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Cancer and the Gendered Body

  • Alanna Skuse
Open Access
Chapter
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series

Abstract

On 3 December 1700, noblewoman Sarah Cowper wrote in her diary: ‘My breast is unquiet and gives me troublesome apprehensions. I sometimes seem weary of living, yet find myself often in fear of a painfull lingering death’.1 Beside the entry was a marginal note in the same hand: ‘Fearing a Cancer’. In this chapter, I will argue that Cowper’s identification of her breast as the ‘troublesome’ site where a cancer might breed was, in part, born of contemporary medical and cultural orthodoxy. The feminine body — in particular, the female breast — was, for early modern medical practitioners and lay observers, the paradigmatic site of cancerous growth. This paradigm was rooted in medical, social and aesthetic discourses in which the female body variously appeared as fecund, feeble, dangerous and secret. Moreover, as they attempted to explain cancer’s bias toward the supposedly weaker sex, medical practitioners reluctantly engaged with troubling aspects of early modern women’s lifecycles, making cancer a disease with the potential to cast light on hidden aspects of the sufferer’s conjugal and domestic situation. Women’s cancers thus sprang from, and in turn re-inscribed, a model of sexual dimorphism in which the female body appeared physiologically, functionally and pathologically unique.

Notes

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Copyright information

© Alanna Skuse 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alanna Skuse
    • 1
  1. 1.Folger Shakespeare LibraryUSA

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