Body Failure: Medical Views of Women, 1900-1950 is an energetic new study on medical perspectives on the treatment of women in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. It is based on in-depth research in a variety of archival sources, including Canadian medical journals, textbooks used in many of Canada’s medical faculties, popular health literature, patient case records, and hospital annual reports, as well as interviews with women who lived during the period. Throughout the book, author Wendy Mitchinson takes care to examine the roles and agency of both patients and practitioners as diverse individuals.
"One of the strengths of the discipline of history is its eclectic nature. There is no one way to answer the questions historians raise. Using primary sources from the past but writing in the present, historians are constantly applying and testing analytic frameworks or theories originating in other disciplines to illuminate our understanding of the past. While they cannot be overlaid on the past, they often provide both different ways of looking at our sources and questions to ask of them. The theoretical and analytical infl uences in researching and writing this book are multitudinous, adopted and adapted over several decades. When I first began to study history as an undergraduate student in the late 1960s, the concept of finding “the” truth about the past was no longer fashionable. The sureness of our predecessors had disappeared with increasing numbers of historians acknowledging that there was no ultimate history; each generation wrote its own past. 2 The decentring of history had begun and it only intensified. The New Left and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s brought with them an awareness of the need for what became known as the new social history, a history that many historians believed could be written from a qualitative or quantitative perspective from the bottom up, to incorporate not only Canadians whose lives had been ignored, but also seeing in those Canadians a form of identity politics through class, sex, and race. 3 To that trinity were added others – among them religion, place, age, and eventually gender. It was an exciting time of new subjects and approaches introduced. Part of the excitement, and at times the frustration, were on-going theoretical challenges. The linguistic turn as represented in structuralism and poststructuralism raised questions about how to read a text and the underlying meaning of words, exhibited in binaries such as man/woman. 4 Their influences are evident in approaches to the meanings of medical terms throughout Body Failure; for example, the rather wide variability in definition of words such as infertility and menopause. Compared to structuralism, the mutability of poststructural perspectives reflected the broader attraction of postmodernism 5 to a society in which many of its verities were under attack. Critics noted that binaries were hierarchical in nature – man/woman, white/black, West/East – and value ladened with the unexpressed favouring of one aspect of the binary compared to the silencing of the other. Canada in the years 1900 to 1950 was filled with binaries, reflecting how society was thought to be and thus should be. The medical system was predicated on women’s bodies being seen as significantly different from men’s, the other to men’s norm. The challenges to the way in which historians thought about their sources, how to read these sources, how to figure out meaning(s), came at a furious rate. The new social history was no longer new. The emergence of gender history, for some, disputed the underlying premises of women’s history. 6
In writing a book on medicine and women as patients, both sex and gender become defining variables. Feminist scholars introduced the concept of gender to lessen the emphasis on what they saw as a biological determinist view of women. But as with any dichotomy, the more it is used, the less clear the line of division becomes. 7 Physicians did not have to worry about such a dichotomy. For them sex was paramount; indeed, for them gender, as we consider it, was collapsed into sex, itself a gendered way of thinking. But that conflation allowed some practitioners to see the lives of women as limited, not because of their bodies, but because of the ways the wider society and the medical profession collectively perceived those bodies. Underlying the meaning of gender was the concept of social/cultural construction. But social construction has limits when applied to the body. As Susan Bordo has cogently argued, “commitment to cultural constructionism has gone far beyond notions that the biological body ... is always historically and politically inscribed and shaped ... to the much more radical position that the very notion of the biological body is itself a fiction.” 8 Our understanding of bodies may be constructed, but the pain and distress bodies can cause and experience are real. The material body is more than gender" (Mitchinson, 4-6).