Historical essay
The (Historical) Body in Pain

The (Historical) Body in Pain

For the last decade, I’ve been reading and writing about other women’s pain. Contractions lasting 72 hours. Feverish deliriums after a punctured uterus. A woman beaten with a tree branch. I study the history of gender and medicine, and my book manuscript examines the parallel processes of the medicalization of childbirth and the criminalization of abortion in early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the beginning, my sources — criminal cases, clinical notes, medical dissertations — were hard to stomach.

I cringed every time I read about a botched abortion procedure, such as when Maria Bessa’s uterus and small intestines were punctured during a curettage abortion. I audibly reacted to the fact that Olympia Octavia da Faria waited an entire day for her husband to come home from work to call a midwife despite painful contractions. Tears came to my eyes when Olivia Nogueira da Gama described stabbing her newborn child in the neck.1

But soon, to get through the hundreds of sources I had in front of me, I became numb. I annotated each maternal or infant death matter-of-factly — as just another data point on my ever-growing spreadsheet. At a conference several years into my graduate school career, an audience member asked me how I read the horrible stories that I was so calmly relaying to them. My answer, to me at least, was unsatisfactory. I don’t think about it, I said. I read so many sources; I didn’t have time to dwell on the unsettling and upsetting details.

Engraving of a woman lying in repose, surrounded by other women. One kneeling woman has her hands between the reposing woman's thighs.
Alcmene giving birth to Hercules: Juno, jealous of the child, attempts to delay the childbirth. (Wellcome Collection| CC BY)

But if I explicitly state that my work centers women’s experiences, and that “it remains grossly negligent to not center women’s bodies [in the history of reproduction] as it erases their fundamental role in that history,” how can I just ignore their pain?2 The question came to the fore again at a more recent conference, where I presented on a “temporary sterilization procedure” that involved injecting caustic substances or boiling water into a woman’s uterus at monthly intervals, without anesthesia. This removed the uterine lining and prevented or ended a pregnancy.

I had read so many newspaper articles and court cases about the issue that I again glossed over the intense pain that must have accompanied the procedure. Yet women were also voluntarily submitting themselves to the intervention. They did not want to — or could not — be pregnant. The commentator on the panel asked me: “And what about how it felt to undergo this procedure? Did these women describe their pain?”

When I thought about that, I had a physical reaction. My stomach churned. I had the same experience that I do during a pelvic exam, when the medical practitioner puts the long Q-tip through your cervix to swab for STIs. I always have what I deem a “metallic reaction” — I imagine that liquid silver is coating the inside of my uterus. Of course, I can’t ever know what it felt like to undergo that temporary sterilization procedure, but by listening to my own physical reactions, I could imagine, and I could bring that embodied knowledge into my writing of history.

In this way, I suggest a particular approach towards reading medical sources for women’s experiences of pain — what I call an embodied reading. One way to do this is to focus on our corporeal reactions to violent obstetric interventions. The 1848 case of thirty-five-year-old Felicidade, an enslaved woman in Rio de Janeiro, is a good example.

Engraving of a crowd of people outside a building with a balcony. White men grab and prod black men, women, and children. A black woman crouches on the ground with a child clinging to her back.
European men examining slaves at the slave market of Rio de Janeiro. (Wellcome Collection | CC BY)

In February of that year, a prominent obstetrician wrote about Felicidade’s labor and delivery for the country’s premiere medical publication. Felicidade was the domestic slave of his medical colleague. She had been pregnant various times, once with twins, but all but one of her pregnancies had resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths. Her only living infant had been born prematurely at seven months. During this delivery, Felicidade was in painful labor for two days before she “…committed the imprudent act of throwing herself onto her belly in desperation.”3

Only then did her owner feel it necessary to call his obstetric colleague. When the obstetrician arrived, he found Felicidade “unconscious,” and with a weak pulse. He tried to extract the infant with forceps twice, with no luck. By that time, “as the preta [black woman] had already expired,” he delivered the stillborn infant.4 The obstetrician detailed the various causes of death, which was a ruptured uterus, including a small pelvis and a fused lower lumbar vertebra. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also cited one cause of both Felicidade’s and her infant’s death as “…the wretched attitude and the violent force employed by the parturient during the birth, in particular the blow upon her belly.”5

While the report erases Felicidade’s subjective experience, we still know that her owner (a physician) did not believe it necessary to call a doctor to attend to his slave’s suffering until she had been in labor for nearly 48 hours. We also know that Felicidade suffered terrible pain during this delivery — pain that caused her to throw herself onto the ground in desperation. It appears that her owner disregarded her distress and that the attending physician refused to acknowledge, at least in his clinical notes, her embodied experience of pain. This is in part due to the sterile nature of medical reports, but after reading numerous reports of both enslaved and freed women, black and white, I found that physicians did describe and acknowledge white women’s pain.

So how do we read this top-down sterile document for Felicidade’s painful experience? I think bringing our own bodily reaction to the reading is one approach. To pause here, to sit with our physical reactions to how painful Felicidade’s labor and delivery (and ultimately death) must have been, is one approach towards subjective experience from a historical lens. This approach, if done carelessly, can disembody the woman and sensationalize her pain.6 But if approached with care, we can at least empathize with, if not ever fully understand, Felicidade’s pain.

The literary scholar Elaine Scarry has written about the “inexpressibility of physical pain,” how pain not only “resist[s]” but “actively destroy[s]” language.7 But for historians who turn towards language — written sources, oral histories — what does this leave us with? Bringing our embodied experience into the methodology might provide one answer.

Further Reading

Kathleen Canning, “The Body as Metaphor? Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History,” Gender & History 11, no. 3 (1999): 499-513.

Barbara Duden, Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in 18th Century Germany. Translated by Thomas Dunlap (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).


  1. Respectively, Arquivo Nacional, hereafter (AN) 6Z.0.IQP.22570 (1938); (AN) T8.0.IQP.2727 (1908); Museu da Justica, hereafter (MJ) RG.13245 Cx.1403 (1904). Return to text.
  2. Cassia Roth, A Miscarriage of Justice: Women’s Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil, forthcoming, Stanford University Press. Return to text.
  3. Luis da Cunha Feijó, “Obstetricia. Breves considerações acerca das rupturas do utero durante o trabalho do parto, seguido da importante observação d’um caso, em que existia, alem das causas communs de tal accidente, um vicio da bacia não descripto pelos autores. Memoria offerecida á Academia Imperial de Medicina do Rio de Janeiro,” Annaes de Medicina Brasiliense 4, no. 5 (1848): 109. Return to text.
  4. Feijó, 110. Return to text.
  5. Feijó, 111. Return to text.
  6. Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 6. Return to text.
  7. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985), 3-4. Return to text.

Featured image caption: A drunken man fights with his family, all ruined through his drinking habit. Etching by G. Cruikshank, 1847, after himself. (Courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.