- Body Failure: Medical Views of Women, 1900–1950 by Wendy Mitchinson
In Body Failure: Medical Views of Women, 1900–1950, Wendy Mitchinson examines physicians’ attitudes towards women across the female life cycle, from puberty through menopause, in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. Drawing on medical records, professional journals, medical textbooks, popular literature, and interviews, she argues that the medicalization of women’s bodies was deeply influenced by doctors’ own belief about women’s place in society. In turn, medical attitudes towards women reinforced social ideals. Like the majority of Canadians during this period, physicians considered women’s primary role to be that of mother and viewed women as biological destined for this role. Although Mitchinson identifies numerous changes in diagnosis and treatment during this period, she highlights physicians’ continued perception of women’s bodies as inferior to men’s, as closer to nature because of their reproductive capabilities, and as unpredictable and irregular.
Each of the eleven chapters in this book explores medical views and treatment of a medical issue or event in the female lifecycle. Mitchinson extends her analysis to include gynecology, reproductive cancers, and mental illness as well as issues related to sexuality and marriage. In doing so, she reveals the extent to which doctors declared themselves experts on the female body broadly defined, as well as the extent to which physicians understood women’s mental and physical issues as related to their reproductive capabilities.
Physicians attempted to set a standard of health for their female patients. They identified an “average age of puberty” (68) that they used to establish a diagnostic norm and used this standard to measure the development of their patients. When dealing with menstruation, physicians stressed regularity. The average woman, they found, menstruated every twenty eight to thirty days. This became another norm against which physicians measured their female patients and assessed their health. Regardless of where women’s experiences fell on the spectrum of pathology, doctors depicted menstruation as problematic, as they did most [End Page 262] other workings of the female body. Because they saw women as being biologically destined for motherhood, physicians tended to interpret their ailments within the context of their reproductive life. For example, when seeking to establish the cause of women’s mental health issues, physicians looked to their reproductive experiences, especially pregnancy, birth and lactation, or if women were older, menopause. As Mitchinson explains, doctors saw women as more likely to experience mental health issues than men because “women simply underwent more physical shifts throughout their lives…than men did” (260). In this perspective, each event in the female life cycle held the potential to weaken the mental and physical health of the female patient.
Notably, the author chose to omit a chapter about pregnancy and childbirth during this period because she has already written about this topic in Giving Birth in Canada, 1900–1950 (2002). This is unfortunate, as readers may not have read her earlier work and will be left to wonder how the medicalization of women’s bodies played out in the realm of pregnancy and childbirth, two experiences at the center of women’s reproductive life cycle and the experiences by which women came to fulfill the socially prescribed role of mother that physicians so heartedly endorsed. That said, Mitchinson should be applauded for her ability to explore this topic from both the top down and bottom up. This book could easily have focused solely on physicians’ perceptions of their patients and efforts to regulate and control the female body. Instead, it offers a very balanced approach to this phenomenon, wherein female patients’ voices and opinions are heard clearly, mainly through the medical records doctors kept and which Mitchinson engages so effectively. Collectively, these voices show a divide between doctor and patient perception of the female body and its complaints and to some extent, women’s rejection of the medicalization process. Body Failure is meticulously researched, well organized, and clearly written. It offers a complex and compelling understanding of the medicalization process through a...