Gabrielle d'Estrées, Duchess of Beaufort and Verneuil, was (depending on how you look at history) either the mistress of King Henri IV of France, or the world’s most famous nipple-pinchee. You probably know the painting even if you don’t know the story: two women sitting naked in what appears
to a cloth-draped tub, the one on the left reaching over to pinch the nipple of the one on the right. It’s the sort of painting that makes you think, all right, the decision to sign up for that 8 a.m. Art History seminar may not have been a total waste.
The interpretation of the anonymous painting goes like this: Gabrielle’s sister (the pincher on the left) is grabbing a fingerful of titty to show the viewer that Gabrielle is pregnant, and that these fertile breasts will soon be squirting warm mama-milk for a future King of France – a King, rather than just another bastard son of a mistress, because Gabrielle (the pinchee on the right) is holding King Henri’s coronation ring. This is supposedly an indication that Henri will soon be getting his annulment for his marriage to Marguerite de Valois. This annulment seems to have been a done deal. You can imagine King Henry VIII of England (he of the six wives and the religious troubles) spinning in his corpulent grave at how goddamned easy that Frog King has it, getting his annulment rubber-stamped while poor Henry had to get jerked around for years waiting for his, and then still had to go start his own Church anyway just so he could finally marry his mistress (and then behead her for being a totally irritating slut, but hey, marriage is hard.)
Gabrielle was Henri’s closest friend, as well as his chief adviser and confidante. By the time of this painting, they had been together eight years, she had already borne him three children, and she regularly kicked his ass on policy questions—the whole “Paris is well worth a Mass” thing, where Henri converts to Catholicism to unite his kingdom and secure inter-religious peace? Yeah, that was her idea. Edict of Nantes, promoting religious tolerance for Huguenots? That was her too. So confident was Gabrielle that the annulment and her subsequent marriage and coronation would come off, that she is said to have remarked, “Only God or the king's death could put an end to my good fortune.”
Actually, eclampsia did that.
Within months of this painting’s completion, Gabrielle would be dead from complications of her pregnancy—what we would call eclampsia today, a condition of late pregnancy in which the patient experiences multiple tonic-clonic seizures, hypertension, liver failure, pulmonary edema, and eventually death. Onset can be sudden, and there is no cure other than removal of the placenta; eclampsia and pre-eclampsia do not occur in the absence of a placenta. No one in the sixteenth century knew that, or could have done anything for her if they had, surgical techniques for termination of a late-term pregnancy not being what they are today. Battlefield amputations and various limb-hacking surgeries, they did okay with, if by “okay” you mean a fifty-percent survival rate and unbearable agony; internal organ surgery, you’re S.O.L. for at least another three hundred years.
Of course, today we’ve perfected the life-saving surgery, but still managed to make it hard to come by, and if the current crop of Republican presidential nominees had their way (I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum), I would be as dead as Gabrielle if I developed eclampsia in the next few days, since in that particular worldview abortion is always the ending of a life, and the ending of a life is never justified. A baby’s life, that is; the mother’s life and wellbeing are apparently expendable, a negotiable commodity in a way that male life somehow never is.
One of my favorite moments in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is when we get to visit a museum full of Paleolithic objects, and see a whole array of fat little statuettes, the most famous of whom is known as the Venus of Willendorf—christened by some turn-of-the-century wise ass, no doubt. These figurative, mostly headless carvings of the female body are the oldest human representations that exist on the planet, the oldest carvings of people we’ve got, and this is what we chose to make. I’m picturing Og and Ug sitting around the campfire of an evening, fondling the mammoth tusk from the day’s kill, and Og says, you know what this makes me think of? A fat-ass chick with giant boobies, that’s what. And Ug nods thoughtfully and says, yeah man, I can see that.
And the thing is, there are TONS of these artifacts—tons in terms of how much Paleolithic art we have, which is of course not a lot. And while I’d seen these in individual collections before, I’d never seen a whole tabletop of them arrayed together until Herzog’s film, and it struck me that maybe I should have stayed awake more in that 8 a.m. seminar, because it had never occurred to me before that these women aren’t fat: they’re pregnant. When would Paleolithic man ever have seen an overweight woman, or an overweight man for that matter? Hunter-gatherer societies are not known for their high incidence of obesity. Even if you could somehow manage to cram enough undercooked meat and berries into your mouth to get overweight in the first place, that spare tire tends to make running the hell away from the saber-tooth tiger or rampaging wooly mammoth quite a bit harder. But of course, they would have seen plenty of pregnant women—women whose hips ballooned, whose thighs spread, whose breasts swelled, whose whole-body fat deposits enlarged. Fat equals fertile, and fertile equals magic; you don’t have to be superstitious Paleolithic man to know that when a live human being comes out of somebody else’s body, that is some freaky shit.
