“Female Complaints: Disease Circulation, Advertising, and the Female Body in Late-Nineteenth Century Women's Magazines”
Melissa McCoul, PhD English Student and Gender Studies Graduate Minor Student
Abstract: I am interested in examining the circulation of both syphilitic rhetoric and print culture within and surrounding Ella Hepworth Dixon's 1894 novel Story of a Modern Woman. The novel both literally and metaphorically sexualizes the transmission of disease, implying syphilis under cover of tuberculosis. However, concerns about female health and illness cannot be delimited to this dyad. Rather, the novel uses the symptoms, etiology, and circulation of syphilis as a metaphor to highlight a larger cultural anxiety about the process—and limits—of female disease circulation. Some diseases are imagined as transmitted between women in a quasi-sexual manner triangulated through a healthy male, while other ailments, such as the narrator Mary's wide-ranging food aversions and “very feminine backaches” (98) circulate within a single body over time, biological but not bacteriological. In this, Mary's indispositions are circulated socially, deepening the connection between the circulation of sexualized illness and print. How, then, is the suffering female body positioned in the novel? How are female complaints, both circulating and non-circulating, categorized and over-determined through the rhetoric of syphilis? How do the characters themselves conceive of their bodies and those bodies' ailments within a larger cultural milieu anxious about both sexually and socially transmitted diseases? How are physical ailments transmitted or expressed, and what is the relationship between that expression and printed expression, particularly in periodical culture?
To answer these questions, I examine not only the female body and syphilitic circulation within the novel, but also within the larger print circulation of magazines. In particular, I read advertisements geared towards women within popular women's magazines, particularly advertisements for food or female-specific patent medicine. I closely examine advertisements from five magazines with largely female readerships: Myra's Journal, Le Follet, Wings, Hearth and Home and The Woman's Signal. For each magazine, I examine the May 1894 issue (or issues, in the case of weeklies), to create a sample of the literary environment in which Story of a Modern Woman circulated. From this, I argue that the late nineteenth-century advertisement culture constructed the female body is constructed as ailing, fragile, and dangerous. Furthermore, this print culture used syphilitic rhetoric as a relay point to reference a much larger complex of anxieties about the destabilizing potential of the always-already diseased female body.
Bio: Melissa McCoul is a Ph. D candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame, where she is currently working on a dissertation on child's play and gendered embodiment from 1750-1910. She is also one of the current instructors for Intro to Gender Studies. Further special interests include narrative temporality, particularly in relation to child narrators; scenes of childbirth and maternity; medical narratives and disability studies; and gendered medicine.
In order to advance the program’s commitment to inter-disciplinary research and inquiry into the subject of gender, the Gender Studies Program is pleased to announce an upcoming series of research workshops. The events will include presentations by advanced undergraduates majoring in Gender Studies as well as graduate students and faculty members from a variety of departments who work in the area of gender and sexuality. The workshop will begin with the week’s presenter giving a brief lecture on his or her current research in the field, followed by a seminar-style discussion.