Feminist Review

, Volume 114, Issue 1, pp 139–140 | Cite as

gendered drugs and medicine: historical and socio-cultural perspectives

Teresa Ortiz-Gómez and María Jesús Santesmases, Ashgate Press, Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, 2014, 260 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-5404-5, £95.00 (Hbk)
  • Anne Pollock
Unthemed Book Review

Drugs are exquisite objects for feminist analysis. Pharmaceuticals are objects that are very readily recognised as material-semiotic, carrying both matter and meaning. Even as drugs reorder our bodies on a molecular level, they are also political economic entities and can become potent symbols in social and cultural spheres. The collection of essays in Gendered Drugs and Medicine: Socio-Cultural Perspectives showcases the rich terrain that drugs provide for critical reflection on these and other relationships between materiality and representation.

Pharmaceuticals and culture are deeply intertwined, and the editors write in their introduction, ‘By employing a gender perspective when studying the production, circulation and consumption of drugs in contemporary life styles, and by putting women at the centre of our research, we hope to demonstrate how the processes of culturalisation of a drug and the pharmaceuticalisation of a culture, become mutually entwined’ (p. 2). Notably, the book attends not only to sites of consumption, but also to sites of production. It approaches diverse places—‘the household, the factory, the drugstore, the consulting room, public and private lives and spaces’ to explore the ‘historical trajectories and contemporary social lives of medicines and drugs’ (p. 2). The author gives insightful and theoretically informed consideration to wide-ranging, rich empirical material.

Although its introduction is dense, the book’s substantive chapters are impressively lucid. While a few chapters attend to topics that are not readily perceived as gendered, such as food colouring and penicillin, the volume’s overwhelming topical focus is on contraceptives and, to a lesser extent, morphine and tranquillizers. These drugs have already been the subject of a great deal of analysis attentive to the ways that women are figured as users (and abusers). It would be interesting to see how a gendered analysis of this type might be applied to less obviously gendered cases, perhaps to major classes of drugs such as statins, chemotherapies or antirheumatics; analysis of these cases could provide fodder for another book that would build on the papers in this rich collection.

Gendered Drugs and Medicine is divided into three sections. The first section, ‘Gender and women in pharmaceutical research, consumption, and industry’, covers the most novel terrain. It starts with a fabulous chapter about the ways that German women mobilised and declined to mobilise around two different carcinogenic chemicals from the 1930s to the 1970s: campaigning against a colourant in the feminine space of food purity and, in the case of oestrogens, acceding to the male authority of medical experts. The middle chapter of the section covers the obviously-gendered topic of illusive drugs for female sexual dysfunction, and nicely engages with material feminisms as it explores the resistance of women’s bodies to the simple fixes. The third chapter—my favourite in the book—is a fascinating account of women in antibiotic factories in 1950s Spain, when penicillin came to be known as an object of scientific knowledge and an industrial object. The author’s application of a gendered perspective to postwar pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing is strikingly original.

The second section of the book is devoted to the topic of contraceptives, which is the category of drugs that has the most coverage in the literature on gender and drugs. Yet there are many interesting new insights here about spermicides in the global north and south, ‘compliance packs’ for oral contraceptive pills, and reconfigurations of doctor/patient relationships. The chapters beautifully capture the complex intersectional dynamics of medical expertise and mobilised women consumers.

In the book’s third section, the sites of analysis move still further beyond the control of medical experts. Unusually for this kind of collection, the chapter topics skirt the il/licit ambivalences that the term ‘drug’ can evoke, and attend to the users and abusers of morphine and non-prescribed drugs. The tone of these chapters is a bit different from the rest of the collection, especially the final chapter, which is more sociological than the historical and cultural studies essays that precede it; however, the conceptual maneuver is important.

Gendered Drugs and Medicine does not include many images, but most of the figures that are included are excellent, such as fascinating photographs of workers hunched over benches producing penicillin, images of the precursors to and prototypes of the iconic Dialpak dispenser for the Pill, and evocative marketing materials for oral contraceptives directed at doctors and potential consumers.

This volume emerged out of an international conference held in 2011 in Spain. The conference’s geographical location has had an observable impact on its contributions, about half of which are made by authors based at universities in Spain, while a couple are from authors based at universities in Germany, a couple more in France, one in Denmark and one in the United States. This geographical background may help to explain the relative lack of attention to some themes, such as intersections between gender and race, but it also positions the collection to make novel contributions to English-language scholarship. It deserves a wide readership.

Copyright information

© The Feminist Review Collective 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne Pollock
    • 1
  1. 1.Georgia TechAtlantaUSA

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