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Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies in the Health Humanities



This research focuses primarily on the intersection between gender, sexuality, and medicine. Beginning with historical texts and exploring the work of ancient philosophers through the development of modern medicine, this project progresses to a study of modern texts related to current relations between medicine and gender/sexuality. Though it may not be the primary area of study, any research into relations between medicine and gender would not be complete without also examining the connections between race, gender, and medicine, as it is impossible to fully explore the intricacies of gender and sex and their relationship to the healthcare field without also exploring how race shapes an individual’s interactions with the medical field.

Source: The British Museum

Ancient Medicine

450 B.C.E. to 1600 C.E.

Beginning with the birth of Hippocratic Medicine and expanding into the Middle Ages, the precursors to modern medicine are confusing, often conflicting, and absolutely essential to understanding the modern contexts through which we understand medicine today. While Aristotle's assertion that a female is, essentially, "a mutilated male" and Trotula's suggestion that a woman consume the powdered testicles of a hare in order to conceive a male child may seem far from modern medical science, one can trace clear threads throughout history leading from these ancient texts to current attitudes and practices. While the four humors theory is no longer supported by evidence-based science, many plants from Avicenna's list of herbs used to treat abnormal uterine bleeding have studied medicinal purposes. While science is now able to recognize that menstrual blood is not the result of the female body purging toxins due to its relative coldness in comparison to the male body, there still exist in society many harmful stereotypes and assumptions about menstruation. For further reading, see the texts listed below and visit our archive. 

Suggested Readings
  • Hippocratic Writings

  • On the Generation of Animals by Aristotle

  • The Canon of Medicine of Avicenna

  • "Women's Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe" by Monica Green

  • The Trotula, translated by Monica H. Green

  • Medicine, Religion and Gender in Medieval Culture, edited by Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa

Exercises for Students
  • Analyzing any of the statements from the "Aphorisms" section of Hippocratic Writings, compare these statements to current scientific knowledge.

    • Which statements would be considered accurate even today?​

    • Which statements have traces of truth to them?

    • Which statements seem completely nonsensical to the modern reader?


Source: Vrouwengeheimen: gynaecologie in de middeleeuwen" by Margreet Brandsma

Development of Modern Medicine

1600 to 1950

From wandering uteruses to obstetrical machines to penis envy, the road to current scientific understanding has been paved with racism, misogyny, elitism, and prejudice. Efforts to control the female body and maintain the established societal patriarchy have often gone hand-in-hand with the practice of medicine. For centuries, physicians have built empires of prestige, admiration, and wealth from the systemic abuse of women, with poor women and women of color often being the most common targets. The early 1600s saw the advent of male physicians realizing that they could profit from obstetric practice, both monetarily and in the ability to take the control reproduction from women. James Marion Sims is still celebrated as the father of modern gynecology, and yet the enslaved women he experimented on without consent and without anesthetic died in bondage. Sigmund Freud built a career out of dismissing his patients' claims of sexual assault by burying them in victim-blaming rhetoric. These prejudices are yet not erased from society, and they continue to leak into medical practice. To learn more, explore the suggested readings below and visit the archive for a full annotated bibliography. 

Suggested Readings
  • The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, edited by Andrew Mangham and Greta Depledge

  • Medical Bondage by Deirdre Cooper Owens

  • From Hysteria to Hormones by Amy Koerber

  • Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria by Sigmund Freud

  • "The Freudian Coverup" by Florence Rush

Exercises for Students
  • After reading Medical Bondage, examine links between these nineteenth century atrocities and the case of Henrietta Lacks.


Source: The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, edited by Andrew Mangham and Greta Depledge

Modern Medicine

1950 to 2020

The last seventy years have marked a great transformation in global understandings of medicine, science, gender, and sexuality. 

In comparing Kinsey's analysis of female sexuality to modern understandings and attitudes about sex and the human body, one may identify many similarities and many differences. Stigma surrounding sexuality, particularly in relation to women's sexuality, still permeates through the current sociopolitical climate. Though attitudes about sex and reproduction have progressed greatly over the past seventy years, society still invests much political and social interest in controlling women's sexuality. Those who bear the largest brunt of this particular brand of oppression are often women of color. The racist and misogynistic legacies of the early days of medicine still remain in modern healthcare practices and in society, sacrificing the health and safety of the nation's most underprivileged populations. 

Over the nearly seventy years between the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female and today, the United States has experienced an awareness of new, more nuanced meanings of gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality, with many of these changes happening rapidly within the last decade alone. In understanding sexuality, gender, and even phenotypic sex as a spectrum, society is slowly learning to become a more welcoming and accepting place, and healthcare providers are learning to provide better, more comprehensive, and more inclusive care to all of their patients. 

Though much progress has been made, there is still much progress left to go, especially in medicine. Healthcare is practiced by humans, and no human is immune from bias. It is only through acknowledgment, humility, understanding, and lifelong learning that providers can best benefit their patients and allow the medical field to fully and respectfully serve every single person that needs its care. 

Suggested Readings
  • Sexual Behavior in the Human Female by Kinsey, et al. (Parts I and II)

  • The Pride Guide by Jo Langford

  • Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts

Exercises for Students
  • In comparing all three sections of this project, identify one aspect or attitude of medicine and society that has persisted throughout history, and one that has greatly changed. This may be easier in comparing texts from different sections of the project. Suggested comparisons are below. 

    • Medical Bondage & Killing the Black Body

      • What connections can be made between the control of and experimentation ​on enslaved women's bodies and the government regulations which discourage and demonize Black women's reproduction in modern day?

    • Hippocratic Writings and/or On the Generation of Animals & From Hysteria to Hormones

      • How has the concept of the "wandering uterus" changed throughout time?​

    • "Women's Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe" The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, chapters 4 and 6

      • What were the motivations of majority-male physicians in establishing themselves as superior to mostly-female midwives and in taking over as the primary providers in birth?

    • The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, chapters 8 and 10 & Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, chapter 5

      • How are attitudes about female masturbation reflected in the contexts of both literature and science?​

  • Below is a resource for understanding the spectrums of gender identity, expression, attraction, and sex. Check out for more information on this diagram.

Contact the Researcher
Maya Albanowski
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