Gendered Medical Science: Producing a Drug for Women

by Susan E. Bell, Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc.

image of Producing-a-Drug-for-Women book
Gendered Medical Science: Producing a Drug for Women, by Susan E. Bell, Feminist Studies, 21, (3), 469-500, 1995.

With the publication of The Doctor’s Case against the Pill; Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers; and Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminist scholars and activists began to examine ways in which medicine produces diagnoses and treatments that are harmful to women, depicts women in textbooks and scholarly reports in stereotypical and negative ways, and is not objective and value free. Along the way, feminists uncovered ways in which medicine has also been beneficial to women, introducing further complexity into our critique. More recently, feminists have explored how medicine itself is riven with tensions, contradictions, ambiguities, and uncertainties, even at the same time that it retains power in relation to women. Today, feminist scholars are exploring the extent to which medicine is not a monolithic enterprise, while they continue to analyse its consequences and resist those that are negative for women.

This article explores tension in one domain of medicine, It focuses on the links between transformations in medical science and cultural ideas about women using evidence drawn from medical discourse about the safety of the first synthetic oestrogen, DES (diethylstilbestrol). In the 1970s and 1980s, North American feminists undertook the research, political action, and litigation that made DES an infamous instance of medical intervention into women’s reproductive lives. Like the Dalkon Shield, DES initially appeared to be a benign and exciting reproductive technology but in the long run had profound and damaging consequences for women.

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DES: a Story of Doctors Not knowing Best

Susan Bell is the author of “DES Daughters: Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women’s Health Politics”

DES: A Story of Doctors Not Knowing Best
Susan E. Bell

Susan E. Bell is Professor of Sociology and A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. Her specialty is the sociology of health and illness.
For the past ten years she has worked with the Maine Humanities Council to develop and teach seminars in literature and medicine at hospitals and health centers in Maine.
She is the author of “DES Daughters: Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women’s Health Politics” (Temple University Press, 2009).

” Forty years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article about the synthetic estrogen DES that is now recognized as a watershed in the annals of medicine… ”

Continue reading DES: A Story of Doctors Not Knowing Best
by Susan Bell, 2 June 2011

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DES Daughters, the Book, on Pinterest

Susan Bell is the author of “DES Daughters: Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women’s Health Politics”

See the "DES Daughters" Book... by Susan Bell... on PinterestIn DES Daughters, Susan Bell recounts the experiences of this generation of “victims.” In moving, heartfelt narratives, she presents the voices of those women who developed cancer, those who were cancer-free but have concerns about becoming pregnant, and those who suffered other medical and/or reproductive difficulties.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

DES Daughters, the Book

Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women’s Health Politics

In DES Daughters, Susan Bell recounts the experiences of this generation of DES-victims. In moving, heartfelt narratives, she presents the voices of those women who developed cancer, those who were cancer-free but have concerns about becoming pregnant, and those who suffered other medical and/or reproductive difficulties.

What Bowdoin Books says

image of DES Daughters, the BookSusan Bell‘s book tells a story about women who attained legendary status in the annals of medicine. They were exposed prenatally to what was promoted as a benign and exciting new wonder drug prescribed to millions of American women to prevent miscarriage from the 1940s to the 1970s. This new reproductive technology—the synthetic estrogen DES— proved to be ineffective in preventing miscarriage, and in the long run it has had profound and damaging consequences for children, especially daughters of the women for whom it was prescribed (Dieckmann et al. 1953; Giusti, Iwamoto, and Hatch 1995). In 1971, medical scientists observed an association between prenatal exposure to DES and a rare form of vaginal cancer (clear cell adenocarcinoma) in women under age twenty; using available medical categories, they identified this synthetic estrogen as the first “transplacental carcinogen” (Herbst, Ulfelder, and Poskanzer 1971). “DES Daughters”, as these women are now called, are also at risk for poor reproductive outcomes, including ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, premature birth, and stillbirth (Giusti, Iwamoto, and Hatch 1995). Almost forty years later, DES-related cancer remains rare, but reproductive tract problems—including menstrual irregularities, poor reproductive outcomes, and structural or cellular anomalies—are common among DES Daughters. ” Sources: Bowdoin Books

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