Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Program Name/Specialization

Canadian History


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Cynthia Comacchio

Advisor Role



The pain women experience in giving birth is a universal, cross-cultural, biological reality. The ways women experienced these pains, as well as the ways they were perceived by physicians and depicted in wider medical discourses, however, are historically and culturally specific. In late nineteenth and early twentieth century English Canada – a key period in terms of both the medicalization of birth and the professionalization of obstetrics – the dominant medical perception of the female body held that white, middle-class, and urban-dwelling women were particularly “delicate” and sensitive to pain for a variety of reasons. Drawing on a broad range of archival and print sources including medical textbooks, course calendars, lecture notes, professional medical journals, popular advice literature, diaries, and private correspondence, this dissertation unpacks the medical construction of the “delicate woman”, examining the evolution of these ideas and their impact. I argue that the variety of gendered, class-based, and racialized distinctions that underpinned the construction of female “delicacy” and sensitivity to pain were inseparable from turn-of-the-twentieth century social and cultural tensions. Medical rhetoric and perceptions of the delicate woman – as well as the increasingly pathological views of both pregnancy and birth that were inherently connected with this particular construction of the female body – contributed to a new type of birth experience for many women during these transformative decades. While the growing popularity of natural childbirth ideologies in the 1940s and 1950s represented some of the first substantial and organized opposition to the medicalization of childbirth that had been ongoing since the second half of the nineteenth century, proponents of natural birth ultimately continued to articulate conservative views of the female body, birth, and the doctor-patient relationship.

Convocation Year


Convocation Season