Notes on Wendy Mitchinson’s Body Failure: Medical Views of Women, 1900-1950. University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Mitchinson chronicles the history of how the male body was understood as normal and the female body was understood as abnormal, weak, prone to breakdown in the first half of the twentieth century in Canada. What follows are selected quotations and some contextualizing notes.

The first chapter on “Woman’s Place” takes up historical arguments based in medicine and health (and, implicitly, reproductive capacity and fertility) about women’s employment, eating habits, exercise, fashion. The author points out that female sexual organs are naturally better protected than male sexual organs, and yet physicians only seemed to express concern over female fertility in most of these areas.

“I see medicine as a bedrock of societal norms, sometimes in their creation and more often in their maintenance” (p. 8).

“The body as machine was how physicians wanted the body to be, which is understandable for it would make their work much easier. What frustrated physicians about a woman’s body was its unpredictability. It was the lived body of women that many physicians had difficulty seeing as normal, healthy a, and acceptably different from a man’s body” (p. 14).

“The rhetoric of scientific/medical/technical language and its apparent precision created a sense of knowledge, understanding, and sureness for practitioners” (p. 25).

“as many scholars have argued, the meaning of motherhood is a contested concept” (p. 27).

“Such admonitions [to young women], if followed, would be healthy for anyone, although physicians did seem to direct them more specifically to young women than to young men” (p. 58)

“Since Michel Foucault’s pioneering History of Sexuality, in which he posited the rise of the medical profession’s involvement in the discourse of sexuality, historians have looked to doctors as shapers and reflectors of sexual sentiments held by the wider society and have argued that sexuality is, in part, a constructed force” (p. 91)

“control of sexuality was closely linked to preserving the social order” (p. 110).

In reference to the role of marriage in a woman’s life: “The social role of women impinged on the medical view” (p. 114). Physicians told women that conditions (from acne to masturbation to insanity) would clear up when they married.

“Interest in infertility increased over time. From a perusal of the medical examinations given at Queen’s University it appears that not until January of 1919 did a question concerning sterility appear” (p. 137).

“The power that physicians had in defining sterility and its variations and the timing when conception could occur should not be underestimated. First, the labeling of women or men as sterile could be devastating to them> Second, childlessness, which is a social situation, became through the designation of ‘sterility’ a defined medical condition. Third. by using the term sterility rather than infertility, practitioners were suggesting a fixed condition . . . Fourth, the inclination to define and to place time constraints on fertility was part of physicians’ desire to have certainty in their profession.” (p. 139).

“Dr. W. Pelton Tew … explained ‘Human energy is expended in two ways, for individuation and genesis’; women had to decide between their own needs and those of the species” (p. 143).

“Despite the very early recognition of male sterility, the tendency of doctors awas to focus on the problems of women, even as physicians increased their estimates of male responsibility for childless marriages. . . . The rise of gynaecology also played a part since here was a specialty already in place whose focus was on the reproductive system of women” (p. 157).

Chapter 7 includes a useful history of birth control and abortion in Canada.

In the context of evidence that physicians engage in “therapeutic abortions”: “Clearly physicians could be much less dogmatic in their treatment than historians have suggested and also what the public medical literature suggested” (p. 186).

“Both [gynaecology and obstetrics] focused on the reproductive/sexual system of women, but whereas obstetrics stressed the system’s physiological nature, gynaecology emphasized its pathological elements” (p. 190).

Some tension –> “gynaecologist mentioned how often the childbirth practices of their obstetrical colleagues caused problems in women that they had to fix” (p. 190).

“That the large majority of women came to hospitals for reasons linked to the fragility of the human body, not the female body, was lost in the discourse” (p. 194).

“Physicians tended to believe that women maintaining their traditional role in society did not experience stress” (p. 194)

“Her vagueness about what surgery she had undergone suggests a different way of understanding her body than the medical. She had a problem, saw a physician, and went to a hospital to have surgery to fix it” (p. 212).

“The history of gynaecology has turned out to be a history of medicine in that gynaecology cannot be understood without understanding its perceived connection with obstetrics and other specialties. Neither can it be understood without an appreciation of the speed at which knowledge about the female cycle emerged in the interwar years and beyond. . . . Change is inherent in medical science and it increasingly fed medical practice. What didn’t seem to change all that much was the perception of the body that was gynaecology’s focus” (p. 213).

“we must always remember that if medicine is under scrutiny, society is as well because the two cannot be separated. One is the reflection of the other” (p. 284).

“Society shapes medicine and in turn medicine often supports society’s attitudes about health, body, men, women, gender, class, ethnicity, etc., and ties them up in a scientific aura of objectivity” (p. 284).

“Physicians gained their power through language . . . The development of a technical language suggested preciseness, but as we have seen, particularly in the chapters on puberty and menopause, the terms describing each were often confused and unclear. . . . Nonetheless, medical ‘speak’ increasingly dominated how even patients described their bodies and thus shaped how they saw them” (pp. 286-287)

Mitchinson compiles ample evidence of the nervousness physicians felt toward  women patients. “The entire orientation of most physicians . . . spoke to their unease with that body” (p. 287).


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