Health and Wellness
Strange Pain, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Womb: A Teacher’s Reflection on Bodies in History

Strange Pain, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Womb: A Teacher’s Reflection on Bodies in History

[gblockquote source=’Bettina Judd, patient.‘]HOW TO MEASURE PAIN I

In the woman it is a checklist:

Can you imagine anything
worse than this?

If the answer is no, ask again.[/gblockquote]

In fall 2015, I taught a first-year writing class called “Womb Trouble.” I don’t know if it was a very good class. I was a first-time adjunct not quite out of grad school, tasked with teaching writing to freshmen barely five years younger than me, and I latched onto the text I knew best: the womb, and the curious medical and social history that’s swirled around it throughout the American past. I assigned Rachel Maines, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and I led my students through writing projects that prodded at Americans’ consistently troubled relationship with the life-giving organ.

Also in fall 2015, I began to experience some “womb trouble” of my own. My period, never a predictable concern, became trickier than ever, arriving at odd intervals with unexpected waves of pain, and something that wasn’t quite nausea, fever, or exhaustion, but a combination of all three: a kind of strangeness I couldn’t name. Around Thanksgiving, my period came early and with a vengeance I’d never experienced before in my ten years of frequently painful periods. Alarmed at the Kubrick-esque activity going on in my body, I cancelled “Womb Trouble” and curled up in bed around a hot water bottle.

After Christmas, I went to see my doctor. I told her what had been happening — the pain, the endless bleeding, the overpowering sense that something strange was happening to my body — and waited to hear her response.

“Hmm,” she said. “Some bleeding is normal on the pill, you know.”

“This much?”

She shrugged. “Sometimes. Let’s put you on a different prescription and see what happens.”

The strange pain didn’t leave me. It returned at consistent intervals for a year, dragging my body down, throwing it out of balance. A month ago, an ultrasound revealed that I’ve been suffering from ovarian cysts for upwards of two years: tiny pockets of blood that can send pain and an uncanny feeling of malfunction throughout the body. In my case, they had ruptured countless times, accounting for the extra weight and pain of my monthly cycle. A simple explanation; an easy prescription change. My pain dissolved. My body, at last, went back to normal.

In the history of wombs and the bodies that carry them, certain words appear again and again, collecting meanings and ambiguities with each repetition. Mystery. Strange. Pain. Normal. Over time, these words have blended together into a set of associations around this single organ: The womb is a mystery. The womb is strange. What is strange is normal. Pain is normal.

"Pelvic douche" was used as a treatment for hysteria in the 19th century.
“Pelvic douche” was used as a treatment for hysteria in the 19th century.

The history of the womb teaches us above all that the womb is strange, a mysteriously flexible, mobile organ that’s been used to explain everything from the winter blues to violent murder, a source of unexpected power and a site of inexpressible suffering. It is a political arena, a part of personality, an organ with a mind of its own. In the same way that doctors once imagined the womb traveling throughout the body, causing pain and illness to erupt in whichever part it came to settle, the womb travels through history, touching off anxiety and uncertainty wherever it appears.

And, as I learned in my own adventure with that unpredictable, powerful organ, the ambiguity and unease that the womb generated in history echoes in today’s medical system: in my doctor’s inability to see my pain as a sign of something wrong, in my two years of confusion and consternation, and in the stupidity I felt even complaining about my pain — which was, after all, surely a natural consequence of having a uterus in the first place. My situation is not unique. Around the time my trouble started, The Atlantic published an article (written, interestingly, by a man) on the phenomenon, explaining “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously.” In the comments on this article alone, hundreds of women chimed in with their own stories of strange pain and snubs from doctors who refused to believe their own accounts of their bodies. Pain, we’ve learned, is itself gendered, rendered more inscrutable and perhaps more acceptable simply by association with the womb and with the female gender.

But as I reflect on these questions, on my experience and the ways in which it reflects the history I teach, I realize that for all the silence and mystery surrounding wombs like mine, there is an accompanying, and perhaps contradictory, obsession. For centuries, physicians, philosophers, and historians alike have focused a strong, if often distorting light, on the wombs of white women and on the strange symptoms they seem to generate. The business of gynecology boomed in the late nineteenth century; the topics of female weakness and “feminine troubles” tinged popular discourse; the serene white face of Lydia Pinkham was everywhere.

