UMR scholar examines women’s role in medicine in Victorian fiction

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On September 27, 2004

The relationship between women and medicine in the 19th century is the focus of a new book by University of Missouri-Rolla author Dr. Kristine Swenson. The book, Medical Women and Victorian Fiction, will be published in November by the University of Missouri Press.

Kristine Swenson, author of Medical Women and Victorian Fiction

The book examines the intersections of fiction, feminist politics and medicine during the last half of the 19th century, when the novel functioned in much the same way television functions today, Swenson says. Like modern television programming, where dramas and situation comedies often feature a story arc that might continue throughout a season, Victorian fiction was often published serially.

"The stories came out in monthly parts or volumes and people would wait for the next volume to come out to continue the story," Swenson says. "Families would sit around the fire after dinner and the father or an older daughter would read aloud. It functioned the way we think of television today."

And much like television programs, the stories in Victorian novels were often based on current cultural issues. Medical reform after the 1850s and "The Woman Question," or what Victorians called early feminism, were two such issues.

"Nineteenth century medicine tended to view the female as an object," Swenson says. "In 19th century paintings, it is typically the female patient under the male medical gaze. Famous cases throughout history give the impression that it is the woman who is frail and sick and needs to be fixed.

In the 1850s and 1860s, women began entering the medical profession, first as nurses, because of the influence of Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.

"Before the Crimean War, nursing was viewed as a low-life profession not much different from prostitution. It wasn’t at all professionalized, more like a servant," Swenson says. "Nightingale came along and convinced people nursing was good, valuable work and that trained professional women were needed to do that work."

With medical reforms after the 1850s nursing became a career respectable women could enter. But in the 1870s and 1880s, women began wanting to become doctors and faced a new set of challenges. Male doctors were protective of their profession and medical schools were often reluctant to admit women.

The women who made it as doctors were seen as less feminine, Swenson says, almost as if they were forced to give up their womanhood in exchange for entrance to the medical profession. Fictional women doctors were often portrayed as very important social figures who because of their medical expertise and professional standing, could speak out for the rights of other women and protect them from the male medical establishment.

In "Medical Women and Victorian Fiction," Swenson challenges the conventional histories of this rise of women as nurses and doctors by viewing their cultural representations as equally important.

Swenson joined the UMR faculty in 1997 as an assistant professor of English and was named associate professor in 2003. Her research expertise includes gender and sexuality theory and the novel. She teaches courses in 19th and 20th century British literature, technical writing and introduction to criticism, in addition to introductory English courses.

Swenson received a Ph.D. in English language and literature from the University of Iowa in 1995. She received a master of arts degree in English from the University of Virginia in 1989, and a bachelor of arts degree in English from Luther College in 1987.

Medical Women and Victorian Fiction will be available online from the University of Missouri Press, as well as other online booksellers.

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On September 27, 2004. Posted in News