This week, the Gender & Sexuality History workshop was pleased to welcome George Morris, a second-year PhD student from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Drawing from his dissertation research, Morris treated those present to the unlikely yet fascinating tale of how the rise of an Anglican confessional in the 1860s and 70s was counterposed by contemporary medical scandals involving clitoridectomy, or what is now commonly termed female genital mutilation (FGM). While, at first glance the two issues may appear unrelated, Morris’s merging of the fields of religious and medical history overlapped to tell a shared story of intimacy, the dissemination of knowledge about sin, and the disruption of domesticity.
The story of the disgraced gynaecological and obstetrical surgeon Isaac Baker Brown is well known to some, given his spectacular fall from grace and eventual expulsion from the Obstetrical Society of London in 1867. An advocate of clitoridectomies to cure ‘epileptic fits and hysterical mania’, an umbrella term for a variety of ailments believed to afflict women, Baker Brown performed a number of surgeries at his Surgical Home for Women in London, and was eventually struck off for failing to receive the consent of his patients or their families. While a shocking medical scandal in its own right, the Baker Brown controversy was used to draw a comparison with contemporaneous ecclesiastical squabbling over the place of confession in the Anglican church, an issue equally fraught in its own way.
Morris paints a picture of confession in the Church of England during this period as a modern practice, invented rather than revived, and a controversial one at that. It was subject to hostility from those who viewed it as an inherently Catholic, rather than Protestant, custom, with Morris arguing that this hostility was often described in terms of manliness. Gender, then, was central to both the stories being told in this paper. In confession, the male priest entered into an intimacy with the female penitent that could unwittingly lead her into knowledge about sin, and which could introduce secrets between her and her husband. The same could be said of the relationship between the female clitoridectomy patient and her male doctor, being operated on without her family’s consent to ‘cure’ conditions of which a respectable woman should be ignorant.
With a rich historiographical and methodological background in the histories of medicine and religion, this paper also explored themes of intimacy, privacy, and the figure of the ‘male expert’ taking charge of women’s spiritual and moral health. The topic of clitoridectomy also has particular relevance currently, given the anti-FGM bill that was recently blocked in the House of Commons by Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope. In the question-and-answer session following the paper, discussion touched on the absence of female voices in the public debates over both clitoridectomy and confession in the 1860s and 70s, led as they were by an all-male medical and clerical establishment. Over 150 years later, the ability of a single male voice to derail an initiative to protect female children from unnecessary surgery perhaps carries uncomfortable resonances.