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Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness

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   In this exciting sequel to their underground bestseller, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English document the tradition of American sexism in medicine before and after the turn of the century. Citing vivid examples, including numerous "treatments" and "rest cures" perpetrated on women through the decades, the authors analyze the biomedical    In this exciting sequel to their underground bestseller, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English document the tradition of American sexism in medicine before and after the turn of the century. Citing vivid examples, including numerous "treatments" and "rest cures" perpetrated on women through the decades, the authors analyze the biomedical rationale used to justify the wholesale sex discrimination throughout our culture-in education, in jobs, and in public life. Ever since Hippocrates, male medics have treated women as the "weaker" sex. By the late 19th century, when the authority of religious documents had waned, the ultimate rationale for sex discrimination became solely biomedical. In this intriguing pamphlet, the authors raise the diffuclt question: "How sick-or well-are women today?" They assert that feminists today want more than "more": "We want a new style, and we want a new substance of medical practice as it relates to women."


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   In this exciting sequel to their underground bestseller, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English document the tradition of American sexism in medicine before and after the turn of the century. Citing vivid examples, including numerous "treatments" and "rest cures" perpetrated on women through the decades, the authors analyze the biomedical    In this exciting sequel to their underground bestseller, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English document the tradition of American sexism in medicine before and after the turn of the century. Citing vivid examples, including numerous "treatments" and "rest cures" perpetrated on women through the decades, the authors analyze the biomedical rationale used to justify the wholesale sex discrimination throughout our culture-in education, in jobs, and in public life. Ever since Hippocrates, male medics have treated women as the "weaker" sex. By the late 19th century, when the authority of religious documents had waned, the ultimate rationale for sex discrimination became solely biomedical. In this intriguing pamphlet, the authors raise the diffuclt question: "How sick-or well-are women today?" They assert that feminists today want more than "more": "We want a new style, and we want a new substance of medical practice as it relates to women."

30 review for Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tamara Agha-Jaffar

    Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, their sequel to Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, documents the role of the medical system in propagating and fueling sexist ideology. The authors argue it is not biology that oppresses women; it is a social system based on sex and class discrimination. Focusing on the late 19th and early 20th century, Ehrenreich and English cite one example after another of the barbaric “ Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, their sequel to Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, documents the role of the medical system in propagating and fueling sexist ideology. The authors argue it is not biology that oppresses women; it is a social system based on sex and class discrimination. Focusing on the late 19th and early 20th century, Ehrenreich and English cite one example after another of the barbaric “cures” women received for the ostensible purpose of healing them. These range from the compulsory “rest cure” made famous in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories to the placement of leeches on the cervix to combat amenorrhea. The authors discuss the impact of race and class on women’s health. Upper class and middle class women aspiring to the upper class were perceived as weak, sickly, and frail. They were prescribed a life of enforced leisure with little to no physical activity. Their confinement to the home coupled with unmitigated boredom led to the cult known as “female invalidism” or hypochondria—a condition made even worse by the rest cure. The male dominated medical profession fueled this myth of female frailty since it served the financial interests of the physician to do so. By contrast, working class and immigrant women, living in urban slums and exposed to hazardous working conditions, were perceived as breeders of germs and disease. They certainly did not have the luxury to indulge themselves in a rest cure or take advantage of medical care since that was virtually non-existent for the poor. Fear of the spread of disease, especially VD in the case of prostitutes, eventually spurred the growth of the public health movement and the birth control movement, both of which were aimed the reducing the risk of contagious diseases and curbing the population growth of the working class and immigrants. The authors conclude their study by discussing the changes that have taken place since the 19th and early 20th centuries in the medical profession’s treatment of women. They urge women to educate themselves on their bodies and to recognize their biological similarities with all women while acknowledging the medical needs of women will vary based on race and class. An essential read for those interested in the use of medicine as a form of social control whose purpose is to bolster a sexist ideology.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tabitha

    I first became interested in the influence of gender on illness and its treatment after reading The Yellow Wallpaper--the story of a woman driven mad by either 1) the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom or 2) the rest cure proscribed to her for her nerves. In short, it was either an external physical factor that drove her to madness or it was the institute of madness. Either way, it the story offers interesting insights into the differing treatments. The authors in this work take a longer and more o I first became interested in the influence of gender on illness and its treatment after reading The Yellow Wallpaper--the story of a woman driven mad by either 1) the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom or 2) the rest cure proscribed to her for her nerves. In short, it was either an external physical factor that drove her to madness or it was the institute of madness. Either way, it the story offers interesting insights into the differing treatments. The authors in this work take a longer and more objective view of the differing treatment that each gender received in the 1800 and 1900s. The book reveals the often barbaric treatment women got, which was really a method of keeping women in their subservant roles. This is an interesting read for anyone interested in medicine or gender relations. Its also a very quick read--I would love to see an expanded version of their thesis, one that includes the path medicine has taken since they wrote this booklet in the 1970s.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Hailey M

