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Gender and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century America
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NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 144-153

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Gender and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century America

Nancy M. Theriot

Hearts of Wisdom: American Women Caring for Kin, 1850-1940 by Emily K. Abel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, 326 pp., $49.95 hardcover.
Nymphomania: A History by Carol Groneman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000, 238 pp., $24.95 hardcover, $13.95 paper.
Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine by Susan Wells. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001, 312 pp., $57.95 hardcover, $22.95 paper.
Bodily and Narrative Forms: The Influence of Medicine on American Literature, 1845-1915 by Cynthia J. Davis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, 256 pp., $49.50 hardcover.

Since the beginning of Women's Studies as a field of inquiry, feminist scholars have been interested in the relationship of gender and scientific/medical concepts and practices. The nineteenth century has attracted more attention than earlier or later periods, perhaps because over the course of that century developments in the medical and biological sciences provided an impetus for the domination of health care by the emerging profession of mostly male and white allopathic physicians. Although these physicians and scientists did not eliminate other ways of healing or understanding human bodies, by the early years of the twentieth century, the scientific view of the body and disease was clearly dominant, enjoying institutional and popular support. Since the 1970s, feminist scholarship has explored the gender dimensions of the scientific and professional transformations of the nineteenth century. How have the medical profession and the biological sciences influenced women's ideas about self and body and shaped women's experiences of health and illness? How have medical outsiders--patients, medical consumers, lay caretakers, and medical practitioners not male or not white--resisted and contributed to the medical paradigm? How did new scientific understandings shape representations of self and body in non-scientific texts? Each of the four books under review enhances our understanding of one or more of these questions from the perspectives of history, rhetoric, or literary studies.

The two works by historians begin in the nineteenth century but extend into the twentieth. Emily K. Abel's Hearts of Wisdom: American Women Caring for Kin, 1850-1940 is an elegantly written historical analysis of the ways women's caregiving roles changed in response to the [End Page 144] rise of scientific medicine. Abel utilizes a variety of sources including diaries and letters, slave narratives, reports of charity organizations, public health nurses, and government workers, to give the reader an intimate view of women caring for chronically-ill children, husbands, parents, and siblings. Well-versed in the history of medicine and women's history scholarship, Abel places the stories of individual women and groups of women within the more impersonal story of scientific, institutional, and domestic changes. Abel chronicles a power struggle between women care-givers and medical professionals and institutions to define and manage medical problems, and at the same time she describes the particular ways women provided instrumental, emotional, and spiritual care for their loved ones.

Hearts of Wisdom is divided into two parts, the first, shorter part devoted to the last half of the nineteenth century (1850-1890). Abel focuses first on an individual family to establish some of the themes that continue through the rest of the book: the expectation on the part of women that they will drop personal goals if they are needed to care for kin; the possible conflicts that might result between caregiver and invalid; the web of relationships in which caregiving occurs. The other two chapters in the first section provide a more general context for viewing the individual family's story. Abel discusses domesticity and white women's roles in the family, with caregiving an essential component of femininity. She explains the instrumental tasks involved in nineteenth-century women's caregiving, but also notes the emotional and spiritual dimension of care. Although she has more sources for white women's activities than for slave women's, Abel investigates slave narratives and secondary works on...