Monthly Archives: April 2015

Laughing at History

By Netherlandish (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Netherlandish (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday the website The Mary Sue published a post of mine, a short, lighthearted little thing about the malady known as green sickness.

After it was published, I committed the cardinal internet sin of reading the comments. Normally I don’t do that, but The Mary Sue’s readers are savvy and smart, and I was curious what they said.

Most comments were written in the same vein as the post—funny, a little snarky, lighthearted. But one comment made me pause. In a nutshell, it asked “Why is this something to laugh at? Surely this was a real problem for some people.”

It’s a compelling point and one worth bearing in mind, always. When we laugh at things from the past, are we demeaning the lived experience of real people?

I hope I would never do that. I did, however, want to poke fun at a system of beliefs about women that reduced them to uterine function. The theory behind green sickness was that a virgin was vulnerable to all sorts of maladies because the ultimate function of the uterus was to be occupied, either by a man’s seed or by a child, and until that happened, it was a site of blocked humors and disease that made a maiden sick, weak, and listless.

It’s the same system that attributed a host of physical and mental disorders to a woman’s “wandering womb.”

It’s crucial we remember the role that set of beliefs played in the history of medicine, how it served as a foundation for the ways we think about and discuss women’s health.

It informs the social structure that allows Todd Aiken to mystify reproductive biology and argue the rarity of child conceived in a “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” 

That system still shapes the way we talk about menstruation and menopause, even about PMS.

Every day I read news stories that sound like they come right out of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Women’s reproductive rights are being eroded day by day, from mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds to the limits on abortion even in the cases of rape or health of the mother.

And for a chilling analysis of how the past seems to repeat itself when it comes to the regulation of women’s wombs, read this piercing analysis by Margaret Lewis of the similarities between 17th-century infanticide trials and the 20-year sentence given to Purvi Patel. (Especially shocking is the use of the “lung test,” which has been recognized as scientifically flawed for the last 200 years.)

We need to remind ourselves of that system that used biology to define women, by their very nature, as weak, helpless, and incapable of decision or action without a man’s help.

I deeply appreciate that commentor’s reminder that there are real people behind these stories and diagnoses and treatments. It’s something I hope never to forget.

But I don’t think I can stop laughing at the ridiculousness of a system that reduces women to one particular organ. Because if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.

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