Beyond the Reproductive Body
The Politics of Women’s Health and Work in Early Victorian England
Marjorie Levine-ClarkWomen, Gender, and Health
256 pp. 6x9
$49.95 paper 978-0-8142-5122-5
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“Levine-Clark's contribution is . . . to present the perspectives of working women themselves. She has skillfully and effectively juxtaposed the women’s narratives with the ‘official’ narrative constructed by medical men and social reformers and demonstrated significant points of divergence between them. For example, she has emphasized that working women thought of themselves as able-bodied workers, not as women incapacitated by their reproductive organs. This is one of Levine-Clark’s intriguing and provocative conclusions that should prompt historians to reexamine early Victorian ideas about gender, class, and health.” —American Historical Review
“In this book, Levine-Clark convincingly shows both how ideas of women’s bodies in the early nineteenth century differed by class and how women understood their own bodies and experiences of illness at the time. She draws on an extensive array of sources and elegantly integrates medical and political discourses alongside women’s personal experiences. Beyond the Reproductive Body is innovative, original, and will have a major impact on the historiography of women’s work and health.” —Anna Clark, University of Minnesota
Appealing to audiences interested in the histories of medicine, women, gender, labor, and social policy, Beyond the Reproductive Body examines women’s health in relation to work in early Victorian England. Government officials and reformers investigating the laboring population became convinced that the female body would be ruined by gainful employment, making women incapable of reproducing a healthy labor force. Women’s work was thus framed as a public health “problem.” Poor women were caught between the contradictory expectations of the reproductive body, which supposedly precluded any but domestic labor, and the able body, which dictated that all poor but healthy people must work to stay independent of state assistance. Medical case narratives of female patients show that while official pronouncements emphasized the physical limitations of the female reproductive body, poor women adopted an able-bodied norm.
Beyond the Reproductive Body demonstrates the centrality of gender and the body in the formation of Victorian policies concerning employment, public health, and welfare. Focusing on poor women, it challenges historians’ customary presentations of Victorian women’s delicate health. The medical case narratives give voices to poor women, who have left very few written records of their own.
Marjorie Levine-Clark is assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado–Denver.