(In)visible Identities? Medical Humanities, Women and the Archive

How should researchers approach the medical archive, and how might these spaces hide or highlight narratives on women, health and care? Christine Slobogin reflects on the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research Congress panel, ‘(In)visible Identities? Medical Humanities, Women and the Archive’.

On the first day of the expansive, endlessly thought-provoking Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research Congress, four medical humanities scholars conducted a panel in which we discussed women in the archive – specifically the ways in which truths about women’s lives, work and health emerged from or were submerged by the documents and files that we turn to for answers. These answers are not always freely given, and our panel investigated archival spaces as either shy or forthcoming sources of information about the multifaceted and slippery gendered and medicalised identities of women throughout history.

The papers in this panel were presented by Dr Eilis Boyle, Dr Anna Jamieson, Dr Leah Sidi and myself. Though our research all engages with health, emotion and gender, we come from a range of disciplines – from history to feminist historiography to visual culture. Across our fields, we have all been trained to listen to those archival silences, to find meaning in archival gaps and to question how, when, and why stories have been elided or highlighted. These historiographical techniques have been commented upon by archive theorists such as Arlette Farge and Carolyn Steedman, among others working within and outside of feminist methodologies. The difficulty of this archival work is what brought this panel together; our diverse experiences allowing us to explore themes of class, disability, gender identity and feminism.

Panellists during Eilis Boyle’s paper presentation in the ‘(In)visible Identities? Medical Humanities, Women and the Archive’ panel at the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research Congress on 21 April 2021.

Eilis Boyle began the panel with her paper ‘“Neither reply to me here or tell my husband I have written”: The Gendered Politics of Visibility in the War Disability Archive’. Using a particularly affecting case study of the wife of ex-serviceman Edward Morgan, Eilis drew out the gendered dynamics of power in the post-war archive of disability and pension applications. She pointed out that, despite Roy Porter’s famous statement that ‘Most healing … begins at home’ (Porter 1985, 192), the domestic space is often excluded from archives detailing injuries and recovery of servicemen after the First World War. Historiography is instead focused on the formal mechanisms of care – not the informal, sometimes disparaged and usually unpaid labour of the wives at home who carefully deal with their husbands’ physical as well as mental trauma.

One quotation from Mrs. Morgan that I found particularly interesting was in a secret letter to her husband’s doctor, where she states, ‘I could write a book not a note about him [Mr. Morgan]’. To me, this quotation summed up one of the main thrusts of this panel: women could and did create copious records regarding their own health and the care work that they undertook for those around them. And yet we still often only find these accounts through the archives of the men with whom they worked and lived.

The second paper, by Anna Jamieson, again brought up this question of women’s agency and archival identification, but this time through the lens of eighteenth-century women in private ‘madhouses’. She used the work of Arlette Farge to remind us that even though we have ‘the ideological desire to portray women as autonomous and independent’ (Farge 2013, 38), we cannot lose sight of the fact that patriarchal submission and silence was and is a major factor of many women’s lives. Women’s silencings, therefore, cannot be ignored for our own feminist or scholarly goals.

The woman that Anna primarily used throughout her paper ‘Stereotypes of Silence? Tracing the Eighteenth-Century Woman’s Psychiatric Experience’ is Dorothea Fellowes, an upper-class woman who was treated at a private madhouse. Dorothea’s story exists in archives that are not specifically medical in nature, but are rather centred around her powerful male relatives – again highlighting the ways in which women’s stories are enveloped or overpowered by the legacies of the men around them. Anna ended her discussion of shopping, patient agency and retrospective diagnosis with a powerful exhortation to think critically about our methodologies. While, yes, the speakers on this panel are all working to unearth women’s experiences, Anna noted that the majority of these historical voices are privileged and white; Dorothea herself is visible to historians primarily because of her family had wealth. A truly intersectional approach should look to less conventional archives or collections to shine a spotlight on the historical health inequalities and realities of women marginalised in ways that compound upon their gendered experiences.