Painting of Anarcha Wescott and J. Marion Sims. (Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Pearson Museum)
Painting of Anarcha Wescott and J. Marion Sims. (Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Pearson Museum)

The history of the womb has focused overwhelmingly on white women — but in fact, medicine’s understanding of the womb was developed from the bodies of black women. And black women who speak about their pain are met with even less sympathy and understanding than white women. The poet Bettina Judd, whose poem I quoted at the beginning of this post, described her own “ordeal with medicine” to NPR: a sudden, debilitating pain in her abdomen met with a string of dismissals and misdiagnoses; a pain which eventually turned out to be a dangerous case of ovarian torsion. In her collection, titled patient., Judd reflects on the frustration and helplessness of her experience, and how it repeats a refrain begun in the 1840s in the operating room of physician J. Marion Sims, where he experimented on three enslaved women named Lucy Zimmermann, Betsey Harris, and Anarcha Wescott. His experiments resulted, famously, in the invention of the speculum. The names of Zimmermann, Harris, and Wescott have never become a part of the historical narrative. In another article in The Atlantic on the invention of the curious duck-billed instrument, Rose Eveleth simply calls them “slave women.”

As I taught “Womb Trouble,” I found myself constantly repeating a certain phrase: “Remember, we’re talking here about mainly white, middle-class, Protestant women.” That trio of privileges colors (whitewashes?) the dominant narrative of the history of the womb so thoroughly that it’s difficult to see anything else. For every Charlotte Perkins Gilman, there is a Lucy Zimmermann; for every Elizabeth Blackwell, a Rebecca Lee Crumpler, and I have to ask myself: if my history only includes Charlotte and Elizabeth, is it of any use at all?

The trouble, it turns out, was in my syllabus as much as it was in my body. It lies not so much in the womb but in the way we treat, label, and historicize the people who possess wombs, in the names we revere and the names we forget, in the pain that gets addressed and the pain that gets ignored, and in the intersection of the different forms of pain applied to each individual body. It’s a trouble that echoes through bodies and waiting rooms today as much as it did in the nineteenth century. Our history hasn’t solved the problem yet — perhaps because, like my doctor, we aren’t listening.

R.E. Fulton earned a master's degree in American History at the University of Rochester in 2015. Their master's thesis dealt with popular texts on abortion written by physicians in the mid-19th century, and previous research has focused on science fiction publishing in the mid-twentieth century. A student of medical historians who vowed never to become a historian of science, Fulton is now fascinated by questions surrounding history, medicine, print culture, feminism, and popular science.

6 thoughts on “Strange Pain, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Womb: A Teacher’s Reflection on Bodies in History

    • Author gravatar

      RE, I always love your pieces but this might be my new favorite. And I’d love to see your syllabus from that class!

      • Author gravatar

        Thank you; I’d love to send it to you! As I wrote here, I think it’s due for a revision, but it was a joy to bring some of these “classic” texts to a class of freshmen.

    • Author gravatar

      Great piece! I’m going to have my students read this next semester.

    • Author gravatar

      I’m glad you had a reasonably good outcome. I too have had useful thoughts about medicine while in hospital or otherwise under treatment.

      Examples of the speculum have been found at Pompeii.

      Hysteria is one of those diagnoses that have vanished from official lists, although it remains embedded in popular discourse as a dismissive description among both women and men, having lost its association with the womb.

      Frenzy and schizophrenia are both derived from the notion that the mind was in the midriff, phren. The movement of the womb was one of the factors leading to pressure on the phren. However, the mind in the midriff is not found in the later Hippocratic texts, and hysteria is not in any.

      I wouldn’t want to deny the exploitation of slaves and free blacks by many disciplines in American medicine, but do you really think that there was no relevant research in Europe? It is a pity that histories of medicine focus on much earlier debates,.


      • Author gravatar

        “do you really think that there was no relevant research in Europe?”

        David, RE pretty explicitly states that their article is about their experiences teaching, by and large, the American medical/social relationship with the womb (and the “female body”) in general, and “Americans’ consistently troubled relationship with the life-giving organ.” So European research might not be enormously relevant.

        That said, I’d also caution against assuming European womb trouble, so to speak, was somehow innocent in regards to the “medical” (and nonconsensual) exploitation of nonwhite women’s bodies. Saartjie Baartman, the woman whose body might well have served as the founding sight of 19th century scientific racism (to vastly oversimplify, of course, but the “Hottentot Venus” and her caricature traveled far and wide), was toured around Europe.

    • Author gravatar

      This is a great piece. I heard those NPR stories on the slave women and was really moved by them. I’d love to see thst syllabus as well. Thanks for the insight, and I’m glad you’re feeling better!

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