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For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women [Kindle Edition]

Barbara Ehrenreich , Deirdre English
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A provocative new perspective on female history, the history of American medicine and psychology, and the history of child-rearing unlike any other.

Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

A provocative new perspective on female history, the history of American medicine and psychology, and the history of child-rearing unlike any other.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


In the Ruins of Patriarchy

"If you would get up and do something you would feel better," said my mother. I rose drearily, and essayed to brush up the floor a little, with a dustpan and small whiskbroom, but soon dropped those implements exhausted, and wept again in helpless shame.

I, the ceaselessly industrious, could do no work of any kind. I was so weak that the knife and fork sank from my hands-too tired to eat. I could not read nor write nor paint nor sew nor talk nor listen to talking, nor anything. I lay on the lounge and wept all day. The tears ran down into my ears on either side. I went to bed crying, woke in the night crying, sat on the edge of the bed in the morning and cried-from sheer continuous pain. Not physical, the doctors examined me and found nothing the matter.1

It was 1885 and Charlotte Perkins Stetson had just given birth to a daughter, Katherine. "Of all angelic babies that darling was the best, a heavenly baby." And yet young Mrs. Stetson wept and wept, and when she nursed her baby "the tears ran down on my breast. . . ."

The doctors told her she had "nervous prostration." To her it felt like "a sort of gray fog [had] drifted across my mind, a cloud that grew and darkened." The fog never entirely lifted from the life of Charlotte Perkins Stetson (later Gilman). Years later, in the midst of an active career as a feminist writer and lecturer, she would find herself overcome by the same lassitude, incapable of making the smallest decision, mentally numb.

Paralysis struck Charlotte Perkins Gilman when she was only twenty-five years old, energetic and intelligent, a woman who seemed to have her life open before her. It hit young Jane Addams-the famous social reformer-at the same time of life. Addams was affluent, well-educated for a girl, ambitious to study medicine. Then, in 1881, at the age of twenty-one, she fell into a "nervous depression" which paralyzed her for seven years and haunted her long after she began her work at Hull-House in the Chicago slums. She was gripped by "a sense of futility, of misdirected energy" and was conscious of her estrangement from "the active, emotional life" within the family which had automatically embraced earlier generations of women. "It was doubtless true," she later wrote "that I was

'Weary of myself and sick of asking

What I am and what I ought to be.'"

Margaret Sanger-the birth control crusader-was another case. She was twenty years old, happily married, and, physically at least, seemed to be making a good recovery from tuberculosis. Suddenly she stopped getting out of bed, refused to talk. In the outside world, Theodore Roosevelt was running for President on the theme of the "strenuous life." But when relatives asked Margaret Sanger what she would like to do, she could only say, "Nothing." "Where would you like to go?" they persisted: "Nowhere."

Ellen Swallow (later Ellen Richards-founder of the early-twentieth-century domestic science movement) succumbed when she was twenty-four. She was an energetic, even compulsive, young woman; and, like Addams, felt estranged from the intensely domestic life her mother had led. Returning home from a brief period of independence, she found herself almost too weak to do household chores. "Lay down sick . . ." she entered in her diary, "Oh so tired . . ." and on another day, "Wretched," and again, "tired."

It was as if they had come to the brink of adult life and then refused to go on. They stopped in their tracks, paralyzed. The problem wasn't a lack of things to do. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, like Jane Addams, felt "intense shame" that she was not up and about. All of them had family responsibilities to meet; all but Jane Addams had houses to run. They were women with other interests too-science, or art, or philosophy-and all of them were passionately idealistic. And yet, for a while, they could not go on.

For, in the new world of the nineteenth century, what was a woman to do? Did she build a life, like her aunts and her mother, in the warmth of the family-or did she throw herself into the nervous activism of a world which was already presuming to call itself "modern"? Either way, wouldn't she be ridiculous, a kind of misfit? Certainly out of place if she tried to fit into the "men's world" of business, politics, science. But in a historical sense, perhaps even more out of place if she remained in the home, isolated from the grand march of industry and progress. "She was intelligent and generous"; Henry James wrote of the heroine in Portrait of a Lady, "it was a fine free nature; but what was she going to do with herself?"

Certainly the question had been asked before Charlotte Perkins Gilman's and Jane Addams's generation, and certainly other women had collapsed because they did not have the answers. But only in the last one hundred years or so in the Western world does this private dilemma surface as a gripping public issue-the Woman Question or "the woman problem." The misery of a Charlotte Gilman or Jane Addams, the crippling indecisiveness, is amplified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among tens of thousands of women. A minority transform their numbness into anger and become activists in reform movements; many-the ones whose names we don't know-remained permanently depressed, bewildered, sick.

Men, men of the "establishment"-physicians, philosophers, scientists-addressed themselves to the Woman Question in a constant stream of books and articles. For while women were discovering new questions and doubts, men were discovering that women were themselves a question, an anomaly when viewed from the busy world of industry. They couldn't be included in the men's world, yet they no longer seemed to fit in their traditional place. "Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year?" Virginia Woolf asked an audience of women. "Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?" From a masculine point of view the Woman Question was a problem of control: Woman had become an issue, a social problem-something to be investigated, analyzed, and solved.