So the thing is this: men have always spiritualized pregnancy. Seriously, how can you not? But what makes me uncomfortable is that while sure, pregnancy can and does have a spiritual dimension for women too, for the most part we experience pregnancy as a tremendously, overwhelmingly physical reality. What appears to men as an act of God, is for us an act of our intestines, our liver, our lungs, our bladder, our blood and bone and viscera. So this spiritualization of pregnancy, as deep and instinctive and understandable as it is, historically has signaled danger for women. The same impulse that led to the creation of those numinous little statuettes, leads to the anti-choice fulmination and bombast of the fat white guys on the floor of legislatures in southern and midwestern states. To Og, and to those legislators, women are magic baby boxes, and messing with the mojo brings bad juju from the Sky God, or something like that. No doubt I’m oversimplifying what I’m sure they, and people who agree with them, see as highly complex and subtle arguments. But it’s hard not to over-simplify and show contempt for reasoning that shows contempt for you; it’s hard to be even-handed when it is your own body, and your own sovereign right to it, that is under attack. When it’s your life, you’d be surprised how worked up you can get.
On the edge of my second trimester with this pregnancy, I bled out. It was kind of astonishing, what that looks like, what blood in such massive quantities on your own bathroom floor can look like—big slippery gelatinous clots of it, dark maroon and brown and nothing like the vivid siren-red smears of my imagining. I remember hunching on the floor, sobbing sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry to my panicked husband, because I felt I had let him down, let everybody down, had failed in the most fundamental duty to my family and the human race. I remember lying in the emergency room, praying for an end to the pain, praying that some motherfucking apathetic nurse would come increase my morphine drip.
I survived, and what’s actually surprising, so did my baby. I remember seeing him on the ultrasound that night, this tenacious little speck of a thing, clinging to the upper wall of my uterus while the deluge continued around him, like a stubborn spider who refuses to be washed down the drain. Well, if you can hang in there, so can I, I remember thinking. It’s a dangerous business, this pregnancy. Medicalize it all you want, surround it with the comforting blip of fetal monitors and maternal EKGs, but it’s still what it has always been—a dirty dangerous business in which we die, a lot of us. Take a look at this map for an idea of how many. (Note as well those countries with the lowest maternal mortality rates; funny how they all seem to be those “socialist” countries where healthcare is a universal non-privatized right.)
We take our life in our hands every time we consent to see a pregnancy through to its end, which is why our consent – our consent at every step of the journey—is the sine qua non of a civilized and grateful society that respects what we are undertaking to do for the common good, for the furtherance of this marvelous, complicated, messed-up, strange and wondrous species. Our lives as women have value, and not just contextual value; if today I am rushed back to the emergency room with eclampsia, I would hope no doctor would say, you must save her, she has three children and everything to live for! I hope that someone would say, save her because she is a human being, because her life has individual value, and it does not have more value than that of the strung-out childless meth whore crouched in the hallway slowly bleeding out from her own botched abortion.
After the death of Gabrielle d'Estrées, King Henri was by all accounts heartbroken. She had begun seizing on the ninth of April, and within hours gave birth to her fourth child, a stillborn son. Henri was at the Chateau de Fontainebleau, and she was in Paris; by the time he reached her on the tenth of April, she was as dead as her baby. He went wild with grief. He draped himself in the black of mourning, an unprecedented gesture for a French monarch; he gave her the funeral of a Queen, the queen she would have been, and forced all the French nobility to march bare-headed in her funeral procession to her requiem mass at St. Germain l’Auxerrois. And after his annulment went through, he did in fact marry again—a politically expedient marriage to Marie de Medici, who gave him six children, among whom was Henrietta Maria who went on to become Queen of England and widow of King Charles I, who lost his head on the chopping block of Revolution. Kingship is a dangerous business too. Power of any sort is, and historically the only way women have managed to get any is with our reproductive organs, which is to say, with our life.
In two weeks or less (please God, not more) I will give birth to my own fourth child, a boy. I don’t know much about him. I know he likes music—high-pitched vocals or thrumming bass, doesn’t much matter. Or, he really hates music, and is just banging on the walls of my uterus to try to find the off-switch. I know he likes movement; whenever I lie down I get a couple of swift kicks like you might give to your sputtering lawnmower to get it going again. Odds are he’ll be as ginger-headed as the rest of my crew; odds are he’ll be just as stubborn and particular and strange. His life will be full of challenges and problems, but he will never have to face the peculiar challenges of pregnancy or childbirth. He will never hear his rights to his body made the subject of reasoned debate, about which reasonable people might disagree. I’m as glad for him as I am scared for my daughters, who will come to sexual maturity in the state of Georgia. I’m out of the baby-making business, after this, but they won’t be. I hope—I pray—we can do better for them than we are doing now, in our legislatures and our mean-spirited laws and our politicians’ ridiculous demagogic and supremely unhelpful proclamations. I hope we can do better for all of us.