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The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction

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A bold reappraisal of science and society, The Woman in the Body explores the different ways that women's reproduction is seen in American culture. Contrasting the views of medical science with those of ordinary women from diverse social and economic backgrounds, anthropologist Emily Martin presents unique fieldwork on American culture and uncovers the metaphors of economy and alienation that pervade women's imaging of themselves and their bodies. A new preface examines some of the latest medical ideas about women's reproductive cycles.

312 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1987

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Emily Martin

123 books45 followers

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5 stars
147 (36%)
4 stars
168 (41%)
3 stars
68 (16%)
2 stars
16 (3%)
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3 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews
Profile Image for Christy.
113 reviews270 followers
December 12, 2016
This takes an anthropological look at how science expanded into gynocological practices that often seemed more horrific and damaging than helping to women. Martin does a great job at connecting the desire to shape and control both the ideology and the practice of women's reproductive capacities with the rise of medical practice as science in the 17th and 18th centuries. You cannon unsee the set of historical pictures of instruments that have been used on women's bodies, often as much to control as to support, including birthing instruments that would save the baby but wreck the woman.
Profile Image for Sarah.
23 reviews5 followers
August 12, 2008
This is the first time that I’ve ever wanted to finish a book of which only certain chapters were assigned for class. Simply put, it’s fantastic and everyone should read it. It forced me to look critically at so many of the things I took for granted – the objectivity of scientific fact, the metaphors we use daily to talk about menstruation and reproduction, etc. And Emily Martin’s writing style is totally engaging and easy to read – I’ve never had assigned reading speed by so quickly.
Profile Image for Kristi  Siegel.
192 reviews596 followers
January 1, 2010
Medical viewpoints and terminology may be used as an index to gauge the way society views a woman’s body. As various critics have noted, the language of women’s health care—particularly concerning reproduction and sexual practice—could be described as the “rhetoric of peril.” Ever since male physicians began to take charge of childbirth and women’s health care in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a woman has been seen as innately weak, a frail vessel whose well-being is closely tied to her hormones, ovaries, and womb.

Emily Martin, in her excellent study, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, explains that prior to the eighteenth century, men and women’s bodies were considered “structurally similar”; women’s genitals were simply inside the body, while men’s were outside (27). By the early eighteenth century, these views began to change. As Martin points out, the scientific “proof” that men and women were fundamentally and biologically different served to solidify and define their social roles because these differences “were grounded in nature, by virtue of the dictates of their bodies” (32).

The ideological shift in medical rhetoric becomes critically important as it served to keep women in their place; a woman who rejected being relegated to the domestic sphere not only waged a war against “Nature” itself, but also could be labeled unnatural (32). When men and women’s bodies were considered roughly analogous, a woman’s bodily functions were explained in relation to those of a man’s and thus were considered normal.

Once men and women were deemed fundamentally different, a woman’s bodily functions provoked more scrutiny. As Martin explains, menstruation, ovulation, menopause, and birth—formerly considered normal processes of a woman’s body—were now viewed as pathological states (32–67). Consequently, it was not only morally proper for a woman to stick to home and hearth but also a matter of safety: A woman’s inherently diseased body required the care of her husband and the constant surveillance of (male) physicians.

from an earlier publication
Profile Image for Christine.
283 reviews15 followers
October 23, 2018
It took a lot of time to decide between a 2 and 3 star rating for this book, in the end I went with 2.

I found this book on the campus bookstore for an anthropology class, and being a masters level social worker, a doula, and someone interested in a doctorate in anthropology, I was eager to give it a read.

On page 195 Emily sites Ludwig Wittgenstein - a philosopher - by saying, "Experimenters assume a certain worldview before they begin to investigate, and their investigations do not call their worldview into question." In reading this book, it seems ironic and obvious that Emily did not see this in her own research and writing of this book until years later when it was pointed out to her. She addresses her biases and falling in to this in the revised introduction to her book, however she did not go through and correct the biased writing.

Additionally, I struggled with the set up of this book. The first 60 or so pages are giving a history of sciences view on the body, around page 70 the author starts talking about her research, and it isn't until page 100 that she even mentions her findings. It seemed as though someone else's writings accidentally got published into her book, very confusing.

The book itself is far outdated. I am surprised that it is still being used in anthropology classes in college because there have to be more up-to-date options available. Had I known it was written in the 1980s I doubt I would have read it. The medical field and birth have changed drastically in the 30 years since it was published.

And finally, Emily has a definite bias against hospitals and doctors and towards natural births in the home. With such a strong bias, her writings on the matter can only be taken as a grain of salt. She never once mentions that a lot of women are happy with their hospital births or tragedies that sometimes come with a home birth. She has chosen examples that vilify ALL DOCTORS and presents them in a sadistic, dangerous manner. Her role in writing this book was to present what her research was finding, but with regards to laboring women, she did not do so in an unbiased manner.
Profile Image for Danielle.
198 reviews22 followers
April 18, 2013
This was an interesting read that made me really think about how I view myself and how I view health systems. Parts of this were hard to read, but in a good way. I did feel like a section on nutrition would have been good and I after reading this, I felt like I never knew the conclusions of her research. I definitely do commend Martin for doing research in a part of Anthropology that has been neglected!
Profile Image for Debbie Bateman.
Author 4 books19 followers
June 16, 2019
I don't know about you, but I am sick and tired of reading about the decline of a woman's body after menopause: senile ovaries, atrophied vaginas and so on. This book looks under the hood of our culture and asks why this kind of language is used and the impact it has on us as women. Although it was written in 1987, this book still raises a loud voice for all women. A must read.
Profile Image for Fraser Sherman.
Author 10 books29 followers
February 28, 2019
I assumed, incorrectly, this would be a broader look at culture and reproduction, but it's a specialized anthropological work, focusing on late 20th century (when the book came out) attitudes — women's, doctors', society's — about giving birth, menstruation and menopause. As Martin sees it, the default medical assumption is that women's bodies are a machine and judged for not being regular (menstruation fluctuates and menopause is a breakdown) whereas women are a little more calm about it. Interesting in spots, but too densely academic in style and ultimately not what I was looking to read about.
Profile Image for Bec Daniels.
89 reviews
April 23, 2020
Does a lot to identify the sexism in medical texts and the ways in which our society is set up to control, dominate, and dismiss women. Distinctly second-wave feminist; it was a bit terfy since it defines womanhood by bodily processes, though these processes are importantly observed as a historical means of oppression.
Profile Image for Isabell.
29 reviews8 followers
March 15, 2019
If you have an interest in women, women's issues, medicine, history or basically anything else. You will want to read this.
Profile Image for Chanel Earl.
Author 10 books37 followers
September 27, 2021
Fascinating. After reading two chapters for book club, I borrowed this and finished it. The book discusses how women view menstruation, pregnancy, PMS, childbirth, menopause and more.

