Medical viewpoints and terminology may be used as an index to gauge the way society views a woman’s body. As various critics have noted, the language of women’s health care—particularly concerning reproduction and sexual practice—could be described as the “rhetoric of peril.” Ever since male physicians began to take charge of childbirth and women’s health care in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a woman has been seen as innately weak, a frail vessel whose well-being is closely tied to her hormones, ovaries, and womb.
Emily Martin, in her excellent study, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction
, explains that prior to the eighteenth century, men and women’s bodies were considered “structurally similar”; women’s genitals were simply inside the body, while men’s were outside (27). By the early eighteenth century, these views began to change. As Martin points out, the scientific “proof” that men and women were fundamentally and biologically different served to solidify and define their social roles because these differences “were grounded in nature, by virtue of the dictates of their bodies” (32).
The ideological shift in medical rhetoric becomes critically important as it served to keep women in their place; a woman who rejected being relegated to the domestic sphere not only waged a war against “Nature” itself, but also could be labeled unnatural (32). When men and women’s bodies were considered roughly analogous, a woman’s bodily functions were explained in relation to those of a man’s and thus were considered normal.
Once men and women were deemed fundamentally different, a woman’s bodily functions provoked more scrutiny. As Martin explains, menstruation, ovulation, menopause, and birth—formerly considered normal processes of a woman’s body—were now viewed as pathological states (32–67). Consequently, it was not only morally proper for a woman to stick to home and hearth but also a matter of safety: A woman’s inherently diseased body required the care of her husband and the constant surveillance of (male) physicians.from an earlier publication