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Gender and Medicine: Issues and Context

Over the last two decades feminist and medical historians have directed their research interests towards the health care of women and children. This session will commence with a brief overview of a selection of this literature.

The focus on women’s health in the late nineteenth century was largely driven by what was becoming a highly developed, though often erratic, rationale concerning their nature and physical and mental make-up. Driven particularly by the workings and malfunctioning of their reproductive organs, women were depicted increasingly as ‘patients of nature’. Gynaecologists enthusiastically grasped this rationale in their eagerness to build up a client group, and it was used by midwifery practitioners to explain women’s diminished ability to give birth naturally (both topics will be covered in more detail in the next two weeks). Importantly, women (along with children) were depicted increasingly as a lucrative client group, and a source of income and expertise not just for specialists in obstetrics and the diseases of women, but also general practitioners of medicine. Yet women would retain some control in the domestic sphere of health care in the family.


Primary source 

*Extracts Pat Jalland and John Hooper, Women from Birth to Death: The Female Life Cycle in Britain (1986), Part 1.2.

*Nancy M. Theriot, ‘Women’s voices in nineteenth-century medical discourse: a step toward deconstructing science’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 19 (1939), 1-31.

*M. Poovey, ‘”Scenes of an indelicate character”: the medical “treatment” of Victorian women’, Representations, 14 (1986), 137-68.

*Anne Digby, ‘Women’s biological straitjacket’, in Susan Mendus and Jane Rendall (eds), Sexuality and Subordination: Interdisciplinary Studies of Gender in the Nineteenth Century (1989), 192-220.

*Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Charles E. Rosenberg (eds), ‘The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America’, Judith Walzer Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America’, 2nd edn (1999), pp.111-30.

*Anne Digby, Making a Medical Living: Doctors and Patients in the English Market for Medicine, 1720-1911 (1994), ch. 9.

Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1989), esp. chs 2 and 3 but read as much as possible.

Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990), esp. chs 5 and 6.

Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (1989), esp. chs 3 and 4.

Ornella Moscucci, The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England, 1800-1929 (1990), ch. 1,

Patricia Branca, Silent Sisterhood: Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Home (1975), Part II.