Transnational Narratives of the Healthy Body: Medicine, Disability, and the Law in Modern Mexico and the United States

AHA Session 64
American Society for Legal History 3
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Christopher Tomlins, University of California, Berkeley
Christopher Tomlins, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

Drawing on a range of legal and medical narratives culled from court records, newspapers, internal company documents, and medical journals, the panel will examine how professionals from a range of arenas—lawyers, doctors, and employers—constructed narratives of the healthy physical and mental body over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States and Mexico.  As the papers demonstrate, courtrooms and tribunals of arbitration served as places in which individuals from both nations engaged in contests over who had the authority to define and describe the body.  Although the outcomes of these negotiations had very real consequences for individual’s lives, these cases raised broader questions about definitions of citizenship, particularly who possessed the power to declare people able to claim the rights associated with being citizens. Building on scholarship from the law, disability studies, and the history of medicine, the panelists will complicate traditional narratives of nineteenth and twentieth century US and Mexican history. In doing so, the panelists will speak to a broad audience interested in the connections between the body, constructions of citizenship, and nation-building.

Employing inquest and court records focusing on infant death and infanticide from the United States, Felicity Turner’s paper will examine how ideas about women’s bodies and the language used to describe them gradually changed over the course of the nineteenth century as medicine increasingly professionalized.  Turner argues that as the United States debated and expanded the meanings of citizenship during Reconstruction, authorship of narratives about women’s physical bodies and bodily functions shifted from women to men. The transition mirrored the ways in which legal options for women contracted, rather than expanded, after the Civil War. 

Nate Holdren’s paper engages with the dilemmas presented to employers by disabled employees who suffered further debilitating injuries “on the job” in the early twentieth century United States.  Focusing on lawsuits brought by these employees against their employers, Holdren examines how courts negotiated and defined competing ideas about what constituted able-bodied and the appropriate financial compensation for loss of physical abilities and capacities.

Chantel Rodríguez’s paper investigates how the promulgation of Mexico’s Federal Labor Law in 1931 made legible the rights Mexican Pullman employees had in the physical and emotional injuries they endured while working on the Pullman Company’s transnational sleeping car lines between Mexico and the United States.  Drawing from Pullman Company records, Rodríguez argues that Mexico’s Federal Board of Conciliation and Arbitration interpreted and administered the Federal Labor Law in such a way that not only defined disability, but also forged a connection between health security and Mexican citizenship.

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