Each day over the next week I’ll post up an abstract for a paper being presented by a member of the Critical Physiotherapy Network at the In Sickness and In Health conference in Mallorca in June 2015. (You can find more information on the conference here.)
Suffrage suspended? Counter-narratives of womens’ quest for professional legitimacy
A great deal has been written about the role the suffrage movement played in the development of nursing and midwifery during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much of this research points to roles played by middle- and upper-class women in professionalizing socially validated notions of caring, and the importance of this in demarcating practice territories that complemented the work of (male) physicians. Little attention has been paid, however, to the development of new professional identities for women at the margins of nursing and midwifery. In 1895, the Society of Trained Masseuses (STM) was formed by a small group of nurses and midwives in an attempt to legitimize massage and establish it as a worthy career for educated women. Many of the Society’s founders were firmly committed to female suffrage, yet evidence suggests that they knowingly adopted overtly androcentric ideologies to establish their profession’s subordinate relationship to medicine. Critically, members of the STM took advantage of neurasthenia – one of the most prevalent disorders of the late nineteenth century – to establish their credibility. The preferred treatment for neurasthenia was known as the Rest Cure, an approach that has been heavily criticised for the paternalistic, infantilizing attitudes of it’s male proponents. The Rest Cure involved strict isolation, force feeding, and a range of passive therapies that would become the basis of the STM’s scope of practice. In this paper I argue that the women who founded the STM used neurasthenic women to establish their legitimacy and create a new professional identity that manifests today as physiotherapy. I argue that physiotherapy may be the first female-dominated profession to make a virtue of overtly androcentric ideologies in order to establish and legitimize new professional roles for women.