by Barbara Ehrenreich & Deidre English
A review of one of my textbooks: a tiny little pamphlet — less than 50 pages! – with a powerful message that’s both creepily and effectively illustrated with a few small woodcut reproductions. Operating under the premise that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, the authors trace the deliberate, repeated patterns of suppression and violence enacted by white upper class men against women and men (most often poor and illiterate, but also the monied female members of their own class) who “dared to infringe” on the male appropriation of the ancient female practice of medicine.
By necessity this is a very swift overview, encompassing only medieval Western Europe and the short history of the United States, but as the authors clearly note, the first step in reclaiming power and position is to know the true history of its loss, rather than propaganda created by history’s “winners.” Their goal in writing this pamphlet is to urge more research into this arena, and to encourage the return of women healers as a long-range goal of the women’s movement: a clear benefit to both women and the disenfranchised in general.
A quick review of the amazon.com comments on this pamphlet was both enlightening and sadly predictable. Too often people disturbed or discomfited by the overall message of an argument will fixate on a single element of the discussion, distorting it and/or using it as justification to disdainfully dismiss the entire subject out of hand. For example, one person decided the pamphlet’s review of the origins of nursing in the US (i.e. their being the relatively untrained female subordinates of “scientific” white male doctors) meant the authors had no respect for nurses in general, and therefore the pamphlet had no worth. Another commentator (male, by the stated name) derisively noted the statistics in the pamphlet were wildly inaccurate, so everything else the authors had written had to be just as wildly inaccurate, and should be ignored as feminist conspiracy ravings.
The pamphlet was written in the 70’s, so the given statistics are indeed no longer correct in the 2000’s — but did the commentator even check to see if the given statistics were incorrect then? Here’s the quote: “93% of the doctors in this country are men even though women make up 70% of all healthcare workers.” Actually, I find that statistical change over time to be encouraging.
I feel it’s also a little sad how many folks seem to need to see the book as pointless and nonsensical, rather than reading it as empowerment of their right to learn and practice medicine despite their gender or race. As the book notes, women have always been healers, and the folk of the “social fringe” (women, the poor, people of color) have always had to take care of themselves, rather than depending on upper class white males to do so. Medicine has only relatively recently, as in the past millennia, become a field of struggle in the battle for better care for the disenfranchised, between self-sufficient practitioners who help everyone who needs it, and white male “professionals” who help everyone who can afford to pay for their attention.
The history delineated in the pamphlet fascinated me; I’m always intrigued by what the “preservers of the past” choose to remember — or studiously ignore and consign to be forgotten. For example, I’d never heard of the Popular Health Movement of the 1830’s and ’40’s, and how the people almost managed to wrest control of the field of medicine from the hands of the wealthy upper class. Perhaps most fascinating, the Movement successfully suggested a different viewpoint on the healing arts: medicine was not something performable only by privileged, overpaid professionals, but rather was a body of knowledge everyone could share in.
Current medical histories unsurprisingly dismiss the Movement as a high tide of quackery and con artists. If that’s true, though, why was it the practitioners of the Movement who championed the causes of preventive care and hygiene, such as (to name just a few) frequent bathing, temperance, whole grain cereals, loose fitting women’s clothing — while the conventional “scientific” doctors of the day regarded frequent bathing as a “vice,” and depended on massive bleeding and huge doses of laxatives, such as calomel (which contained mercury) and, later, opium?
For that matter, isn’t it interesting how all the great social movements of the lower and middle classes are either demonized or forgotten? Anyone remember the history of the unions? Like the Popular Health Movement, they were the working populace’s attempt to protect themselves from distant, disinterested upper class property owners. But when I check current media to see how unions are viewed, I see them either completely ignored and forgotten — or portrayed as selfish obstructionists making life difficult for the poor corporations struggling just to make ends meet. It’s always shown as the supposedly-nearly-communistic unions‘ fault those same struggling corporations are being forced to reluctantly raise prices. The consumer is left with clear (and utterly false) propaganda: the unions are to blame.
Returning to medical history: far from the white male nobility’s claim to be the originating “pioneers” of healing arts, it appears they were more motivated by power politics, greed and the love of money, and an astonishing psychological projection of their own unbridled sexual lusts onto women. This created a very effective social sacrificial scapegoat whose ritual suppression was supposedly piously sanctioned by both Church and State. White upper class men systematically attacked, discredited, and frequently killed the female practitioners of medicine, while insisting they were “protecting” the masses.
The so-called doctors’ own actions reveal the falsehood of their claims, though, since medievally they served only the clientele which could afford them: the monied ruling class — while in the US these “scientific” methods usually resulted in an increased death rate for their “patients” in every city where they managed to pass their racist and misogynistic laws forcing all medical practitioners but white upper class men out of business.
Indeed, the consistent illogic of the male position on this matter (and the clearest indicator this struggle was about power rather than any real care for the practice of the healing arts) is reflected in their justifications for why women were not suited to medicine. These ranged from the medieval claim that the empirical testing done by women healers did not adequately credit God and faith (i.e. women were too logical), to the more modern assumption that women were by nature suited to simple, long-term tasks like nursing and explicitly following a “trained” doctor’s orders, but had no head for the “science” of medicine (i.e. women were too illogical)!
The booklet is short, concise, and fascinating, and gives a usually forgotten side of medical history in the US; for that alone I’d heartily recommend it. It also points out some of the causes underlying our current healthcare issues: the shift in viewpoint of medicine as something natural that everyone could access when necessary — to something “scientifically” created and awarded only to the deserving, i.e. those wealthy enough to afford it. I happen to be a believer in the maxim regarding forgotten history always repeating itself. I encourage us all to rediscover our histories as best we can without the glosses of prejudice and misogyny — and thereby learn to not repeat past mistakes.