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The Science of Woman: Frail Bodies and Vulnerable Minds

We will focus in this week’s seminar on how biological interpretations of female susceptibility and understandings of the apparently treacherous female reproductive cycle impacted in the fields of gynaecology and psychiatry. Both specialties were emerging during the nineteenth century and attracting growing numbers of practitioners, who saw more and more female patients in gynaecological wards, hospitals and clinics and in asylums. Matters took a particularly sinister twist with operations to remove the ovaries becoming one of the major developments of internal surgery in the nineteenth century and the craze for clitoridectomies to ‘cure’ hysteria and masturbation. However, doctors were ranged on different sides of the debate concerning the value of these interventions. Many practised conservative gynaecology, and it is certainly true that women benefited from many of the new procedures on offer, which improved their reproductive and general health. In psychiatry it is important too to look for alternative explanations to explain women’s mental disorder. While ideals of ‘proper’ feminine behaviour shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity as women were brought into lunatic asylums in increasing numbers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, asylum doctors also took the poor health status of women, poverty and stress into account when reaching a diagnosis. Neurasthenia emerged as a new sickness category in the late nineteenth century, situated between physical and nervous disorders, and bound apparently to a particular historical moment and setting.


Primary sources

* Extracts Jalland and Hooper, Women from Birth to Death, Part 4.4.

* Mary Putnam Jacobi, ‘Do women require mental and bodily rest during menstruation?’ (1886), in David J. Rothman, Steven Marcus and Stephanie A. Kiceluk, Medicine and Western Civilization (1995, 2000), 97-102.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892 (there are many editions and reprints of this, but one of the most useful is Dale M. Bauer (ed.), The Yellow Wallpaper (1998), which has an excellent supporting literature).

* 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.

* Ann Douglas Wood, ‘”The fashionable diseases”: women's complaints and their treatment in nineteenth-century America’, and Regina Markell Moranz (reply to Wood), ‘The perils of feminist history’, in Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America, 1st edn, 222-38, 239-45.

Ornella Moscucci, The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England, 1800-1929 (1990), chs 3 and 4.

Judith M. Roy, ‘Surgical Gynecology’, in Apple (ed.), Women, Health, and Medicine in America, ch. 7.

Lawrence D. Longo, ‘The rise and fall of Battey’s operation: a fashion in surgery’, in Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America, 1st edn, 270-84.

Ann Dally, Women under the Knife: A History of Surgery (1991).

Deborah Kuhn McGregor, From Midwives to Medicine: The Birth of American Gynaecology (1998).

Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985), esp. chs 2-6.

SLC Elaine Showalter, ‘Victorian Women and Insanity’, Victorian Studies, 23 (1979-80), 157-81; reprinted in Andrew Scull (ed.), Madhouses, Mad-Doctors and Madmen (1981), 313-36.

Jonathan Andrews and Anne Digby (eds), Sex and Seclusion, Class and Custody: Perspectives on Gender and Class in the History of British and Irish Psychiatry (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004).

Vieda Skultans, Madness and Morals: Ideas on Insanity in the Nineteenth Century (1975), ch. VIII ‘Feminine Vulnerability’ (useful extracts on women and insanity).

Vieda Skultans, English Madness: Ideas on Insanity 1580-1890 (1979), ch. 6 ‘Femininity and Illness’, 77-97.

Wendy Mitchinson, The Nature of their Bodies: Women and their Doctors in Victorian Canada (1991), chs 10 and 11, ‘Women and mental health’ and ‘Insane women: their symptoms and treatment’.

Nancy Theriot, ‘Diagnosing Unnatural Motherhood: Nineteenth-Century Physicians and “Puerperal Insanity”’, American History, 26 (1990), 69-88, reprinted Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America, 2nd edn, 405-21.

* Hilary Marland, ‘Disappointment and desolation: women, doctors and interpretations of puerperal insanity in the nineteenth century’, History of Pyschiatry, 14 (2003), 303-20.

Barbara Sicherman, ‘The Uses of a Diagnosis: Doctors, Patients, and Neurasthenia’, Journal of the History of Medicine, 32 (1977), 33-54.

SLC David G. Schuster, ‘Personalizing Illness and Modernity: S. Weir Mitchell, Literary Women, and Neurasthenia, 1870- 1914’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 79 (2005), 695-722.

Janet Oppenheim, “Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), esp. ch. 6 ‘Neurotic Women’.

Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter (eds), Cultures of Neurasthenia: From Beard to the First World War (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2001), esp chapters by Tom Lutz, Mathew Thomson and Michael Neve).

Thomas Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Cornell University Press, 1991).