Thoughts about Women’s Medical Treatment in the United States

I recently read the 2011 second edition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s and Deirdre English’s book, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness. I highly recommend it for its eye-opening view of women’s medical treatment from about 1865 to 1920. The authors self-published their “pamphlet” in 1973 and I was upset reading their last chapter concerning the medical profession’s treatment of women during that time period because, in my experience, it hasn’t changed much in the past 43 years!

As the authors stated in their introduction, the medical system is involved in both women’s liberation and women’s oppression. “Justifications for sexual discrimination—in education, in jobs, in public life—must ultimately rest on the one thing that differentiates women from men: their bodies.” Sexism wasn’t invented by the medical system, it just continued and built upon the views already perpetuated by religion and traditional Western thought. The medical system, during the historical period the authors studied, was also quick to refer to science—or rather “science,” as they bent it to defend their diagnoses and treatments. A practice which hasn’t changed! Depending on what doctor you speak with, or what source you read, research results can be interpreted quite differently.

Anyway, back in the late nineteenth century, the uterus was believed to be the controlling organ of the female body and since it had numerous nerves it must, therefore, be connected to every other part of the body. So doctors linked almost any complaint their female patients mentioned to their uterus or ovaries.

Surgical “treatments” were often used and were appalling to say the least. “… some doctors claimed to have removed from fifteen hundred to two thousand ovaries; in [author] Barker-Benfield’s words, they ‘handed them around at medical society meetings on plates like trophies.’” If you’re curious to learn more, read the book because that’s the only quote on the subject that I plan on sharing.

Many of the nonsurgical treatments were horrible too. Leeches were often used. They were applied to the breasts, or to the external lips of the genitals, or even to the cervix—although that method posed the danger of losing it in the uterus. As the authors mentioned, “(So far as we know, no doctor ever considered perpetrating similar medical insults to the male organs.)”

Since there were too many doctors in the cities in the late nineteenth century, it was to their benefit to make upper-middle-class women, (because the poor, working-class women didn’t have the time or money to go to doctors), and their husbands believe they were sick and needed to be treated.

Then skip ahead to the authors’ chapter about the situation “today” (in 1973) and the authors wrote: “The medical profession helped to create the popular notion of women as sickly in the first place: now it seems to have turned around and blamed the victim.” How depressing that in 2016 that is still happening. The authors also stated that “when a doctor cannot quickly pinpoint the organic cause of a woman’s complaint, he is quick to suspect psychosomatic causes …”

So, 43 years later and that is still a convenient conclusion, how discouraging.


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