New Directions in Disability and Gender Scholarship: Science, Medicine, and the Construction of Healthy Citizens in the Long 20th Century

AHA Session 245
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 7
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Lindsey Patterson, Elmhurst College
Martin S. Pernick, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Session Abstract

The idea of disability as category of historical analysis allows us to reexamine classic questions in the history of the United States, and is a particularly useful framework for probing the cultural meanings of manhood and womanhood in nineteenth and twentieth century society. This panel will explore how changing definitions of disability in these eras impacted the ways society has understood both the public and private roles of men and women. New medical treatments in the nineteenth century, coupled with the emerging sciences of eugenics and genetics in the twentieth, created notions of the ideal citizen and family member. Yet the creation of these personas was complicated by the patients themselves, and their own conceptualization of the meaning of disability. They often appropriated medical knowledge in order to redefine their identity as healthy and normal citizens with the ability to contribute to society. The interaction of medical and scientific authority with patient agency transformed notions of who was healthy and fit in surprising ways. Lauren MacIvor Thompson’s paper considers how medical opinions about disability and eugenics shaped not only numerous state laws regarding marriage, sterilizations and confinement, but also how eugenic ideals became important in the fight for women’s rights and the legalization of birth control. Women’s rights reformers remade the idea of female disability, both legal and medical, into one of female strength and sexual choice. Jacqueline Antonovich’s paper explores disability in the American West, probing its connections to the frontier rhetoric of health and masculinity. The ill and disabled flocked to places like Colorado to improve their health, even as it raised enormous anxieties for urban officials about the negative influence these new inhabitants posed to the rest of the city and the meaning of manhood. Adam Turner examines disability and how it mediated gendered expectations of the family in the twentieth century postwar era. He finds that the expansion in genetic testing for developmental disabilities reframed understandings of how to deal with disability in families. Exploring these changes illustrates how the expectations and demands of motherhood changed rapidly in the twentieth century. Together, the papers probe how ideas about disability not only deeply shaped the daily experiences of ordinary Americans, but sharply defined their status as men, women, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and citizens. The panel aims to add to our historical understanding in two ways. We probe how disability has directly influenced and been contextualized by the larger histories of medicine, science, and the law. Moreover, we will show the deep entanglement of histories of gender and disability in the American story.

See more of: AHA Sessions