December 17, 2008

Women's health and the secrecy of illness

Anne Sophia Penn Chew's correspondence represents the first major group of letters between women in the Chew Family Papers. Within this series, there are many discussions about marriage and childbirth; even though Anne herself never married and had children, she served as a confidant for many of her relatives. They wrote to her about their fears and apprehensions prior to their marriages, and they shared their joys and their difficulties after the births (and, often, the deaths) of their children.

Childbirth was an especially precarious time for women, and they often experienced a difficult recovery period. While this is not particularly surprising, especially given the continuously-high infant mortality rate in the United States, women wrote about their bodies with a sense of secrecy and shame that is very different from their male counterparts. Even the fact that pregnancy and childbirth are conceived of as illness is remarkable; in these letters we see an increasing reliance on male doctors to diagnose and treat "female problems." In nearly every letter dealing with gynecological or specifically "female" disorders, there is a warning to Anne that asks her to keep the illness a secret. This is in marked contrast to other types of illness, such as scarlet fever or strokes, which are written about freely throughout the Chew family's correspondence.

In one example, Virginia Mason writes to Anne about her impending travels to attend to her nieces: "I think I have before told you of Lucy's expectations for October, + also of Eliza B's for Sept. Both of them want me to be with them at the time they are sick; So I shall have a busy time. I shall not, however, have any household duties, for Jim + his wife will begin housekeeping the first of October." (Baltimore, July 27) The delicacy of the language she chooses, as well as her characterization of Lucy and Eliza as "sick" create the sense that their pregnancies were not "normal" conditions.

After the birth of her baby, Lucy writes to Anne to report on her condition: "I was so far from being well after Landon's birth that I was advised by my consult one of the specialists here...and I am truly thankful that I came to him, as he assured me that I should have been a confirmed invalid for life had my troubles continued longer. . . .
I hope, dear Aunt, that you will not disclose the contents of this letter to any one but Cousin Mary, but I know you feel interested in my interests, and so I have spoken of it to you...." [n.d.]

It is curious that pregnancy, or complications from birth, would need to be kept a secret, but women's modesty and shame about their bodies seems common in these letters.

In another striking letter, Anne's niece Katherine writes concerning her fears for her sister Ida's health: "I am about to write to you of that which has been on my mind so long I am determined now to relieve it. Possibly you know of a lump that has been in Ida's breast for fully five years. I have been so urged not to say a word of it to any one....I am so anxious lest it may be that, which accounts for the giving way of Ida's health + strength....Dr. Lewis was told about it. I was at Clarens + Ida asked me to tell him of it + he felt it -- but I thought did it in a very careless unsatisfactory manner + made very light of it..." [n.d.] She continues that she spoke to the doctor and he urged her to say nothing to Ida, that perhaps the lump would disappear, but if it didn't, there was nothing they could do to treat it at that stage. Ida's letters never mention the lump, but toward the end of her life, she writes about pain in her lungs and her weak state.

These letters portray women's experiences of their bodies as out of their control. This particular class of women were particularly reliant upon doctors, and seemed content to allow knowledge about their bodies to rest in the hands of "experts." I wonder, as I read this correspondence, what forces convinced women to cede control of this knowledge over their bodies and their reproduction.

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