Gendering the History of Women's Healthcare



This essay examines the genesis and continuing influence of certain core narratives in the history of western women's healthcare. Some derive from first-wave feminism's search for models of female medical practice, an agenda that paid little attention to historical context. Second-wave feminism, identifying a rift between pre-modern and modern times in terms of women's medical practices, saw the pre-modern European female healer as an exceptionally knowledgeable empiricist, uniquely responsible for women's healthcare and (particularly because of her knowledge of mechanisms to limit fertility) a victim of male persecution. Aspects of this second narrative continue subtly to effect scholarly discourse and research agendas on the history of healthcare both by and for women. This essay argues that, by seeing medical knowledge as a cultural product – something that is not static but continually re-created and sometimes contested – we can create an epistemology of how such knowledge is gendered in its genesis, dissemination and implementation. Non-western narratives drawn from history and medical anthropology are employed to show both the larger impact of the western feminist narratives and ways to reframe them.