    Fascinating look at different class-based manifestations of medical sexism at the turn of the 20th century and their affects on today. Their points about how sickness can provide (some) women with superficial freedoms and how our good health can be used against us are going to provide me with a lot of food for thought around why so many of us seem to resist getting better. Also gave me a much needed reminder about why it's so important to be able to talk about the body! All in less than 100 page Fascinating look at different class-based manifestations of medical sexism at the turn of the 20th century and their affects on today. Their points about how sickness can provide (some) women with superficial freedoms and how our good health can be used against us are going to provide me with a lot of food for thought around why so many of us seem to resist getting better. Also gave me a much needed reminder about why it's so important to be able to talk about the body! All in less than 100 pages. Really want to read Witches, Midwives and Nurses now.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Janine

    An easy and essential marxist feminist history. A great primer for those wanting to learn more about gender history in post-civil war america.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly

    A short yet convincing exploration of the class-based sexist underpinnings of the medical industry from the 19th to 20th century. Short, but hard-hitting: "The medical system is not just a service industry. It is a powerful instrument of social control, replacing organized religion as a prime source of sexist ideology and an enforcer of sex roles." "We must never lose sight of the fact that it is not our biology that oppresses us--but a social system based on sex and class domination."

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tara B

    A great introductory pamphlet on medicine's treatment of women and its effects on women and how they are perceived by others. It's depressing how I still see the problems the authors talk about in the "current issues" sections at the end, considering this was written in the SEVENTIES! Oh, feminism . . .

  7. 5 out of 5

    Maggie

    While the book is 37 years old, it still offers a solid (and frequently horrifying) look at the treatment of women by the medical profession. The thought that leeches were once placed on the cervix to help "fix" amenorrhea makes me flinch.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sasha

    Fascinating and infuriating, binge-read in one sitting

  9. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Complaints and Disorders is a really interesting look into the ways women were viewed within the medical industry as patients throughout history. They cover a lot of good ground about the way class played an especially strong role in the way women experienced medical sexism. I wish they had covered more to do with race (they mention it several times, but manage to avoid actually doing a proper delve into the subject) and on women who were legitimately disabled or sick (who they mention exist but Complaints and Disorders is a really interesting look into the ways women were viewed within the medical industry as patients throughout history. They cover a lot of good ground about the way class played an especially strong role in the way women experienced medical sexism. I wish they had covered more to do with race (they mention it several times, but manage to avoid actually doing a proper delve into the subject) and on women who were legitimately disabled or sick (who they mention exist but don't really look into the topic of their treatment at all). I would recommend this to anyone looking to read more books from second-wave feminism, and to anyone looking for the briefest introduction into sexism in the medical industry.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Cynda

    Review to Follow. Read for Dewey's 24-hour Readathon.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Malynda

    First part, four stars. Second part, 2 stars. Perhaps I enjoy remote history better than recent history as that is how the book is organized. I did enjoy learning about the origins of "hysteria" and the crazy bogus and misguided "cures" the patriachal medical society inflicted on upper society women. I liked how they separated out the dichotomy of how the same women, but from different social classes, could be sick and the other sickening, i.e a rich woman gets "put to bed" while a poor woman is First part, four stars. Second part, 2 stars. Perhaps I enjoy remote history better than recent history as that is how the book is organized. I did enjoy learning about the origins of "hysteria" and the crazy bogus and misguided "cures" the patriachal medical society inflicted on upper society women. I liked how they separated out the dichotomy of how the same women, but from different social classes, could be sick and the other sickening, i.e a rich woman gets "put to bed" while a poor woman is spreading disease (Typhoid Mary). I am also learning that this was a sequel to their other pamphlet so maybe I should have read them in reverse order? I'll try again.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jasmin

    A friend let me borrow this. It took me a bit to get into, but once I did I found it riveting. I was pleasantly surprised that this book expanded upon its discussion of gender to incorporate the intersections of race and class: "Medicine does not invent our social roles, it merely interprets then to us as biological destiny." (154) I found it to be an informative snapshot of medicine as a form of social control.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kent Winward

    I began reading this during the election and wasn't able to come back to it until recently. The issues of health and women were an obvious attack point by Trump and this little pamphlet will show you the horrific economic and class history with medicine. Although this was written in the early 70s, forty years later it still seems fresh and relevant, which is frankly discouraging.

  14. 4 out of 5

    HeavyReader

    Jessica Goodman gave me this booket too, which tells how western medicine is tied up with the patriarchy and how sick women are diagnosed and treated differently from sick men. Very interesting and informative.

