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Complaints & Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness
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Complaints & Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  406 ratings  ·  36 reviews
From prescribing the "rest cure" to diagnosing hysteria, the medical profession has consistently treated women as weak and pathological. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's concise history of the sexual politics of medical practices shows how this biomedical rationale was used to justify sex discrimination throughout the culture, and how its vestiges are evident in ab ...more
Paperback, 112 pages
Published August 2nd 2011 by The Feminist Press at CUNY (first published December 1974)
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Tamara Agha-Jaffar
Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, their sequel to Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, documents the role of the medical system in propagating and fueling sexist ideology. The authors argue it is not biology that oppresses women; it is a social system based on sex and class discrimination.

Focusing on the late 19th and early 20th century, Ehrenreich and English cite one example after another of the barbaric “
Apr 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I first became interested in the influence of gender on illness and its treatment after reading The Yellow Wallpaper--the story of a woman driven mad by either 1) the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom or 2) the rest cure proscribed to her for her nerves. In short, it was either an external physical factor that drove her to madness or it was the institute of madness. Either way, it the story offers interesting insights into the differing treatments.

The authors in this work take a longer and more o
Hailey M
Sep 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating look at different class-based manifestations of medical sexism at the turn of the 20th century and their affects on today. Their points about how sickness can provide (some) women with superficial freedoms and how our good health can be used against us are going to provide me with a lot of food for thought around why so many of us seem to resist getting better. Also gave me a much needed reminder about why it's so important to be able to talk about the body! All in less than 100 page ...more
Jul 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gender, feminism, history
An easy and essential marxist feminist history. A great primer for those wanting to learn more about gender history in post-civil war america.
Mar 14, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A short yet convincing exploration of the class-based sexist underpinnings of the medical industry from the 19th to 20th century. Short, but hard-hitting: "The medical system is not just a service industry. It is a powerful instrument of social control, replacing organized religion as a prime source of sexist ideology and an enforcer of sex roles." "We must never lose sight of the fact that it is not our biology that oppresses us--but a social system based on sex and class domination." ...more
Tara B
Jan 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A great introductory pamphlet on medicine's treatment of women and its effects on women and how they are perceived by others. It's depressing how I still see the problems the authors talk about in the "current issues" sections at the end, considering this was written in the SEVENTIES! Oh, feminism . . . ...more
While the book is 37 years old, it still offers a solid (and frequently horrifying) look at the treatment of women by the medical profession. The thought that leeches were once placed on the cervix to help "fix" amenorrhea makes me flinch. ...more
Feb 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: feminism
Fascinating and infuriating, binge-read in one sitting
Complaints and Disorders is a really interesting look into the ways women were viewed within the medical industry as patients throughout history. They cover a lot of good ground about the way class played an especially strong role in the way women experienced medical sexism. I wish they had covered more to do with race (they mention it several times, but manage to avoid actually doing a proper delve into the subject) and on women who were legitimately disabled or sick (who they mention exist but ...more
Oct 27, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: health, women, history
Review to Follow. Read for Dewey's 24-hour Readathon. ...more
First part, four stars. Second part, 2 stars. Perhaps I enjoy remote history better than recent history as that is how the book is organized. I did enjoy learning about the origins of "hysteria" and the crazy bogus and misguided "cures" the patriachal medical society inflicted on upper society women.
I liked how they separated out the dichotomy of how the same women, but from different social classes, could be sick and the other sickening, i.e a rich woman gets "put to bed" while a poor woman is
Oct 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
A friend let me borrow this. It took me a bit to get into, but once I did I found it riveting. I was pleasantly surprised that this book expanded upon its discussion of gender to incorporate the intersections of race and class:
"Medicine does not invent our social roles, it merely interprets then to us as biological destiny." (154)

I found it to be an informative snapshot of medicine as a form of social control.
Kent Winward
Jan 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I began reading this during the election and wasn't able to come back to it until recently. The issues of health and women were an obvious attack point by Trump and this little pamphlet will show you the horrific economic and class history with medicine. Although this was written in the early 70s, forty years later it still seems fresh and relevant, which is frankly discouraging. ...more
Jessica Goodman gave me this booket too, which tells how western medicine is tied up with the patriarchy and how sick women are diagnosed and treated differently from sick men. Very interesting and informative.
Great look at period views on women, especially during the Victorian era. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the fantastic Nickel and Dimed, and she also is worthy of a read in this short introduction to the sexual politics of sickness.
This is the second of two pamphlets that these authors published in the 70's - I didn't like the first very much but I really wish they had expanded their research for this one. I would be interested in a whole book on this topic. ...more
Jun 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Super fast read has lots of photos/diagrams/drawings of women sick in bed. I hadn't really thought about the way women in old books were always sickly. I thought it was just the characters in the books, but it sounds like it was upper class women, in general. Interesting read, wish it were longer. ...more
I was exited to find this stagnating on a shelf in a high school. Clearly written and also a superb example of quality small press work.
May 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: f
"...our bodies are not the issue. Biology is not the issue. The issue is power, in all the ways it affects us."

Should be required reading for everyone all the time.
Erin Kent
Aug 12, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating look at the patriarchal power structures and their impact upon women's relationship to medicine and public health. I'm going to be looking for more books down this avenue. ...more
Mathilde Annabelle
Oct 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: feminism
Read this for my dissertation about genycologic and obstetrical violences, and I couldn't be more satisfied with it! I expected a lot more information about the actual environnement of women healthcare; I must say I did not expected such an economic angle especially on the second chapter about lower class women, but it was defenitly really interesting. The point of view of the book is strongly feminist: we can feel an hanger and a strong will to denounce and change the political system which rev ...more
Roksolana Mashkova
I really enjoyed the historic part and I believe it’s an essential read, but I don’t fully subscribe to the manifesto-like conclusion, although it’s very anarchist in spirit, which resonates with me. However, insisting on suspicion of medical science as such has some very real dangers, such as anti-vaccination beliefs. I think we can do our own research and fight against the patronizing attitude of medicine without necessarily denying the science behind it. I concede that the authors’ stance mig ...more
Laura Biscaglia
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A lot of this book’s content is probably not new to anyone who has done even a little bit of feminist studies. But if you keep in mind that it was first published in 1973, it’s easy to realise how groundbreaking it must have been, in its placing of public health and medical history at the heart of female subjugation in the United States.
It's definitely of its era but this holds up fairly well from my memory of it from...undergrad? It gets intersectional to a degree at the end, but it does completely miss any grasp of the intersection of gender identity/sexuality on the issue. ...more
Sep 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
'In classical psychoanalytic theory there is no such thing as a mentally well woman.' ...more
Feb 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Required reading.
Al Capwned
Interesting pamphlet about the history of misogyny in medicine plus arguing that it could still be a thing today.
May 18, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Women
A very tiny book about how the begining of modern medicine for women. Quite scary at times.
Dec 16, 2008 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
hm this looks really good...
Feb 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting. I wish there was a book. 90 pages is not enough.
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Barbara Ehrenreich is an American journalist and the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including the bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harpers and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time Magazine.

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