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

by Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English

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Ehrenreich and English look at what kind of advice we've been given for the last two hundred years. Although they provide a good deal of social, political, economic, and general background to the development and evolution of experts, the part I found most fascinating was on the creation of what we consider medical doctors. I hadn't realized how culturally specific, oft-changing, and purposefully created our modern conception of medicine is.

For instance, the cultural ancestors of modern doctors were just dudes who had enough money and class status to go to university and learn classical languages. They never learned anatomy or how to treat illnesses in any evidence-based manner. In fact, to maintain their status as "gentlemen," they didn't touch their patients (instead leaving the dispensing of medicines, bone-setting, childbirth, etc to others) or receive payment for their services (they were instead given "gifts"). But given that their medical knowledge was entirely based in classical literature, they were not particularly helpful. Instead, most people used what we now term folk-medicine (practiced by a healer in their area), which *was* mostly evidence-based and very much in line with modern conceptions of medicine (understandings of anatomy, palpating the lymph nodes, knowing what the patient ate, what their stools looked like, etc). But "regular" doctors had the rich on their side, so when science and the scientific method began to gain credence, they were able to lay claim to science first, while simultaneously suing to have all doctors who didn't go to their specific universities be considered criminals if they practiced medicine. It worked! Oh classism. And thus, for the next hundred years or so, the UK and US were left with doctors who had a very narrow understanding of what to look for to judge health. Mental state, nutrition, environment...all of this fell by the way-side.

Ehrenreich and English also talk a bit about how various credentials came to be and the double-binds created by psychologists for women. And don't think women were martyred saints, either--white, middle and upper class women were instrumental in all sorts of bs movements to "improve" the poor and minority groups. Overall, a good read, with nuggets of biting sarcasm to match the facts and anecdotes. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
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 |
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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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