Feminism, Poetry and Sex Fuse at Lecture

Barbara Baumgartner, in her presentation on Victorian-era popular medical texts, combined her background as both a nurse in neurology and as Associate Director in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis into a unique, “historical-medical” approach to seeing the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Baumgartner’s gave her lecture, formally titled (Un)Sexing the Body in Nineteeth-Century Anatomy Texts, to a crowded classroom of students and professors on Nov. 11 in Montgomery Hall 101. Baumgartner was introduced first by Professor of English Karen Anderson, who talked about her personal experience with Baumgartner as a “role model fo how knowledge can do good in the world.”

Professor of English Beth Charlebois then came up to further introduce Baumgartner and her myriad of talents as not only a professor and teacher but a marathon runner, chef, and gardener, and said, “[she is], much more than I, a true renaissance women.”

Baumgartner started her lecture by talking about how she arrived at the study of nineteenth-century popular anatomy texts through her study of the use of the body in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and said, “after all, everything comes back to Dickinson.”

According to Baumgartner, Dickenson studied anatomy in what Baumgartner classified as “popular” anatomy textbooks at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

What she looked at the texts that Dickinson studied, she found an “incredibly detailed” body of texts which were based off of a “vigorous health reform movement to counter what they called ‘heroic medicine’.”

According to Baumgartner, the first ‘popular’ anatomy books, aimed at primary and secondary schoolchildren and “home use”, came out in 1834; by the end of the nineteenth century, over 60 popular anatomies were published. They consisted of sections on anatomy, physiology, and hygiene.

These popular anatomies, according to Baumgartner, “represent a largely unsexed and ungendered body”, something that set them apart from their counterparts written for practicing doctors. Baumgartner said, “[the] language choices represent a desire to apply to both male and female readers.”

For example, many authors take pains to not gender characters in their anatomies, and gender-specific instructions for hygiene are almost unheard of.

In contrast, in medical texts of the time “male and female bodies were presented in fundamentally different ways.” Baumgartner said that medical texts, instead of remaining gender-neutral, saw the genders as more different than alike and interpreted anatomical differences as being the reason for most, if not all, gender differences.

She added, “always the female was compared to the male, whom is the standard from which the female deviates.”

Baumgartner attributed this radical difference to the authors of the text themselves, whom she said were far more progressive-thinking in their views on women. Many of the authors, for example, openly expressed the notion that women and men were physical and intellectual equals.

She pointed out that a major focus of the anatomical textbooks was on encouraging women to exercise, which was against the stereotype of women being “dainty” and “frail”. These texts also took aim at fashions of the time. Baumgartner said, “[the authors were] really concerned about corsets that would get womens’ waists down to about 12 inches, something really scary to think about.”

Baumgartner said, “I’d like to argue that [these texts] cannot but have helped women’s perceptions of themselves as similar to men, and provided some ammunition for the growing womens’ rights movement that really took off in the nineteenth century.” She added, “Changes in our understanding and perceptions of the body really influence our ideas and conceptions about ourselves.”

Baumgartner concluded her lecture by coming, once again, back to Dickinson. In order to show the specific impact that studying anatomy had on Dickinson, she identified what she noted as around 20 “brain poems”, or poems that she believed could be interpreted through nineteenth century ideas about the human brain.

To drive her point home, she interpreted the poem I Felt a Funeral in My Brain in this manner, describing the conflict present in the poem being analogous to the “difficult, almost paralyzing state the precedes writing”.

She further said that the ideas of falling and descent present in the poem actually may have been meant to mirror the brain’s structure as known during the time period, in which the top layers controlled logical thought and reason and the lower layers represent more primitive parts of human consciousness. She added, “the speaker’s plunge may be seen as an escape of the deadening and deafening rhythm of reason.”

Students found the lecture a unique take on Dickinson and literary analysis in general. Junior Casey Dong said, “I would never think to look at poems from a medical perspective.” First-year Arianna Pray said, “I thought it was real informative and it was great to get an idea of the mindset of the period.

Senior Lauren Grey said, “I had discussed [the Dickinson poem] in class, but it was fascinating to see the poem in a different way than I had ever done before”.

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