the woman who stood up to victorian medicine

Considered by many to be the first sociologist in history, Harriet Martineau was actually much more than the surviving memory of her. Born in Norwich (England) in 1802, left his mark in the field of sociology, but also in economics, philosophy, journalism, social activism, mainly regarding feminism; but Martineau left, above all, his mark on his own body.

This Victorian intellectual did not come from a wealthy family, but the resources they had served her to study astronomy, history, physics and mathematics. He spoke several languages ​​and began at a very young age to approach philosophy and the social sciences. However, his true independence would come after the death of his father. It was then, without a male control figure that determined the lives of women, also his, when he began to write.

Source: Wikipedia

He had lost hearing in one ear at the age of 12, although that did not prevent him from becoming one of the most widely read voices of the time. According to Lorena Boissoneault in ‘Smithsonian Mag’, “By 1834, up to 10,000 copies of his book ‘Illustrations of Political Economy’ were sold each month, a figure five times greater than the rate at which the novels of Charles Dickens were sold “.

25 volumes in two years

Martineau had begun his trail of publications by addressing issues about religion and education in women (his family belonged to the Unitarian Church) in different newspapers when in 1832 he set out to write a collection of stories that reflected on social and scientific theories exhibited by James Mill, Thomas Malthus and Adam Smit among other figures of the time. In just two years, she wrote 25 volumes through which her knowledge and reflections took on an unusual weight for a woman at the time.

“Martineau had not only secured a steady income, but also cemented her status as one of Britain’s most popular intellectuals.”

Its main purpose was to make decipherable what did not seem so, that is, bring to all people the issues that for centuries had been strategically linked to small groups, mostly upper-class white men who used contrived language to refer to what all of society implied. Thus, in these stories the English writer weaves concepts about production, distribution, consumption of wealth and consumer behavior with their implications for society. “Martineau had not only secured a stable income, but also cemented her status as one of Britain’s most popular intellectuals”, Points out Boissoneault. In 1927 he wrote ‘Los Huelguistas’, one of his most famous articles, where he talks about the relationship between industrial machines and workers.

However, pain got in the way of his writing, although it did not stop his momentum, because it made it an intrinsic part of his insatiable willingness to express and vindicate their place and the place of people in the world. In a letter he sent to his medical brother-in-law in 1839, Martineau expressed feeling weak, unable to walk without pain “extending from the legs to the heels” and “pressure on the left groin, which extends from the hip to the hip. back”.

The pain of women

By then, he had been traveling through Europe and the United States. When in 1834 he crossed the ocean, supported the abolitionist slavery movement that fought against the abuses of the colonists. Martineau used one of the most notorious metaphors about slavery directly addressing those who carried it out: “The difference between horses and slaves is that horse owners do not sexually abuse them.”

Her ailments forced her to return to England. There it was diagnosed with a retroverted uterus and various polyp tumors, two conditions about which little was known at the time. Without a definite cure, both result a clear example of the masculinization of the parameters of science over a century of presumed advances that made pain eradication conceivable for the first time. But women’s pain was often on the fringes of medicine.

Illustration for one of his works. Source: Wikipedia

According to researcher Rachel P. Maines, during the Victorian era, so-called female hysteria was the usual diagnosis for a myriad of symptoms. Fainting, insomnia, fluid retention, abdominal heaviness, muscle spasms, shortness of breath, irritability, severe headaches or loss of appetite were considered, directly, the result of a mental pathology linked to the inferiority with which the system had marked the women, who were also diagnosed as having a “tendency to cause problems.”

He managed to prevail over medical abuse

Sexual abuse was common as part of the treatment itself established for this pathology: women diagnosed with hysteria watched helplessly as the doctor manipulated their vagina and pelvic floor until they reached orgasm, which in the context of the time was called “hysterical paroxysm.” It was the solution to what they claimed was a repressed sexual desire. Martineau succeeded in imposing himself on these practices from his own awareness of pain, but also of the condition with which it was defined.

Source: Wikimedia

By the middle of the century, understanding pain had brought with it a complex set of moral and philosophical dilemmas to which the writer joined from her experience, in an almost performative gesture of her own reality. If pain has no obvious purpose, how do you reconcile its existence with a well-ordered universe? It was the big question. She was convinced of the answer, or at least the way to it.

He moved to Tynemouth, a coastal town in the northeast of England, and used his privilege to choose his right to manage his own body and its careShe hired nurses and servants to take care of her, she kept control of her own medical treatment, and despite her discomfort, she continued to write nonstop. There he remained for five years in which he published a novel for children and an anonymous collection of essays entitled ‘Life in the sick room’.

Before Marx, Engels or Weber

In the field of medicine the readjustments continued. “Doctors had started calling for reforms to distinguish between true doctors and charlatans. They wanted laws to standardize care. They also wanted to be seen as medical professionals who could insist on their expertise at the expense of the patient’s own account, “says Boissoneault. In this sense, he emphasizes:” Martineau was not at all opposed to medicine becoming a more scientific practice . Refused to be defined as nothing more than a diseased body“.

Source: Wikipedia

What she did was make sure that only her writing fell on her, her very willingness to try to make it that way with all women. Martineau had already examined and written about discrimination based on gender, social class, nationalisms and on many other issues before Marx, Engels or Weber did. among other acclaimed authors. Likewise, he defined ideas that continue to be key in current sociology. Some tried to finish his speech and silence her, and although they did not succeed, her memory has been hidden by that of other intellectuals who shared space and time with her.

After an experimental and alternative treatment, she believed she was recovered, but the disease was still there, forcing her to confine herself again in 1855, and so he remained for the next 20 years until his death in 1876 at age 74. Until then, this woman made sure that her body was hers and no one else’s.

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