It was fascinating to read about the metaphors we use to describe the experiences we have (childbirth as a form of production, menstruation as a failed attempt at production) and to reconsider how I view my own body and culture. This book challenged a lot of my beliefs about what women experience, and it made me look more closely at many of my own assumptions.

Among some of the fascinating details were descriptions of menstruation that question the commonly held belief that women are at a mental and physical disadvantage while they are having their period, descriptions of how women have resisted the cultural expectations set up for them during labor and have labored a their own pace and in their own way in spite of pressures coming from doctors and family members, and some analysis about how being a woman means different things in different economic classes and for different races.

This is a great read if you don't mind academic writing (it's not quick) and if you want to be made to think about things differently.

In all honesty, I did skip a few pages here and there when the point was clear.
Profile Image for Beth Melillo.
148 reviews15 followers
December 31, 2015
A reminder that the way we perceive the world is filtered through cultural motifs which seem "right" or "true" at the time. In this instance, viewing the body as strictly medical is what Emily Martin combats. Particularly I was impressed with her attack on the view of menstruation as "failure" to produce children when globally most women now birth fewer than 3 in their lifetime. She advocates for viewing menstruation as a "success" in that most women are hoping to not conceive for the vast majority of their cycles.

She has a strong Marxist take on the aspects (especially birth) she covers and this is very clear throughout the entire book.
Profile Image for Emily.
205 reviews19 followers
October 19, 2013
This book has the potential to be very empowering for women at important stages in their life. It also reminds them to re-think the terms they use and allow others to use towards them, as these terms tap into wider discourses which are deeply harmful. Martin encourages women to re-appropriate their bodies:

'[W]omen - whose bodily experience is denigrated and demolished by models implying failed production, waste,' - menstruation - 'decay, and breakdown' - menopause - 'have it literally within them to confront the story science tells us with another story, based in their own experience.' (pg. 197)
Profile Image for Mia.
149 reviews53 followers
June 7, 2018
This was a really interesting and important look at the medical narratives that surround women. I found myself nodding along to most of Martin's analyses but there were a few points that gave me pause -- namely the parts that might encourage women to possibly put themselves in unnecessary pain, discomfort, or danger.

I also really enjoyed Martin's style of writing (it was almost poetic at times) but I wasn't a big fan of how she ends her chapters. They never seemed to wrap up neatly. Perhaps this was on purpose, but I always found myself a little surprised and jolted to discover I had come to the end of a chapter. Not to my personal taste.
Profile Image for Jen.
22 reviews10 followers
September 15, 2007
Reading this book for a Medical Anthropology class inspired me to learn more about women's bodies and ways to respect them inside and outside a biomedical context. One of my favorite books, especially the chapter that discusses pre-menstrual time as creative and communal.
Profile Image for Pearl.
55 reviews
December 27, 2007
Beyond the fact that the writer of this work was my thesis mentor, the book is an amazing piece of feminist literature. It's an eye opening account of what it means to be both a woman and also a machine, a something, an other, a not-a-man. But the book is never truly negative, simply enlightening.
Profile Image for Sonia.
30 reviews
January 5, 2010
Martin's seminal work on the gendered nature and gendered organization of health and medicine is a must for anyone interested in understanding how health literature, knowledge, and practice attach and reflect notions of gender.
Profile Image for Tessa.
26 reviews
May 2, 2007
Pushed me towards my undergrad thesis topic--if you're at all intersted in the anthropology of the body or general cultural analysis of biomedicine, this is a great place to start
Profile Image for Pamela.
45 reviews2 followers
May 29, 2007
What a cool book. Changed the way I thought about modern medicine and it's relationship with women's bodies. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Marianne.
15 reviews1 follower
June 3, 2007
I read this for a class, and it really got me thinking about the female body and the medical establishment. Definitely recommend this book!
Profile Image for nicole.
76 reviews3 followers
October 2, 2007
she's very smart. extroardinarily. read about the sperm and the egg in a different book. excellent essay.
Profile Image for Erin.
68 reviews2 followers
April 28, 2008
One of those books that really changes the way you look at something you once thought was simple fact.
Profile Image for Katrina Mann.
25 reviews
June 10, 2008
A must read primer for feminist/gender studies! Martin exploded the male bias that operates in medicine, particularly obstetrics and gynecology. Fascinating beyond measure!
12 reviews2 followers
May 29, 2009
the book is amazing, and a must read for *everybody* indeed to see how medicine makes us vulnerable.
Profile Image for Kari.
19 reviews
December 30, 2010
All I can say is that this book changed my entire worldview. A wonderful sociological commentary.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews

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