'Prisoners of their own feebleness': Women, nerves and western medicine--A historical overview
AbstractThe medical conceptualization, diagnosis and treatment of nervous disorders has been greatly affected by gender ideologies. A survey of recent scholarship reveals that gender ideologies still largely inform the illness-labeling, medical diagnosis and management of woman's physiology and, in particular, her nerves. Historically the names of the specific 'diseases' have evolved from demonic possession, tarantism, hysteralgia, hystero-epilepsy, neurasthenia, hypochondriasis and nervousness to neurosis, but several key features remain static. The overriding common features of these ailments are the gender of their sufferers and the behavioral symptoms they exhibit. The etiologies first emphasized uterine causation then gradually shifted emphasis to focus on psychological factors. Both of these etiological explanations contributed to perceptions of women as more physiologically and emotionally vulnerable and unpredictable and justified advocating a gender-specific course of medical management and social sphere of influence. Historically and contemporarily, medical illness-labeling and therapeutics pertaining to women's nerves reflect the interplay between changing scientific information and culturally constructed gender relations. Claims and 'proofs' of women's predisposed susceptibility to nervous debility transcended medical and scientific knowledge to include assertions that reflected and perpetuated deeply-held beliefs about female and male physiology, their consequent natures, and the acceptable parameters of women's behavior and influence. Thus the metaphor of the prison can be employed to describe not only the debility produced among women from psycho-organic malaise, but also the limitations placed on women's life choices and acceptable modes of expression.
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Bibliographic InfoArticle provided by Elsevier in its journal Social Science & Medicine.
Volume (Year): 26 (1988)
Issue (Month): 12 (January)
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Web page: http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/315/description#description
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