A HISTORY OF WOMEN'S BODIES by Edward Shorter

A HISTORY OF WOMEN'S BODIES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

U. of Toronto historian Shorter (The Making of the Family, 1975) has already been ""vigorously criticized,"" as he puts it, for his historical analysis; and the present work is bound to draw more fire. Thanks to modern obstetrics and gynecology, Shorter argues, ""women became released [by 1930] from the terrible historic burden of their own ill health, making it possible for them to think of their femininity as a basically positive, life-giving force."" The poor health which allegedly kept women from pursuing equal rights earlier is attributed by Shorter to three causes. First, ""women were victimized by men, in the form of limitless sexual access"" that led to numerous pregnancies and attendant life-threatening complications and treatments (described here in lurid detail). Women were further victimized by their children: worn down simply by having to care for huge broods, ""women's exhaustion from family life"" resulted in greater mortality. And, finally, women were victimized by nature through diseases to which only they were subject. But: now that men are ""more responsive,"" and women can control their own fertility, and health care is competent, this victimizing has ended; hence feminism. (""If women had still been dragging about with ""fallen wombs' and such, feminism would probably not have happened."") In describing the condition of European women from the 17th- to the late-19th-century, Shorter focuses on rural rather than urban areas, on ""common people rather than upon elites."" Women historians who have found women victimized by medical care wrongly concentrated, he maintains, on the urban upper classes. Midwives, as he paints them, were often barbaric; thank goodness, then, for the reforming physicians--even such as James Marion Sims, notorious for developing gynecological surgical techniques through experimentation on human subjects. (Here, he is lauded for ending lifelong suffering from women's disorders, ""whatever the ethics of doing gynecology in the antebellum South."") The foremost sticking point, however, is Shorter's failure to adequately explain why, if his other premises are sound, women have always had a longer life expectancy than men. Colorful eyewitness accounts abound--but serious questions can be raised about the validity of the basic arguments.

Pub Date: Nov. 19th, 1982
Publisher: Basic Books