Women's self-writing and medical science: Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Bronte, Harriet Jacobs, and Elizabeth Stoddard

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Autobiography, Nineteenth century medicine, Women writers, Medical science

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America


This dissertation examines the ways in which four nineteenth-century British and American women challenge medical definitions of the female body and mind through their self-writing--essays, journalism, an autobiography, a slave narrative, autobiographical novels, and short fiction. Each chapter is a case study that reconstructs a woman's lived experience of medicine, health, and illness, in tandem with her authorial biography in order to offer a new reading of the poetics and politics of the body in self-writing.

Prior studies of literature and the history of medicine and science have usually failed to view medical practice as a locally-contingent social action. Moreover, women's self-writing has been underexamined as a genre that engages medical discourses and practices. The result is a skewed picture of nineteenth-century women as haplessly subjected to medical authority. Yet, this dissertation reveals that women challenge and even reject medicalization with a sophistication of rhetoric and literary technique. Thus, the admired British intellectual Harriet Martineau scientifically observed herself during extended illnesses and her remarkable recovery, writing essays, journalism, and her Autobiography (1877) in order to disprove prevailing medical theories of women's assumed intellectual inferiority. Charlotte Brontë, in her novel Villette (1853), dramatizes her struggle against medical surveillance at home, and its relationship to her literary career. Harriet Jacobs, in her feminist abolitionist narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), links the tyranny of traditional medicine with that of the sexual exploitation of enslaved women and promotes alternative womanist health concepts to further her political goal. Elizabeth Stoddard, in her journalism and fiction, defies the medical pathologization of female sexuality in order to claim that sexuality is integral not only to woman's health but also to her artistic genius. Not only do women challenge diverse forms of medical control over their bodies and minds, but also they assert alternative models of embodied female selfhood to advance their intellectual, political, and artistic goals.


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