New Voices Talk Series – Women and their body (6)

Willemijn Ruberg: “Gender and the history of the right to bodily integrity”

On March 2nd, 2023 at 4pm (German time/CET), we will have the pleasure to listen to Willemijn Ruberg on “Gender and the history of the right to bodily integrity”.

When protesters against compulsory Covid-vaccination and face masks shouted ‘my body, my right’, this slogan strangely reverberated earlier feminist demands of bodily autonomy. It reminded us of how strongly the right to bodily autonomy and integrity has become associated with women’s bodies. Especially in recent human rights discourse, bodily integrity often refers to protection from female genital mutilation. However, a historical perspective can reveal the gendered and racialized notions of the body that have been informing the notion of bodily integrity.

The history of human rights has come to be written as a mostly progressivist history of the increasing inclusion of human rights -based on a universal body- in covenants. Scholars point to several originating moments of the right to bodily integrity/autonomy: early modern contract theory; the Enlightenment emphasis on equality; the abolition of slavery; human rights treaties formulated after the Second World War (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950)); the movement for patients’ rights; and feminism in the 1970s-1980s.

In this talk, she will analyze specific forensic practices in which the right to bodily integrity came to be formulated. For instance, in the Netherlands in the mid-twentieth century the bodily integrity of convicted male sex offenders was safeguarded in the debate on castration as a condition for early release from prison. At Heathrow Airport in 1968-1979, official virginity tests were performed on Southeast Asian immigrant women to ensure the protection of white British women and the British social security system. Meanwhile, the physical examination of female rape victims, for a long time done with the physicians’ fingers, was only qualified as ‘second rape’ by feminists from the 1980s. It is in these practices, she argues, that the gendered body and its boundaries are shaped. They unveil that the body that is entitled to bodily integrity often belongs to the (white) male suspect, not to the female victim.

Biography: Willemijn Ruberg is associate professor of cultural history at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her research interests include the history of gender, body, knowledge, medicine and psychiatry. She is currently the Principal Investigator of the research project ‘Forensic Culture. A Comparative Analysis of Forensic Cultures in Europe, 1930-2000’, funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant (2018-2023). In 2020 she published the book History of the Body in the History and Theory series of Palgrave Macmillan/Red Globe Press. Her most recent articles include: 1) (with Siska van der Plas), ‘An astonishing human failure’. The influence of gender on the image of perpetrators of infanticide in the courtroom and crime reporting in the Netherlands, 1960-1989. The History of the Family. An international Quarterly (April 2022); 2) ‘Hysteria as a Shape-Shifting Forensic Psychiatric Diagnosis in the Netherlands ca. 1885-1960′, Gender & History (March 2022); 3) ‘Infanticide and the influence of psychoanalysis on Dutch forensic psychiatry in the mid-twentieth century’, History of Psychiatry 32:2 (2021). A complete list of publications can be found here:

This online talk will be held on Zoom. We hope many of you will be able to join us for an interesting talk and a friendly and engaged discussion!  Please register (no registration fees) here:

If you already have registered for the previous talk, you do not have to register again. The Zoom link will be the same.

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