- “We Are No Peculiar Breed of Femmes”Domesticity as Counter-Discourse for Women with Leprosy, 1940–1960
As I begin this monthly report of our girls in retrospection the many things I have covered in the past year are called to mind. The variety of subjects have been mentioned in the hope that you ladies in the outside world might somehow get a glimpse into the interests and activities of our lives. Are there questions in your mind about us? Is there a subject that you’ve been hoping I’d mention? If so, let me hear about it and I’ll make an earnest effort to enlighten you.Ann Page, “Ann Page’s The Ladies,” Star, September 1942
For the one-year anniversary of the Star news magazine, Ann Page, the columnist behind the “Ann Page’s The Ladies” section of the paper, told her readers that she found herself reflecting on “the variety of subjects” she had covered in a year’s worth of columns. What sorts of subjects—“interests and activities of our lives”—was she referring to?1 Topics of three articles that appeared in the November 1941 issue, by way of random examples, are the Halloween dance; the popularity of the Simplicity Pattern Book; and the threat of a makeup shortage. One would hardly expect such mundane topics to take up an entire page in a newspaper boasting an international readership in the thousands. These three articles become much less mundane, however, when placed in a larger context: all of these articles were written by patients at US Marine Hospital Number 66 in Carville, Louisiana. Better known as “Carville,” US Marine Hospital Number 66 was the only leprosy hospital in the continental United States, and the Star was its patient-run newspaper.2
Page was just one of a number of female patients at Carville (“Carville [End Page 118] femmes,” as she liked to call them) who placed herself in the glare of the American media spotlight. While Page devoted herself to reaching the Star’s many thousands of subscribers, her colleagues penned bestselling books and took their personal stories to the airwaves. These were women on a mission: namely, to educate the public and de-stigmatize leprosy. Yet, if their projects were all designed to raise awareness and challenge conventional wisdom about the “biblical plague,” the content of their narratives was often rather banal: sharing gossip, comparing room décor, and commenting on the latest fashions. Their discussions might appear superficial to the modern reader; they undeniably invited stereotypes and encouraged paternalism. In this article, however, I argue that the seemingly superficial components of these Carville femmes’ narrative work were, in fact, far from trifling.
For women living with a disease as stigmatized as Hansen’s disease (HD)3—a condition inextricable from a discourse of monstrosity, grotesqueness, and sexlessness4—asserting even the most stereotypical of femininities was a form of activism. Ann Page, Betty Martin, and Gertrude Hornbostel represented themselves as domestic producers, conspicuous consumers, and providers of care. In the context of a quarantined community, claims to idealized femininity constitute a potent form of resistance, resistance against not only dehumanizing cultural constructions of HD but also the institutional approaches to disease management conditioned by those discourses.
In this article I demonstrate the discursive power of a publicly articulated will to womanhood, using three different public presentations of Carville women: (1) Ann Page’s “The Ladies” column in the Star, Carville’s modest but widely circulated patient-run news magazine; (2) two books authored by Betty Martin, each of which received considerable popular and critical acclaim: Miracle at Carville (1950) and No One Must Ever Know (1959); and (3) different media treatments of the widely publicized 1946 story of Hans and Gertrude Hornbostel.5 Page, Martin, and Hornbostel were Carville’s most famous women. Their work also had the largest social impact outside the boundaries of the leprosarium; as such, the visions of femininity they cultivated are especially deserving of analysis. The Carville femmes employed vastly different narrative and rhetorical styles in their public writing, and in so doing achieved vastly different responses from their audiences. Despite taking...