist activists and civil rights movements in the twentieth century, the status of women in the Americas began to deteriorate sharply in the 1970s and 1980s as dictatorships and neo-conservative regimes emerged. In this political climate, the reproductive lives of female citizens became an issue of national interest as women were often expected or forced to relinquish certain rights (both civil and human) and to assume traditional gender roles. At the same time, literary texts from several countries of the Americas dealt explicitly with the relation between language, reproduction, and the nation. These novels, namely Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Ariel Dorfman’s La última canción de Manuel Sendero (1987), Diamela Eltit’s El cuarto mundo (1988), Carlos Fuentes’s Cristóbal Nonato (1982), Clarice Lispector’s A hora da estrela (1977), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), made the female body, actually and figuratively, central to their political critiques of the nation at a time when women’s reproductive lives had become yet again a site of population control. I argue that when these texts use the female body as a metaphor for the nation, it is actually the womb that becomes symbolic of national space, for any agency on the part of the embodied female subject in terms of nation formation is belied by the passive description of its birth: the nation is born. Further, I propose that the rhetoric of biopolitics, which describes the way that power is organized and instrumentalized through definitions of life itself, reveals how figurative language serves to perpetuate the relation of inclusive exclusion that the feminine has with the nation and the body politic. At the core of this study is the question of how to escape this ideational cycle which links figurative and material violence.