Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

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 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.