  15. 4 out of 5

    James

    Great look at period views on women, especially during the Victorian era. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the fantastic Nickel and Dimed, and she also is worthy of a read in this short introduction to the sexual politics of sickness.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Virginia

    This is the second of two pamphlets that these authors published in the 70's - I didn't like the first very much but I really wish they had expanded their research for this one. I would be interested in a whole book on this topic.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Valerie

    Super fast read has lots of photos/diagrams/drawings of women sick in bed. I hadn't really thought about the way women in old books were always sickly. I thought it was just the characters in the books, but it sounds like it was upper class women, in general. Interesting read, wish it were longer.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Beatrice

    I was exited to find this stagnating on a shelf in a high school. Clearly written and also a superb example of quality small press work.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Amber

    "...our bodies are not the issue. Biology is not the issue. The issue is power, in all the ways it affects us." Should be required reading for everyone all the time.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Erin Kent

    Fascinating look at the patriarchal power structures and their impact upon women's relationship to medicine and public health. I'm going to be looking for more books down this avenue.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mathilde Annabelle

    Read this for my dissertation about genycologic and obstetrical violences, and I couldn't be more satisfied with it! I expected a lot more information about the actual environnement of women healthcare; I must say I did not expected such an economic angle especially on the second chapter about lower class women, but it was defenitly really interesting. The point of view of the book is strongly feminist: we can feel an hanger and a strong will to denounce and change the political system which rev Read this for my dissertation about genycologic and obstetrical violences, and I couldn't be more satisfied with it! I expected a lot more information about the actual environnement of women healthcare; I must say I did not expected such an economic angle especially on the second chapter about lower class women, but it was defenitly really interesting. The point of view of the book is strongly feminist: we can feel an hanger and a strong will to denounce and change the political system which revolve around women health. This book was writen back in the 70's, but is still quite accurate in my opinion. The first chapter about upper class women, which is more on the historicall side of the topic, was fasinating. The whole alination of women, was established in order to keep women away from politic, knowledge and any forms of freeness or power men had. Back in the 19e century women were experiencing genital mutilation such as removing breast or clitoris in order to cure madness. Also the fact that physicians thought that the uterus was the main organ in women bodies, which would define their feminity is quite shocking and as well fascinating! I read the french edition of the book published by the Cambourakis editions, which has a postcript written by french political science Phd doctor Eva Rodriguez. She retranscripted the whole ideas of the book to the french context, which gave me, as a french reader a better understanding of the book and its aims. She also gave an opinion oriented towards political science and political ideas, such as comparing the healthcare system to Marx materialism concept. In all a great read, I am really happy it was the first book I read for my dissertation. Definitly recommend if you want to know more about the perception of women within medecine and its link with the political and economic context.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Roksolana Mashkova

    I really enjoyed the historic part and I believe it’s an essential read, but I don’t fully subscribe to the manifesto-like conclusion, although it’s very anarchist in spirit, which resonates with me. However, insisting on suspicion of medical science as such has some very real dangers, such as anti-vaccination beliefs. I think we can do our own research and fight against the patronizing attitude of medicine without necessarily denying the science behind it. I concede that the authors’ stance mig I really enjoyed the historic part and I believe it’s an essential read, but I don’t fully subscribe to the manifesto-like conclusion, although it’s very anarchist in spirit, which resonates with me. However, insisting on suspicion of medical science as such has some very real dangers, such as anti-vaccination beliefs. I think we can do our own research and fight against the patronizing attitude of medicine without necessarily denying the science behind it. I concede that the authors’ stance might have been more appropriate in the 1970s, when the book was written, but the context has changed.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Laura Biscaglia

    A lot of this book’s content is probably not new to anyone who has done even a little bit of feminist studies. But if you keep in mind that it was first published in 1973, it’s easy to realise how groundbreaking it must have been, in its placing of public health and medical history at the heart of female subjugation in the United States.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Saralyn Smith

    It's definitely of its era but this holds up fairly well from my memory of it from...undergrad? It gets intersectional to a degree at the end, but it does completely miss any grasp of the intersection of gender identity/sexuality on the issue.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    'In classical psychoanalytic theory there is no such thing as a mentally well woman.'

  26. 4 out of 5

    Paperclippe

    Required reading.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Al Capwned

    Interesting pamphlet about the history of misogyny in medicine plus arguing that it could still be a thing today.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jeannine

    A very tiny book about how the begining of modern medicine for women. Quite scary at times.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Marley

    hm this looks really good...

  30. 4 out of 5

    Anya

    Very interesting. I wish there was a book. 90 pages is not enough.

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