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The privilege of pain by Caroline Kane Mills…

The privilege of pain (1920)

by Caroline Kane Mills Everett

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This booklet, published in 1920, is the expanded version of a lecture earlier delivered by the author, Caroline Kane Mills Everett (or, as the title page has it, Mrs. Leo Everett). In it, she argues that physical disabilities, illnesses, handicaps, missing limbs, blindness, and the like, should not really matter in how people are judged. For, “while civilization has undoubtedly undermined our physique, it has also abolished the circumstances which made strength and endurance the supreme necessities of the battle of life.”

Most of the chapters in this booklet are lists of famous people from history (soldiers, philosophers, poets, novelists, statesmen, musicians, protestant reformers) who are known to have been sickly, disabled or otherwise physically impaired. Interspersed among these are more meaty chapters, where Everett makes the substantial points of her essay.

It is not a perfect text. Style-wise, mere listings are tedious. And I have a few more issues with this almost 100-year-old text: the viewpoint is positivist and optimistic about the upward trend of civilization; the perspective is entirely Christian; Urban Americans are contrasted with Australian bushwomen. But the genesis of this text lies in a medical doctor’s casually discarding of physically non-fit people in general and female soldiers in specific: “mental and moral man gets his strength and efficiency only from the physical man. A sick man, just as a sick race, is the one that goes to the wall.” Everett, thinking of the countless disabled World War veterans, took issue with that, and produced this text. As an angry response, I can appreciate it.

And I can also get behind the central message, which is that, given a society where physical strength and fitness are not the pinnacle of human achievement, “[n]o physical disablement is a barrier to achievement.” ( )
1 vote Petroglyph | Jan 15, 2019 |
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