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Disability and the Perpetually Unwell Woman in Late Victorian Medical Literature – by Lucy McCormick

‘Perfect health is a blessing to all, but it means even more to women than men.’[1] Eminent Victorian doctor Thomas Smith Clouston’s statement implied that women’s health limited them in a way that did not apply to men — a trope which reverberated throughout late nineteenth-century medical literature. Medical literature depicted womanhood as a perpetual state of ill health. As men occupied almost all positions of power in Victorian Britain, the male body became enshrined as the ideal one to equip someone for such power. Women’s bodily processes (such as menstruation and pregnancy) were considered evidence of their weakness, suggesting that women were unhealthy versions of men. To be a woman was to be unwell.

Disability theorist Douglas Baynton argues that the Victorian medical establishment used women’s ‘natural’ unhealthiness to justify women’s marginalisation in society, explaining that  disability was used to ‘clarify and define who deserved, and who was deservedly excluded from, citizenship.’[2] Baynton argues that the ‘irrationality, excessive emotionality [and] physical weakness’ which anti-suffragists cited as evidence of women’s inability to vote, were essentially disabilities.[3] According to medical literature, women were disabled because their weaker, female bodies were incapable of exercising the rights and freedoms which men were naturally entitled.

This argument relies upon an understanding of disability as a social rather than medical construct. The social power behind disability is important to consider when researching disability in a historical context, because a study of disability in the literal sense would mean applying our twenty-first-century definition onto nineteenth-century women who did not think in these terms. The definition of disability as a bodily or mental impairment arose in the Disability Rights Movement in the 1970s, encompassing a range of conditions previously considered separate. [4] Writing a history of Victorian women in these terms would be anachronistic, and thus offer little insight into how disability operated in nineteenth-century Britain. Instead, I use disability in a more theoretical than literal sense; I do not choose any particular definition to impose onto individuals, but rather consider how the late Victorian medical establishment imposed disability onto individuals. I do so by employing Michael Oliver’s ‘social model,’ which defines disability as the prevention of activity on the basis of deviation from bodily norms.[5] Oliver contends that, whilst an individual may be impaired (possessing a ‘functional limitation’ which precludes particular actions or bodily functions), they are only disabled when those in power deny them certain opportunities. Victorian medical literature, however, conflated impairment with disability by conceptualising the female body as an impaired version of the male. The disabled female body legitimised women’s inferiority in late nineteenth-century Britain.

Medical texts about puberty demonstrate this belief in the inherent impairment of having a female body. To become a man in Victorian Britain was to become independent, competitive, and rational; the essential male body equipped him to work, debate, and lead the public sphere. In contrast, maturing in a female body limited a woman’s capabilities. According to Dr. Charles Bingham Penrose – a prominent, American, medical voice in the British public sphere – caused women to suffer ‘more especially’ than men due to their ‘systemic derangement.’ Associating puberty with suffering and abnormality, Penrose described it as the moment at which women succumbed to a state of ill health which would burden them for the rest of their lives. Being ‘more delicately organised,’ women were predisposed to ‘a variety of pathological conditions.’[6]

Penrose described the essential bodily characteristics of a woman (breasts, menstruation, etc.) as ‘deranged’ physiology and fundamental impairments that disabled her. He also suggested that puberty meant that women could not cope with ‘long school hours and close mental application or active exercise.’[7] As puberty inculcated the bodily capacity and nurturing disposition required for motherhood, women lost the ability to fulfil any other role. The biological covertly blended with the social, and motherhood soon became enshrined as a woman’s ‘natural’ role, confining her to the domestic sphere on the basis of their health.

Late Victorian medical literature is laden with references to disability. By recognising that it is a social construction, it becomes clear that disability was a tool used by doctors and ideologues in the late nineteenth century to oppress women on account of their bodily deviation from the male norm — operating in much the same way as patriarchy.[8] Both were forms of oppression which marginalised women on the grounds of biological essentialism. Doctors attributed male hegemony to biological differences, which were only made meaningful by those in power because they reinforced such power. In the same way that much feminist theory disputes the reduction of female bodies to their reproductive and sexual functions, disability theory disputes the reduction of disabled bodies to their impairments — both of which disguise barriers to ability as biological.[9] Using the social model of disability makes it possible to analyse the recurring topic of the unhealthy female body as a medical construction which was used to legitimise Victorian social hierarchies. Not only does this indicate the power of medical and scientific knowledge, but it attests to the primacy of the body in late Victorian Britain. The female body — and its supposed disabilities and ineptitudes — was the basis upon which women were denied social, political, and legal equality.

Image: Charles Bingham Penrose, from wikicommons.

Lucy McCormick is a master’s student studying modern British History at the University of Oxford. Her focal interest is women’s health in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain, and she is currently researching working-class women’s experiences of pregnancy in this period.

[1] Thomas Smith Clouston, Female Education from a Medical Point of View: Being Two Lectures Delivered at the Philosophical Institution, Edinburgh, November 1882 (Edinburgh: Macniven and Wallace, 1882), p. 41, in Wellcome Collection <> [Accessed 26th March 2022].

[2] Douglas Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,’ in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. by Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 33-57 (p. 33).

[3] Ibid, p. 34.

[4] Michael Oliver, ‘The Disability Movement is a New Social Movement!’ Community Development Journal, 32:3 (1997), 244-251 (p. 244).

[5] Michael Oliver, ‘The Social Model in Action: If I Had a Hammer,’ in Implementing the Social Model of Disability: Theory and Research, ed. by C.Barnes and G.Mercer (Leeds: The Disability Press, 2004), pp. 18-31 (p. 19).

[6] Charles Bingham Penrose, A Text-book of Diseases of Women, 4th  ed. (Philadelphia and London: W. B. Saunders Company, 1902), p. 20.

[7] Ibid, p. 20.

[8] Carol Thomas, Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999), p. 40. Thomas states: ‘Disability, like patriarchy, is a form of social oppression.’

[9] Adrienne Rich ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,’ Signs, 5:4 (1980), 631–60. Most feminist theory had hitherto considered the family as the site of patriarchal oppression, but this landmark piece of scholarship ingratiated the body into this thought.