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For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the…

For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women

by Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English

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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
While I found Ehrenreich and English's thesis to be fascinating (the Industrial Revolution led to the division of work and home into separate spheres that created the rigid gender roles which ruled 19th- and 20th-century medical discourse until the feminist movement in the late '60s/early '70s), their tone is sometimes churlish and judgmental. The best parts of the book deal with the 19th and early 20th centuries, but when it gets closer to the authors' own era, some of their personal beliefs start to color their interpretation of historical events. For instance, I was really puzzled by the fact that while they are obviously pro-contraception and pro-choice (although they give little information about these topics in the book; admittedly, these are so weighty and complex that they would probably require a separate book), Ehrenreich and English launch into a condescending dismissal of women who choose not to have children as "selfish", i.e., not fulfilling their role as women (very odd considering that the book is concerned with liberating women to redefine social roles in the face of alleged expert advice). Ironically, their liberal, socialist tendencies often come across as just as proscriptive as the experts' advice that they rail against.

They do proffer much valid criticism of the way that the medical profession has too often veiled its own misogynistic views as "science-based", and I did find that aspect of the book provocative. So while this is definitely worth reading, I would take some of Ehrenreich and English's interpretations with a grain of salt. I also agree with the reviewer who remarks on the lack of suggestions for how human beings (both men and women) can better incorporate, modify, or reject expert advice to live productive, creative lives in a capitalist society. The book spends so much time highlighting what is wrong with capitalism and American individualism that it virtually ignores the fact that, for better of worse, life in a democratic society has made such critiques possible.

Despite the afterword that covers events up to the early 2000s, the book often has an aggressively utopian quality that betrays its origins in the rather humorless world of late '70s sociopolitical discourse (it was originally published in 1978). For Her Own Good would make a good introductory text for both women' studies and health care courses not only for the solid historical evidence that it often provides (the excerpts from Freudian tomes are especially chilling) but also as an examination of biases that occasionally undermine the authors' arguments. ( )
  coltonium | Dec 19, 2013 |
A history of how the status of women has changed since the Industrial Revolution, when the modern gender roles were delineated based on the new divisions of labor. Very well researched, and well written, it suffers quite a bit, especially in early chapters, from a suspension of skepticism in the face of "woman's" medicine - the various herbals and potions that were used before the birth of modern medicine. There is a great deal of accuracy in the description of the failure of medicine at that time, but the presentation of these other methods as effective is perhaps a bit credulous. Otherwise, a very solid work by a writer with a sense of irony. ( )
  quantum_flapdoodle | Aug 16, 2013 |
I should have paid more attention to the author and less to the title. Here I was, expecting gems like "make him his favorite dinner on Fridays to celebrate, never Mondays, else he'll wonder what you're atoning for" or "never paint your toenails anything other than pink or cream before marriage. or after" or some other inane, giggle-worthy things. But oh, Barbara, I didn't notice you there. Wait, why are you filling my nice funny old-fashioned book with horrible facts about social movements that piss me off? ( )
  amaraduende | Mar 30, 2013 |
An important topic, but too heavy handed an approach. ( )
  librarianarpita | Aug 8, 2011 |
Ehrenreich put together a very comprehensive, well-researched book on the effect of "expert" advice on women over a two-hundred-year span. The chronicle is both hilarious and frightening. We see women being celebrated as frail, delicate creatures whose reproductive organs are the source of every illness... then later women are descended upon by psychologists and deemed too dangerous to run a family, having penis envy and ambition compelling them to kill their children. Mothers were considered the heart of the home for their childrearing powers, then considered too weak to raise their own sons. It's enough to make a woman never buy a self-help book again.

It's amazing to see how much the woman's role has changed in two centuries. Before machines became a way of life, women had a lot of work to do. Surprisingly, we learn that housecleaning was low on the list. It wasn't until the the 20th century where women's boredom and advertisers met to compel a frenzy for housecleaning. Early women were too busy making all their home's supplies. When all of women's traditional work was being taken over by factories, and their healing knowledge taken away by men, the Woman Question arrived. With so little to do, what was a woman's role in society? What was her contribution to her household? Early feminists argued that women were reduced to glorified prostitutes, with their skills and knowledge taken away. The Woman Question is one that was debated until the feminists exploded into the 1960s and '70s.

At this point, after the women's rights movement of the '70s, Ehrenreich falters a bit when describing the "Let's think about me, now" attitude of women who eschewed a husband and kids for a childfree life. She paints these as selfish people obsessed with money and free time. True, many women feeling stifled under the confines of traditional society would start thinking of their own needs in a manner considered "selfish" after centuries of thinking solely of their family's comfort. Ehrenreich seems to think that the advice of earlier "experts" who encouraged permissiveness went too far and made child-haters of these women. On the contrary, the childfree movement that stemmed from modern feminism is all about the choice to have children. Since Ehrenreich clearly approves of abortion in her writing, it is strange that she gets a little touchy over the choice to be a mother or not. Since the author is pro-choice, she may not have thought out the connection to those who abstain from childrearing entirely, and how they must fight charges of selfishness just as those who get an abortion fight charges of being a "murderer." I wonder if Ehrenreich, being a mother, is aghast at how feminism inspired future generations of women to live a childfree life.

Other than that criticism, I found the book a valuable source of information. I want to wave it under the nose of every person who thinks the feminist movement was a mistake. I want to yell at them, "Do you know where these doctors would put leeches on a woman because her husband could drag her in to a doctors office for an attitude adjustment? Think of a place only her gynecologist would see - that's where they put those leeches!" But, as Ehrenreich points out, there are many people who buy into the romance of the woman invalid, the lobotomized housewife, and sheltered female who never has to make an important decision. Some may find this a blissful life, but as history proves, it's not necessarily a healthy one for women. ( )
1 vote StoutHearted | Jun 20, 2009 |
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Barbara Ehrenreichprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
English, Deirdremain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385126514, Paperback)

This dense, well-argued classic underscores the need to take expert advice with a shaker of salt. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English ably show that many experts gleefully hammer recalcitrant souls into a shape acceptable to society, rather than encouraging people to find their own way. The book plunges into 150 years of misbegotten advice to women and questionable insights into feminine nature that have many modern parallels. In the service of better living through science, women have undergone deprivational rest cures that most war rules would disallow, submitted to surgical bludgeoning of ovaries and uterus to quell a list of unladylike behaviors, and humbly followed childcare advice that amounted to abuse. Though slanted by its bent toward worst cases and offenses against only one sex, it offers much to mull over for hopeful seekers of mix-and-bake directions for a better life.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:00 -0400)

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