Colonizing Gender: Medical Understandings of Women and Reproduction in the Early Modern Period

Molly Nebiolo // This is the second post of a four-post series on science and medicine in early American history. The aim of these posts is to discuss some of the larger themes I find while reading for my history of science and medicine comprehensive exam. This post will not only be  a textual review of some of the major texts in this historiography, but an intersection of review, reflection, and call to action on common misconceptions of early American history.

Image: Georg Dionysius Ehret’s illustration of Linnaeus’ “sexual system” of classifying plants.

In May, the BBC launched a series on an issue that has garnered increasing attention in recent years: the disparities between women’s and men’s experiences with the health care system. The health gap, as both the series and the phenomenon are called, reflects the medical profession’s failures to correctly diagnose women and comprehend how their health needs may be different from men’s. I shared one particular post—about the naming of reproductive organs after men—with friend of mine, not only because of its relevance to us as women, but also because the article highlights a major question I wish to pursue further: why does the female body reflect the male colonization of anatomy? That is, why are female body parts still named after men?

The most intimate parts of women are riddled with the language of men. As the BBC post details, medical phrases are peppered with a masculinist voice (battling heart disease, the war against cancer) and many parts of female genitalia (fallopian tubes, the G-Spot) are named after men. A cornerstone text that outlines this history is Londa Schiebinger’s 1993 monograph Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science.[1] With strong prose and bold arguments, Schiebinger dismantles the Linnaean system of taxonomy, detailing how short-sighted early observations of plant taxonomy and understandings of female reproductive systems were. Related misconceptions have followed us into the present day. It is commonly taught that plants usually have two “genders” and reproduce similarly to humans (male inseminates female), or that the “female” organ of a plant has structural similarities to the human uterus. Nature’s Body provokes the reader into questioning the genesis of modern science: if it’s the case that white men erroneously created the basis of anatomy, botany, and other sciences, then why have the marks of their dominance in these fields remained unchanged?

Binary gender (male and female) is a product of early scientists’ observations of the bodily differences between the two sexes.[2] For hundreds of years, the female genitalia were thought to be the same as their male counterparts, but sunken inside of the body. This puzzle-piece-like depiction of the two sexes was re-evaluated in the 16th and 17th centuries, as anatomical dissections allowed surgeons and physicians to get up close and personal with the inner workings of the body. It was in this period that men began naming new body parts, including female ones, after those who “discovered” them. Physicians also began entering the birthing room, taking over the role of the midwife as physicians gained recognition and respect. Their analyses of women resulted in extremely biased characterizations of female bodies as almost an alien species of human, and thus science backed popular understandings that women were physically inferior to men.

Later, as the American Revolution and other freedom movements gained momentum at the end of the 18th century, the status of reproduction as women’s role in society became primary. Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 argues that women gained power over their bodies as a result of the Revolution.[3] Klepp notes that the size of family trees began shrinking between the mid-18th century and the first quarter of the 19th century, continuing through to today. She says that this trend is mostly related to the Revolution and its sister causes across Europe, which women understood as a path to claiming their own freedoms. Yet I am skeptical of this reasoning, as others have argued quite the opposite: some historians have found that the American Revolution resulted in a surplus of children as women were encouraged to populate the new republic. Whether or not Klepp’s argument holds true, I think she does get at an important point that occurs by the turn of the 19th century: women were beginning to take back power over their bodies—free, white women, at least.

What about the many women who were excluded from these revolutionary possibilities, then? Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery addresses the history of gender and reproduction in the case of enslaved women in the early American period.[4] Similarly to the texts I highlighted in my previous post on the origins of race, Morgan’s monograph on the early interpretations of female black bodies by white onlookers is essential to understanding the role of the male gaze in early American women’s health. According to Morgan, white men compared African women to livestock by wrongly claiming that African breasts were constructed differently from those of white women. They also claimed that African women felt less pain and had fewer difficulties reproducing than white women—qualities that were believed to be subhuman, because they allegedly did not suffer as Eve suffered after banishment from Eden. Morgan argues, though, that because enslaved women were valued for the number of children they would produce, they potentially took agency over their bodies by making sure they did not reproduce for their masters.

Though here I have only attended to three of the many texts that make up the historiography of race and gender studies in the early modern period, I want to maintain the emphasis from my first post that white male doctors constructed the basis of today’s understandings of bodies and medicine based on their own very biased observations. By engaging in and confronting these histories, we can push to change the masculine linguistic dominance over women’s bodies that enables women’s health and pain to be overlooked in today’s hospitals and clinics.

[1] Shiebinger, Londa. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993).

[2] I want to clarify  what I mean when I use the terms gender and sex in this post. While recent movements for human equality have underlined the difference between the two words, I want to make it clear that when I mention “sex” in this post, I mean the two focal sexes of the human body,; the male and female biological entities. The social or cultural actions of being feminine or masculine is contemporarily understood as  gender. In early Western history, the relationship between sex and gender was understood to be synonymous: if a person had the biological genitalia of a woman, then they would also be gendered as woman, and vice versa. With this in mind, I may jump between the two terms because they were synonymous in this period of history.

[3] Klepp, Susan E. Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820. (Duram: University of North Carolina Press and The Omohundro Institute, 2009).

[4] Morgan, Jennifer. Laboring Bodies: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

Molly Nebiolo is a PhD student in World History at Northeastern University. She is studying North America and the Atlantic world, colonialism in world history, and the history of science and medicine. Her work encompasses the early modern period. She is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Digital Humanities.

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