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  • (P)rescription Narratives: Feminist Medical Fiction and the Failure of American Censorship. by Stephanie Peebles Tavera
  • Etta M. Madden
Stephanie Peebles Tavera. (P)rescription Narratives: Feminist Medical Fiction and the Failure of American Censorship.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022. Hardback, xii + 220 pp. ISBN 978-1-4744-9319-2.

Utopian Studies readers first saw Stephanie Peebles Tavera’s work in print in her 2018 essay on reproductive health in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. More recently, in (P)rescription Narratives, she gives readers a view of the much broader historical scope of her scholarship in literary and cultural studies. Tavera’s analysis of what she labels “feminist medical fiction” considers not only novels and short stories but also literary reviews, dramas, and documentary films, many of which will be unfamiliar to readers of utopian and dystopian literature. Yet the book contextualizes the ways in which these works capture the “utopian possibilities” of women writers who pushed for breaking the boundaries of the dystopian strictures of embodied life. The literary works “rescript” what had been prescribed by others as “normalized behavior,” from the latter-nineteenth century through the Progressive Era (5, 37). As Tavera illustrates through her detailed analysis, these women’s narratives provide “interventions that . . . interrupt the dissemination of false [End Page 612] narratives of the female body” and “alter the course of cultural development toward greater inclusivity” (5).

To establish the temporal boundaries for the project, Tavera emphasizes the Comstock Law, established in 1873, and the death of its author Anthony Comstock in 1915. While Comstock’s work often has been understood as restricting pornography, she explains the Comstock Law as more than merely that. Comstock sought to control what he and others saw as sexual deviation, which included birth control in any form. Tavera also bookends the project with lawsuits associated with Victoria Woodhull and Margaret Sanger, both women who advocated for abortion and birth control as means of allowing women to avoid the strictures over their bodies. Additionally, she explains, Comstock’s racism caused him to completely overlook Black women, ironically allowing a space in which Black women’s feminist medical fiction especially rescripts “normalized behavior” (37)—a topic she pursues in two parts of the book.

The book follows a roughly chronological path as it examines four topics related to women’s health, brilliantly organized into “(p)rescriptions,” indicated by Rx, rather than chapters with numbers. Rx1, “Crip Medicine,” illustrates how authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman pointed to the socially constructed status of “hysteria” in a patriarchal culture that saw women as deviant by nature. Instead, these authors advocated for a more holistic examination of women’s health, impacted by the environments in which they lived. Drawing from Lyman Tower Sargent’s widely accepted view of utopianism as dreaming of a place “considerably better than the society in which the author lived,” she underscores “the utopian impulse underlies much of the work of feminist medical fiction” (39). In particular, writers of feminist medical fiction were “driven by failure.”

Perhaps most familiar to illustrate this point is Gilman’s work, such as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which illustrated how the culture failed certain characters. The narrator of that story suffers postpartum depression and is made worse by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure. Consequently, Gilman proceeded to write other works, such as Moving the Mountain (1911) and then Herland (1915), which push readers to envision “alternative societies” without such destructive patriarchal medical practices (39). But Tavera also explains how Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, or the Aunt-Hill (1875) critiques contemporary culture by providing a “domestic utopia” in the female domain of Aunt-Hill, wherein the male Dr. Alec Campbell demonstrates “a better way . . . of caring for the female body” (55). And another key example is Rebecca Harding [End Page 613] Davis’s Kitty’s Choice: A Story of Berrytown (1875). Berrytown is described as “the Utopia in actual laths, orchards, and bushel-measures of the advance guard of the reform party in the United States” (qtd. in Tavera 55). Through its two physicians, Dr. Muller and Dr. McCall, who represent homeopathic and allopathic practitioners, readers see that the society...