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Feminist Theory and Historical Practice: Rereading Elizabeth Blackwell

Regina Morantz-Sanchez
History and Theory
Vol. 31, No. 4, Beiheft 31: History and Feminist Theory (Dec., 1992), pp. 51-69
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
DOI: 10.2307/2505415
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2505415
Page Count: 19
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Feminist Theory and Historical Practice: Rereading Elizabeth Blackwell
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Abstract

This essay assesses the value of social constructivist theories of science to the history of medicine. It highlights particularly the ways in which feminist theorists have turned their attention to gender as a category of analysis in scientific thinking, producing an approach to modern science that asks how it became identified with "male" objectivity, reason, and mind, set in opposition to "female" subjectivity, feeling, and nature. In the history of medicine this new work has allowed a group of scholars to better explain not only how women were marginalized in the profession but also the manner in which politics, male anxiety about shifts in power relations between the sexes, social and political upheaval, professional concerns, and changes in the family all had an impact on the production of knowledge regarding the female body, including the "discovery," definition, and treatment of a wide range of female ailments, from anorexia nervosa to fibroid tumors. Building on the work in the history of medicine already accomplished, the essay offers a critical rereading of the writings of Elizabeth Blackwell, a pioneer nineteenth-century woman physician and leader of the woman's medical movement. It contends that Blackwell, who lived through a revolutionary change in medical thinking brought on by discoveries in immunology and bacteriology, remained critical of "objectivity" as the "best" form of knowing and suspicious of the laboratory medicine that promoted it so enthusiastically. Moreover, her critiques of radical objectivity and scientific reductionism deserve to be recognized as foreshadowing the maternalist strain of thinking among contemporary feminist philosophers and thinkers such as Sara Ruddick and others.

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