THE HORRORS OF THE HALF-KNOWN LIFE: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in 19th-Century America by C. G. Barker-Benfield
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THE HORRORS OF THE HALF-KNOWN LIFE: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in 19th-Century America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The title comes from Melville who surely knew about the Ahabian destructiveness of American males. Barker-Benfield begins mildly enough with some considerations of de Tocqueville and his ambiguous and troubled perceptions of the much-vaunted ""independence"" of the American woman--an independence which he found largely rhetorical since the ""typing of wifehood"" ensured that women voluntarily resigned themselves to a submissive and ancillary role. Not till he launches into the origins Of gynecology in America does his story become chilling. In brief, Barker-Benfield argues that the roots of gynecology--which in the course of a half century drove the midwife from the field--were prurient; that hostility toward women was the chief impetus behind its development; that gynecology and obstetrics as practiced by male doctors constituted an assault on the generative organs of ""the sex."" Barker-Benfield has grubbed his way through the sordid underside of medical practice; he suggests that male doctors campaigned to make pregnancy and parturition a ""disease"" to be cured; he presents the grotesque details of clitoridectomies and female castration--routinely performed to cure female ""insanity,"" which, it was widely assumed, was caused by women's sexual organs. Nor is the author writing about quacks. Marion Sims, hailed as the ""architect of the vagina,"" inventor of the speculum (""If there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis"") is one of his chief protagonists. Among the many new procedures and instruments Sims tested on the bodies of black slave women was one he termed the ""uterine guillotine"" for amputation of the cervix. Another eminent gynecologist of the day, August Kinsley Gardner, was obsessed with the politics of reproduction--men must control copulation, gestation and birth in the interests of the race. Barker-Benfield is sure to arouse the howls of the medical profession. His approach is heavily Freudian and he can on occasion be charged with stringing up a doctor by his metaphors. But his evidence for the ruthless ""persistent and defensive attempt to control and shape women's procreative powers"" is overwhelming--and appalling.

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 1975
Publisher: Harper & Row