Friday, April 25, 2008

What's Up, Doc?

For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

Barbara Ehrenreich is now perhaps most well known for her book Nickel and Dimed, but way back in the day, she and Deirdre English wrote this piece about women, medicine and psychology.

It took me a while to finish this - it was engaging and it wasn't dry, but other things kept coming up that I was slightly more interested in. I think part of the problem is that while their research was probably rather new and groundbreaking in 1978, several authors have since taken similar topics and written books. While there was some new information, for the most part, it felt like a recap of things I had heard/learned in either class or from other books. However, I think it works well as either an introduction or a refresher.

The first section deals with how women, traditional healers and midwives were shut out of medicine as it became a profession and men, who often had no hands on experience and relied merely on book learning (Ken Follett used this as a plot line in World Without End), villainized women who used home remedies and common sense because they lacked formal education. They also mention how witch hunts in Europe were part of this strategy since many of the women accused of witch craft had a knowledge of herbs and healing, and this was used against them. In order to turn medicine into a profession, it had to become more regulated, and men also had to convince others that they had a service to sell rather than an obligation to help others. The book When Abortion Was A Crime also has a good history of men taking over women's medicine, even pushing midwives out by accusing them of being dirty, among other strategies.

Throughout, women's gender and sex was seen as reason enough to keep them outside the medical profession and work in general. Most diseases, no matter what, were blamed on the uterus, and women were seen as incapable of dealing with stress. History went through a shift from the woman as an invalid, unable to do anything because of her frailty, to being a cheerful, active housewife. In all cases, these definitions of womanhood excluded black and working class women since these women didn't have the luxury to be sick or invalid for weeks at a time nor did they have the option of staying home and playing homemaker because their income was vital to the family.

Another point that was kind of interesting was the take on children. With the turn of the century, children also began to be viewed in a different light. Now they became the center point of a woman's existence, but even here the experts changed their minds time and again as to how to properly raise them and what women's duty was. It went from children need a firm hand, to telling women to simply cater to their children's needs ('50s), and until the experts decided that children were horrible ungrateful creatures that needed discipline. And of course, the Oedipus Complex was thrown in, and women were responsible for anything that went wrong with their children - they were either resentful or overprotective.

The book also includes a foreword and afterword which was added to this edition, published in 2004. Expert advice is still prominent as ever as demonstrated by the large self-help sections, and as in the past, it continues to be contradicting and restrictive.

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