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Governing the Female Body: Gender, Health, and Networks of Power

reviewed by Leona M. English - July 13, 2010

coverTitle: Governing the Female Body: Gender, Health, and Networks of Power
Author(s): Lori Reed and Paula Saukko (eds.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438429525, Pages: 310, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Governing the Female Body: Gender, Health and Networks of Power speaks directly to my interests in Foucault, discourse analysis, feminism, and most of all, health. Prior to reading this edited collection, I hadn’t seen all of these topics brought together in such a comprehensive way before. As such, I read it with great interest for how it highlighted the complicities and complications between women and the various actors involved in maintaining their health.

But first, for those readers who haven’t read a great deal of Foucault, some key ideas that I borrowed from the editors’ own introduction: governance, discipline, and power. Foucault’s concept of governance (hence the govern in the book’s title) concerns the ways in which we govern and control (discipline) ourselves, as if we were being watched and surveyed. To govern or to discipline ourselves is to act as if we were controlled, effecting a prison-like status on our lives. Foucault’s ideas on power inform this idea of governance and vice versa. Power, for Foucault, does not rest in institutions or sovereigns to the degree that it does in relationships, flowing (never static) through our bodies and our human interactions, ultimately through our actions, constituting us as individuals. This power is sometimes difficult to trace because it is not vested in buildings or identifiable groups but rather wends its way into all aspects of our lives.

There are 12 chapters here, a respectable number for an edited collection that aims to give a comprehensive view of how women’s bodies are regulated in the health and gender nexus. The writers are all influenced by Foucault’s theoretical frameworks, and bring his critical lens and unique theory of power to bear on health and feminism. The editors’ stated purpose is to bring up to date Foucault and feminism, which make common cause in protesting and “in analyzing discourses that have constituted female bodies and selves” (p. 2). Of course, attempts to connect Foucault and feminism are exciting to those of us who see that they share criticality and a general distrust of institutions and other mechanisms that limit our freedom. The editors show the implicit links between feminism and Foucault in their focus on: uniting the personal with the political; showing how power can be productive and not always destructive; and highlighting how power, gender and the body connect in local sites and situations. In short, the editors demonstrate how helpful a Foucauldian analysis can be in understanding how our bodies are governed.

Section one takes on the notion of mediated self-health, pointing to how women are tasked to be independent and take charge of health, regardless of how little of it they can actually manage. This section raises critical questions about how a complex social and environmental issue like health can be relegated to personal responsibility and suggest personal failure. In section two, the writers look at the economic motives for interest in women’s health. I was reminded here of Ehrenreich’s (2009) recent book on the problems with positive thinking and especially with its enforced links to breast cancer. Indeed, chapter author Samantha King brings in her work to look at how women with breast cancer have come to position themselves as warriors in a real battle, and to feel literally blessed by the cancer that is attacking their bodies. This chapter is one of the best in the book in that it takes on the ways in which breast cancer has turned simultaneously into a fundraiser and a war, allowing both the government and the medical system, along with feminists, to ignore the real issues: Why there is no cure, what are the related environmental issues, and how we have allowed this to become a feminine disease wrapped in pink ribbons and childlike slogans?


In section three, the writers look at the politics of women’s health with a particular view to global inequalities and transnational issues in health. Briggs’s chapter, for example, focuses on how the Pill was tested in the developing world as a way to address world poverty and overpopulation, in effect further colonizing the bodies of the most vulnerable women. The final section of this book focuses on the links between science and women’s health. In Chapter 10 on IVF and women’s “failure to reproduce,” Throsby highlights the effects on women who are trying to get pregnant and points to the ways they are personally held accountable for fertility and expected to discipline their own bodies by avoiding stress, work, and other contaminants. This creates the “desperate infertile woman” (p. 239) who is unable to fulfill her maternal calling. The author observes that women’s bodies are governed by sets of scientific and not-so-scientific rules about getting pregnant. This section is very strong in naming the multiple ways that science has been used to effect discipline and to create self-blaming and docile women.

Yet, for all the strengths of this book, I was hoping that the authors would not only closely examine power and discourse but give a broad view of the field of health, moving it beyond hospitals and medical personnel to the community where women are dealing with social and economic issues that affect their health: poverty, education, geography, life skills, gender, and social networks, to name a few of the social determinants of health (World Health Organization, 1986). I was a bit disappointed since the authors focus mainly on the scientific health care system, which is, but one way of controlling women’s bodies. In this way, the authors participate in a dividing practice of sorts: they keep women’s issues hived off from the larger socioeconomic and cultural conditions in which they operate and by which they are most affected. Discussions of health have to be bigger and to look at the many factors that discipline and create identities for women.

That said, I would recommend the book to those wanted to know more about the links among Foucault, women, and health systems.  


Ehrenreich, B.  (2009). Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. Thorndike Press.

World Health Organisation. (1986). Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. Health Promotion 1:iii-v.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 13, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16069, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 12:02:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Leona English
    St. Francis Xavier University
    E-mail Author
    LEONA M. ENGLISH is professor of adult education at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. A graduate of Teachers College (EdD, 1994), she is interested in gender and discourse analysis, and is currently editing a book entitled Health and Adult Learning.
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