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Women, Health and Medicine in Britain 1870-1980 - 30 credits (HS1893)

Module Teacher: Dr Tracey Loughran

Course Description

This module investigates women’s changing experiences of health and medicine in Britain, c. 1870-1930. It examines women’s relations to medical power as patients, practitioners, and consumers; female experiences of health and illness; and the social and cultural construction of gendered medical knowledge. We will explore women’s institutional, professional, and popular involvement with medicine, as well as women’s experiences of health, illness and medicine ‘from cradle to grave’. Key themes explored throughout the module include the creation, dissemination, and reception of medical knowledge, and ideas of health and illness, in a range of arenas, such as medical texts, advice literature, and women’s magazines; the interrelations of social, institutional, and technological change; the potentialities and problems of different kinds of evidence; the tension between private practices and public discourses; and the interaction between the histories of women, health, and medicine, and other social, cultural, and political histories of modern Britain

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures, seminar discussion of major issues and workshops for the study of primary source material. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

Seminar and Source Workshops:
The primary aim of the sessions will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants, focused in particular on primary source material. Seminars and source workshops for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students:

(a) to discuss topics or issues introduced by the lectures,

or (b) to discuss related themes, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures.

and (c) to analyse different types of primary sources available, discussing the principal ways in which they can be used by historians.

Seminars and source workshops will provide the student with guidance on how to critically approach the various types of primary source material. Preparation for seminars and workshops will focus on specific items from the sources and related background reading, with students preparing answers to questions provided for each session. Both seminars and source workshops will provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues with fellow students. Classes will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes, with the results presented as part of an overall class debate at the end of the session.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words.

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

  • medical models of femininity, including concepts of mind-body relations;
  • popular ideas of femininity, such as the relation between health, beauty, and ideal womanhood;
  • women and the medical professions;
  • the interaction of different groups of women, such as feminists, mothers, and ‘new women’ with medical discourses of femininity;
  • ideas of war, peace, and femininity;
  • birth control, social change, and narratives of ‘sexual liberation’;
  • the relation of women’s health to ideas of motherhood, work, and family roles;
  • women’s experiences of bodily events such as menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth.

Learning outcomes

  • analyse key events in the history of women, health, and medicine in Britain, 1870-1980
  • discuss with reference to modern historical scholarship selected topics in the social and cultural history of women, health and medicine in modern Britain, including women’s institutional, professional and popular involvement with medicine; gendered representations of health; women’s experiences of health, illness, and medicine at crucial stages in the female life cycle; and important social and technological changes
  • assess how medical knowledge was created, disseminated, and received in a range of forums such as magazines, novels, and films throughout the period covered by the module
  • critically evaluate the interrelation of social, institutional, and technological change in women’s experiences of health and illness
  • demonstrate a critical understanding of the potentialities and problems of different kinds of evidence (demographical, textual, ‘scientific’, personal, visual) which can be used to discover the histories of women and medicine

Knowledge and Understanding:

  • demonstrate a broad and systematic knowledge of the history of women, health and medicine in Britain, 1870-1980
  • critically identify different trends in women’s relations to medical knowledge and power throughout the period
  • demonstrate an in-depth and critical understanding of concepts of gender, medicine, science, technology, and cultural construction, and how these concepts have been deployed in historical and historiographical writing on women, health, and medicine
  • analyse key themes and issues in the social and cultural history of women, health, and medicine in the light of these ideas, contexts, and frameworks

Intellectual Skills:

  • identify the nature and scope of the issues raised by the social and cultural history of women, health and medicine in Britain, 1870-1980
  • discuss in a critical and informed manner the history of women, health and medicine in Britain during this period
  • summarise and critically evaluate the relative merits and demerits of alternative views and interpretations about the relations of gender, medicine, and power in modern Britain, and evaluate their significance
  • identify problems, assess evidence, and reach independent conclusions on the social and cultural history of women, health, and medicine
  • devise and sustain arguments about women, health, and medicine using ideas or techniques including concepts of gender, power, and cultural construction
  • present, accurately, succinctly, and lucidly, and in written or oral form, their arguments in accordance with appropriate scholarly conventions

Discipline Specific (including practical) Skills:

  • express their ideas on and assessments of the relations of women to health and medicine in Britain, 1870-1980
  • discuss in a critical and informed manner the social and cultural history of gender, health and medicine
  • identify strengths, weaknesses, problems, and/or peculiarities of alternative historical/ historiographical interpretations
  • use and evaluate a range of relevant primary sources and demonstrate an appreciation of how historians have approached them

Suggested preparatory reading

Lucinda McCray Beier, For their own good: the transformation of English working-class health culture, 1880-1970 (2008).
Lesley Hall, Sex, gender and social change in Britain since 1880 (2000).
Anne Hardy, Health and Medicine in Britain since 1860 (2000).
Helen Jones, Health and Society in Twentieth-century Britain (1994).
Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: images of gender in science and medicine between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries (1989).
Elizabeth Roberts, A Woman’s Place: an oral history of working-class women 1890-1940 (1984).
Elizabeth Roberts, Women and families: an oral history, 1940-1970 (1995).
Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (ed.), Women in Twentieth-Century Britain (2001).