Our third paper, by Leah Sidi, brought us closer to the present day through the archive of Feminist Review, an interdisciplinary journal founded in 1979 to ‘develop a theory of Women’s Liberation and debate the political perspectives and strategy of the movement’ (‘Mission Statement’, Feminist Review, i). In her paper ‘Delineating the Work of Care in the Archive of Feminist Review’, Leah traced how the gendered concept of care has been framed throughout the journal’s issues. This discussion of care has been contradictory, with different narratives and understandings of care being put forward in various articles and contributions. Leah expertly outlined two temporal trends in the chronologies of care: stories of loss and return, and stories of negative progress. Nostalgia plays into one of these types of stories; anger into the other.

Another of Leah’s takeaways was that the term ‘care crisis’ is consistently used to describe contemporary moments, and she highlighted arguments that assert that care, and care crises, is a, if not the, feminist issue. Of course, today, care is vital to societal and medical cohesion during a pandemic, and women, particularly women of colour, have borne the brunt of the social and physical risks of caring rather than quarantining. Like Anna’s paper, Leah’s also addressed the problems of homogeneity in the way that we think about women in care and in studies of the health humanities, calling for a diversification of feminism and a feminist understanding of care.

Liz Mackie, cartoon, in ‘Editorial’, Feminist Review 1, no. 1 (March 1979), 3.

Leah’s concluding slide showed a Feminist Review cartoon by Liz Mackie that addressed the divide between the intellectual framework of feminist theorists and the everyday concerns of working women – a divide tied up in class that echoed the divisions that came up in some of this panel’s other papers. This cartoon provided a handy segue into my own research on the Second World War cartoons of surgical artist Dickie Orpen, in a paper called ‘The Gender Fluidity of Work in the Second World War Plastics Ward: The Case of Dickie Orpen, Rosie and Corporal Bucket’. My paper looked at Orpen’s gender and class identities that are elided within the surgical archive in which the majority of Orpen’s drawings are held. I instead showed how two of her recurring cartoon characters – which are only truly accessible and understandable within Orpen’s personal papers – reveal these alternate identities.

I argued that the complex gendered identities shown in these cartoons of a male orderly and a woman artist are aspects of Orpen’s own professional experience with which she was grappling. The institutional surgical archive, which focuses on the careers and surgeries of medical ‘great men’, tends to skim over the experiences and personalities of Orpen, which can be seen in her drawings by those who want to find them.

There is so much more that could be said about these incredibly rich and informative papers, but of course eventually we moved on to questions and discussion. The majority of our Q&A went to a fruitful conversation about the emotional effects of working within archives of gender, health and care. The physical dimension of putting away material at the end of the day was considered – this mechanical motion of packaging up the box and returning to your own home or hotel room often proving a useful and necessary emotional process within archival research. It allows for a separation between our own lives and the (often traumatic or difficult) lives that we are trying to uncover or understand. But this separation is not always possible. Eilis spoke of her outpourings of emotion that resulted from engaging with her material, and I noted how one of my archives was actually lent to me by Orpen’s family and therefore sits in a backpack in my bedroom.

The project of this panel could expand to focus more on the illnesses, injuries and health of women themselves: beyond Anna’s paper, primarily the focus was on women who were caring for others. Overall, it is the woman’s voice that proves the driving force of these projects, as we aim to discern how best to handle the archive so that these narratives on health and care, and embodied experience, can be highlighted. The ideas discussed on this panel are ones that our panellists – and hopefully NNMHR Congress attendees – will continue to mull over as they shape and develop their own historiographical and archival methodologies.

Christine Slobogin is a Wellcome Trust ISSF Postdoctoral Researcher at Birkbeck, University of London. Her work focuses on the visual culture of plastic and reconstructive surgery during the Second World War. You can find her on Twitter @slobogin.


‘Editorial.’ Feminist Review 1, no. 1 (March 1979): 1-3.

Farge, Arlette. The Allure of the Archives. Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

‘Mission Statement.’ Feminist Review 1, no. 1 (March 1979): i.

Porter, Roy. ‘The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from below’. Society 14, no. 2 (1985): 175-198.

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001.

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