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Dangerous Bodies: Women and Modern Medicine, 1830-1950 (HI903)

Module Leader: Professor Hilary Marland

Module not available for 2011-2012

Context of Module
Intended Learning Outcomes
Seminar Format
Illustrative Bibliography
Context of Module

This module may be taken by students on the MA in History, the MA in Modern History, the MA in the History of Medicine, or any taught Master's student outside the History Department.



The module focuses on women and medicine in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, exploring the themes of women’s bodies as both endangered and sources of danger. During this period, women were conceptualised as a new, and potentially lucrative, client group and a number of special medical fields and services centring on their health were created, most notably in obstetrics and gynaecology. These services were increasingly concentrated in institutional settings, thus representing a move away from the private, domestic sphere where women had formerly had much control over the health of their families and their own personal health. The expansion in facilities connected with a wide range of interests: those of mothers, of doctors, the state, local government, the church, public health campaigners, feminists, and medical scientists. The module examines how responses to women’s health issues were influenced by broader social, cultural and political factors. In the early nineteenth century women’s reproductive bodies became closely associated with the ideologies of domesticity and motherhood and in the latter part of the century to their attempts to enter higher education and the professions. Over the same period heated debates, involving reformers, pressure groups and legislators, focused on female sexuality, and most particularly the regulation of prostitution. In the twentieth century the state and medical profession became actively involved in promoting maternal and infant welfare and scientific motherhood. New interest groups moved into place as more women qualified in medicine, and as midwives, nurses and health visitors took on the vestiges of professionalisation. Women were never merely recipients of these new services; many actively campaigned for them, and in some cases organised and led them.

Students will be asked to question the impact of prevailing ideologies on women and medicine, to explore women’s perceptions and actions concerning their own health issues, and the gap between rhetoric and practice, through exploring select primary sources and a selection of film material as well as the rich secondary literature. The focus is particularly on Britain and North America, but students with specific interests are encouraged to explore different national contexts.


Intended Learning Outcomes
  • Further development of seminar participation and presentation skills;
  • An ability to conduct and critically assess comparative analyses of historical trends and to engage with interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the history of medicine and health;
  • To provide experience of historical research, involving the framing of a question and writing a 5,000 word assessed essay, the selection of appropriate material, a discussion of approach and methodology, independent evaluation of contrasting evidence and scholarly interpretations, and the formulation of substantial conclusions;
  • The ability to handle a range of historical sources, and to gain awareness of the work of scholars in other disciplines, including women and gender studies, cultural studies, sociology, social policy, social anthropology, literary studies, and medicine.
Seminar Format

We will follow a seminar format, so the success of the course is largely dependent upon the amount of reading and preparation undertaken by those participating and leading the seminars. In Week 1 we will meet briefly to discuss the course outline and the structure of the course and topics. As many as possible of the items listed under the weekly topics should be read. Before the first meeting it would be helpful to dip into the reading listed below under illustrative bibliography.


Seminar 1: Gender and Medicine: Issues and Context

Seminar 2: Dangerous Childbirth

Seminar 3: The Science of Woman: Frail Bodies and Vulnerable Minds

Seminar 4: Cleansing and Polluting: Nurses and Domestic Goddesses

Seminar 5: Sexual Politics: Prostitution and Social Purity

Seminar 6: Dangerous Adolescence

Seminar 7: Race, class and women's health

Seminar 8: Dangerous Mothers: Infanticide to Infant Welfare

Illustrative Bibliography

Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (1993).

Alison Bashford, Purity and Pollution: Gender, Embodiment and Victorian Medicine (1998).

L. Brockliss and A. Hardy (eds), Women and Modern Medicine (2001).

Ornella Moscucci, The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England, 1800-1929 (1990).

Judith Walzer Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America (1984, 2nd edition, with new essays 1999).

Rima D. Apple (ed.), Women, Health, and Medicine in America (1990).

Pat Jalland and John Hooper, Women from Birth to Death: The Female Life Cycle in Britain (1986).

Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985).

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1997).

Mary Spongberg, Feminizing Venereal Disease: The Body of the Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse (1997).

Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society 1800-1914 (2007).


1 assessed essay of 5,000 words. Possible titles will be circulated, but you can also select your own topic and title (subject to approval). Titles should be agreed by Week 8 of Term 2.