50/2015 #7: Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, briefly discusses the history of the medical profession and its views concerning and treatment of women. The authors discuss how so-called medical and scientific logic have basically been utilized as weapons against women.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the medical community postulated that women were inferior and inherently ill. The very fact of their womanhood caused them to suffer from deficiencies that men were unaffected by. The mere presence of the womb, of reproductive organs, caused women to be chronically ill. Because of this, many physicians and spouses of the women in question prevented women from being active or pursuing intellectual activities. Not only did this view allow for women to effectively be “from participating in life outside the sphere of the home, it also provided doctors (almost all male) with an endless supply of patients. Womanhood was an illness to which there was no cure, but there was always a “treatment” that was available for purchase.

One thing the authors do bring up is the question of how sick some of these women actually were. Of course women faced medical obstacles that men didn’t (like childbirth and a higher probability of contracting TB), but it seems sickness became like a hobby to women in affluent households; it gave them something to think about, somewhere to go (various appointments/visits to doctors’ offices), and a strange sense of importance (“I have a problem to be solved. I must do something about it.”)

The authors postulate that the physical fitness/abilities and treatments for women were divided down class lines. Upper class women were frail creatures who should not be overworked or over-stimulated and who should not take part in any intellectual or strenuous outside-of-the-home pursuits because they were in danger of falling ill. They had a natural delicacy that prevented them from participating in such active schemes. Women of the lower classes, often consisting of women from races and origins deemed “unfavorable” by the upper classes, were naturally suited to hard work, but were carriers of disease and would bring filth into the homes of the rich families they worked for. These two narratives were essential for keeping up the status quo: if all women were weak, how can society force lower class women to work? And if all women are strong, how can society force women with class or racial privilege to remain silent?

All of the above just barely taps the surface of the issues the book explores. Anyone interested in the conjunction of feminism and medicine should definitely read this book.   Ehrenreich and English leave us with a few thoughts on the implications of this system: by developing our views of our bodies and our health through the filter of the patriarchal system, how can we form ideas about what constitutes a true “female nature?” They also stress the importance of viewing health and feminism from many different perspectives; the health issues and access facing affluent white American women are different that those facing poor immigrant women of color. If we’re working together to find solutions, we need to make sure those solutions include all women, not just some.

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