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Seminar 12: From Suburban Neurosis to Our Bodies Ourselves

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Women have consistently been seen as prone to a range of mental and physical disorders, largely attributed to their supposedly weaker biological framework and inability to respond effectively to new challenges and opportunities. This week we will focus on changes in perceptions of women’s health and proneness to mental and physical disorders over the modern period. We will focus in particular on the case of suburban neurosis and the impact of the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s on women’s health matters.

1. Why have women been so persistently depicted as the ‘weaker sex’ in terms of their physical and mental health?
2. What led to the rise of the concept of ‘suburban neurosis’ in interwar Britain?
3. Why have women been described as particularly prone to depression?
4. What impact did the feminist movement have on re-conceptualising women’s health in the second half of the twentieth century?



Seminar Reading:

Alison Haggett, Desperate Housewives, Neuroses and the Domestic Environment, 1945-1970 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012), esp. chs 5, 6. e-book

Rhodri Hayward, ‘Desperate Housewives and Model Amoebae: The Invention of Suburban Neurosis in Inter-War Britain’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Health and the Modern Home (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 42-62. e-book

* to find many more references to the relationship between women and mental illness, consult Hilary Marland's third year Advanced Option reading list ‘Madness and Society’.

Primary Sources

Our Bodies Ourselves: A Health Book by and For Women (Boston Women’s Health Collective/Allen Lane, 1978), British edn also available as on-line resource

Preface to the 1973 edition of Our Bodies Ourselves is here

Go here for the PDF of the original Our Bodies Ourselves course material


Additional Reading:

Alison Bashford, Purity and Pollution: Gender, Embodiment and Victorian Medicine (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

Lynda Birke, ‘“Life” as We Have Known It: Feminism and the Biology of Gender’, in Marina Benjamin (ed.), Science and Sensibility: Gender and Scientific Enquiry 1780-1945 (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1991), 243-63.

Patricia Branca, Silent Sisterhood: Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Home (London: Croom Helm, 1975).

Thomas C. Caramagno, The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness (University of California Press, 1992).

Michael J. Clark, ‘A Bill of Divorcement. Theatrical and Cinematic Portrayals of Mental and Marital Breakdown in a Dysfunctional Upper-Middle-Class Family, 1921-1932’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Health and the Modern Home (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 21-41.

Anne Digby, ‘Women’s Biological Straitjacket’, in Susan Mendus and Jane Rendall (eds), Sexuality and Subordination: Interdisciplinary Studies of Gender in the Nineteenth Century (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 192-220.

Maria H. Frawley, Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London: Paladin, 1971).

Lesley Hall (ed.), Outspoken Women: An Anthology of Women’s Writing on Sex, 1870-1969 (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

Anne Hardy and Lawrence Conrad (eds), Women and Modern Medicine (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2001).

Barbara Harrison, ‘Women and Health’, in June Purvis (ed.), Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 (London: UCL Press, 1995), 157-92.

Brian Harrison, ‘Women’s Health and the Women’s Movement in Britain, 1840-1940’, in Charles Webster (ed.), Biology, Medicine and Society 1840-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 15-71. scanned article

Pat Jalland and John Hooper (eds), Women From Birth to Death: The Female Life Cycle in Britain 1830-1914 (Brighton: Harvester, 1986).

Patricia Jasen, ‘Breast Cancer and the Language of Risk, 1750–1950’, Social History of Medicine, 15 (2002), 17-43. e-journal

Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989).

Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1990), esp. ch. 6.

Vicky Long and Hilary Marland, ‘From Danger and Motherhood to Health and Beauty: Health Advice for the Factory Girl in Early Twentieth-Century Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 20 (2009), 454-81. e-journal

Ilana Löwy, ‘“Because of Their Praiseworthy Modesty, They Consult Too Late”: Regime of Hope and Cancer of the Womb, 1800-1910’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 85 (2011), 356-83. e-journal

Hilary Marland, Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004). e-book

Hilary Marland, ‘Women, Health and Medicine’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 484-502. e-book

Ornella Moscucci, The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England 1800-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

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

Mary Poovey, ‘“Scenes of an Indelicate Character”: The Medical “Treatment” of Victorian Women’, Representations, 14 (1986), 137-68. e-journal

Ruth Robbins (ed.), Medical Advice for Women, 1830-1915 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008-).

Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987).

Helen Small, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996).

Stephen Trombley, ‘All that Summer she was Mad’: Virginia Woolf and her Doctors (London: Junction Books, 1981).

You might also want to read:

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963, London: Faber & Faber, 1966).

Essay Questions

Why have women been so persistently depicted as the ‘weaker sex’ in terms of their physical and mental health?

Why have women been described as being particuarly prone to depression?

What impact did the feminist movement have on re-conceptualising women’s health in the second half of the twentieth century?