This book is about the scientific answer to the Woman Question, as elaborated over the last hundred years by a new class of experts-physicians, psychologists, domestic scientists, child-raising experts. These men-and, more rarely, women-presented themselves as authorities on the painful dilemma confronted by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Addams, and so many others: What is woman's true nature? And what, in an industrial world which no longer honored women's traditional skills, was she to do? Physicians were the first of the new experts. With claims to knowledge encompassing all of human biological existence, they were the first to pass judgment on the social consequences of female anatomy and to prescribe the "natural" life plan for women. They were followed by a horde of more specialized experts, each group claiming dominion over some area of women's lives, and all claiming that their authority flowed directly from biological science. In the first part of this book we will trace the rise of the psychomedical experts, focusing on medicine as a paradigm of professional authority. In the second part of the book we will see how the experts used their authority to define women's domestic activities down to the smallest details of housework and child raising. With each subject area we will move ahead in time until we reach the present and the period of the decline of the experts-our own time, when the Woman Question has at last been reopened for new answers.

The relationship between women and the experts was not unlike conventional relationships between women and men. The experts wooed their female constituency, promising the "right" and scientific way to live, and women responded-most eagerly in the upper and middle classes, more slowly among the poor-with dependency and trust. It was never an equal relationship, for the experts' authority rested on the denial or destruction of women's autonomous sources of knowledge: the old networks of skill-sharing, the accumulated lore of generations of mothers. But it was a relationship that lasted right up to our own time, when women began to discover that the experts' answer to the Woman Question was not science after all, but only the ideology of a masculinist society, dressed up as objective truth. The reason why women would seek the "scientific" answer in the first place and the reason why that answer would betray them in the end are locked together in history. In the section which follows we go back to the origins of the Woman Question, when science was a fresh and liberating force, when women began to push out into the unknown world, and the romance between women and the experts began.

The Woman Question

The Woman Question arose in the course of a historic transformation whose scale later generations have still barely grasped. It was the "industrial revolution," and even "revolution" is too pallid a word. From the Scottish highlands to the Appalachian hills, from the Rhineland to the Mississippi Valley, whole villages were emptied to feed the factory system with human labor. People were wrested from the land suddenly, by force; or more subtly, by the pressure of hunger and debt-uprooted from the ancient security of family, clan, parish. A settled, agrarian life which had persisted more or less for centuries was destroyed in one tenth the time it had taken for the Roman Empire to fall, and the old ways of thinking, the old myths and old rules, began to lift like the morning fog.

Marx and Engels-usually thought of as the instigators of disorder rather than the chroniclers of it-were th...

Product Details

  • File Size: 1509 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 2nd edition (October 2, 2013)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00F8F0KQ6
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #443,517 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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53 of 60 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A real education for women of our time September 19, 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
As a "baby boomer" woman, I really appreciated the chance to look back and review the history leading up to the changes we saw in our generation regarding women's rights and women's choices. It was particularly illuminating to have the transformations I myself experienced since childhood encapsulated in such a clear format; it helped me understand how my own grandmother and mother saw their roles. I enjoyed the authors' pithy and practical writing style.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One take on the medicalization of women April 19, 2008
By Muffie
This was a well researched (I spot fact-checked a few of the footnotes) and well written book about the history of the "Woman Question." The "Woman Question" changes over time, but it is a social class centered issue. Ehrenreich and English combine Conflict and Feminist theoretical perspectives without getting technical about it to give a solid backdrop into the history of how the medical and psychiatric/psychological professions came to understand what it means to be a woman and how women are. It takes a very different perspective of the same history we all share than do more traditional perspectives of medical history. People interested in women's issues would find this interesting.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Important historical info August 20, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book had tons of interesting historical info on the roles of women and medical practitioners. It was a little too scholarly for beach reading, yet contained fascinating windows into our past. Some sections were repetitive after making a point.

I would hope that young women would read it for perspective on the women's movement and health issues. Those of us in the baby boomer generation experienced discrimination that our daughters don't relate to. We may have "come a long way, baby," yet women still do not have the equality that we should in government, the board room or compensation.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is great- informative, engaging, witty February 18, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Great book for women in science or medicine. I loved reading this book and learned so much. I highly recommend it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important and informative book June 5, 2014
By jar137
I read this book 30 years ago and it still informs my understanding of the medical arts. Well researched and well-written. I highly recommend this book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Ehrenreich's a winner, despite her race problem January 19, 2015
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As usual, Ehrenreich delivers! This is a great, readable book about more of the horrors that patriarchy has dealt to women. I knew a lot of it beforehand, but didn't know the particulars. This book goes into astonishing depth and explains a lot of things we take for granted (e.g. the origins of home economics class) and really keeps the narrative going.

I adore Ehrenreich, but she does have a race problem; she writes as though all women were equal, without ever mentioning the very real impacts of racial inequalities. She occasionally has a problem with class too, ignoring it entirely, though she's generally better about remembering that not everyone was a stay-at-home mother. Still, these qualities for me don't dim the fascinating qualities of the book (or her writing in general). If you're looking for thoughtful discussion of race and class politics, look elsewhere. But if you're most interested in gender, this is a great pick.

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5.0 out of 5 stars For My Own Good? July 20, 2014
By Bryn
I'm a fan of Barbara Ehrenreich anyway (Nickeled and Dimed) and she once again has proven that she has complete command of her subject. As the mother of two daughters, I let my children make their own decisions for most of their lives and they've done beautifully. Not always what I would have chosen, but best for them. I'm proud to say I never told them to do something "for their own good." Read it if you know or are a woman!
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More About the Author

BARBARA EHRENREICH is the author of fourteen books, including the bestselling Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. She lives in Virginia, USA.

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