Women’s Health: The Rise and Fall of the Male Expert

Free PDF:For Her Own Good

For Her Own good is a sociological study of the historical trend of male experts claiming the right to dictate what is best for women. Ehrenreich and English attribute this loss of female autonomy to the sudden and total disruption of centuries-old social roles that accompanied the rise of capitalism.

Elimination of Women’s Traditional Economic Roles

Under pre-capitalist patriarchy, women were totally subject to their fathers and husbands but still derived considerable prestige from the basic survival functions they performed in the home (ie tending gardens, chickens and dairy cows, as well as making butter, cheese, soap and candles and carding, spinning, weaving, and making clothes). With the rise of capitalism, all these functions were shifted into factories, and the household was limited to performing personal biological functions, such as eating, sleeping, sex, birth, dying and care of children and the elderly.

Even the traditionally female role of healing was transformed into a commodity to be sold in the market place. Prior to the advent of capitalism, except for the very rich (who could afford a doctor), healing was the exclusive domain of women.

Women had great difficulty finding a new role for themselves under capitalism, which led to a virtual epidemic of of depression and “neurasthenia,”* especially among upper middle class women.

Medical Care Becomes a Commodity

The book traces the rise of “heroic” medical interventions that arose when medical care became a commodity (doctors had to engage in active and visible treatment to demand a fee). Most of these interventions (especially blood letting, leech therapy, mercury salts) made patients worse, if not killing them. In the 1830s, the US working class rebelled against doctors as members of a parasitic elitist class. A popular health movement, run mainly by women, stressed the importance of fresh air, bathing, herbs, raw foods and daily exercise as a healthier alternative than the quack treatments employed by doctors.

In the 20th century, the rise of the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, which enabled the rise of “science based” medical training in medical schools, gradually forced lay midwives and other non-medical healers out of business.

The Myth of Science-Based Medicine

The authors spend the last third of the book delineating how so-called “science-based” medicine was based as much in myth, misogyny and superstition – at least when it came to women – as so called pre-scientific medicine. This is especially clear from the section on childrearing – where expert opinion seems to have reversed itself every few decades.

In the early 20th century, doctors and child guidance specialists insisted a mother’s role was to regiment a child to insure it behaved like a machine. Mother were strongly cautioned against playing with babies, picking them up except for feeding, hugging, kissing or cuddling them.

Follow the 1929 financial crash, experts reversed themselves and told mothers they had to be permissive and allow children to follow their own impulses in decided when to eat, sleep and play.

Child experts reversed themselves a third time when the US fell behind the Russians in the space race in the 1950s. At this point child experts dumped on mothers for not stimulating children enough or setting firm enough limits.

*Neurasthenia is a condition characterized by physical and mental exhaustion of unknown cause.

9 thoughts on “Women’s Health: The Rise and Fall of the Male Expert

  1. Apparently the authors found out that women before the rise of capitalism derived “considerable prestige from the basic survival functions they performed in the home”. They claim that with the rise of capitalism male experts are “claiming the right to dictate what is best for women”. But why just women? Isn’t that right claimed for ordinary men and children as well?
    Once I saw a doctor who wanted to decide what sort of strength of oral contraceptive was the right sort of strength for me. When I hinted that I read about it and came to the conclusion that a less strong pill might be better for me. he just said I should not be reading so much!
    Most doctors always want to know better than their patients and do not like patients who are well informed. Maybe this sort of attitude is gradually changing in the medical profession. But of course one is always warned that among the vast information on the internet there is a lot that is not to be believed.


  2. You’re certainly right about male experts dictating to women about children and childrearing, Aunty. A third of this book is about male experts and their changing fads in childrearing. I think doctors have always had a strong tendency to regard women as hysterical and emotionally unstable and this results in a strong tendency for them not to take their complaints or opinions seriously. The authors deal with this issue at length in the book though I didn’t mention it in the review.

    I think medicine, in general, is a very class-loaded profession, which is why there has always been a strong tendency for doctors to expect patients of both sexes to do what they’re told. Fortunately I think younger doctors are coming to accept that patients come to their office extremely knowledgeable from what they read on the Internet.

    Like you, I have had a big problem my whole life getting male doctors to fully listen to my complaints (in medical school we were always taught that the history was 99% of the diagnosis).

    As a result, I mostly look to alternative medical providers (acupuncturists and naturopaths mainly) when I’m ill. I’m nearly 70 now and still take no prescription medication.


  3. When I began to look at the race and religion of those “doctors” and where their advice was intended to make the most harm, a huuuuge light bulb went up.


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