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Abstract

From 1870-1890, American gynecologists positioned themselves at the center of debates about women’s education. Gynecologists manipulated social anxiety about shifting demographics and falling birthrates among white middle class women in order to legitimate their emerging discipline. In doing so, they couched American understandings of infertility in a politics of blame and demonized women for their inability to reproduce. Although doctors’ conversations about “sterility” primarily took place within the pages of journals published by all-male medical associations, many women engaged in this debate and challenged medical authority in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers. Female doctors, teachers, scholars, women’s college administrators, and their male allies employed a wide range of rhetorical strategies in their responses to male doctors’ theories. They reframed the debate over higher education and sterility into a discussion of the failings of patriarchal gender norms and the importance of objective scientific inquiry. They did so as the medical profession’s commitment to anecdotal evidence and individual treatment faced pressure from the emerging fields of quantitative studies, epidemiology, and medical statistics. A debate that began with a few vocal doctors with passionate but largely unsubstantiated claims had grown to incorporate discussions about scientific method, women’s rights, and female autonomy.

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