This vague put-upon feeling had been bothering me for some time, but only recently did I finally realize that I’m just one victim of a vast conspiracy. Chances are that any woman who has seen a doctor — a male doctor — in the past ten years has had the same kind of experience.
It started back in 1950, when I had to go to the clinic with a badly infected finger. I always get wounded in the annual battle with the rosebushes. After the precautionary tetanus shot, I wondered what to do for the finger.
“Oh, that,” the doctor said cheerfully. “Nothing better for it than hot soapy dishwater three times a day.”
I was somewhat let down, since I’d been rehearsing a speech to my husband about the impossibility of my doing dishes for at least a week.
The following winter I came down with a cold that vacillated between chest and sinuses for several days. When home remedies failed, I called on a throat specialist. After the usual sprays, throat paintings, and antibiotics, he said briskly:
“You’ll be fine in a few days — and remember, there’s nothing better than steam for these congestions. Be sure to inhale the steam from your dishwasher, and turn the shower on full blast while you clean the bathroom.”
“There’s a good deal of steam involved in ironing clothes too,” I said sourly.
“Fine, fine,” he said, obviously encouraged by my cooperative attitude.
That evening, when my husband asked why I was banging the dishes around so viciously, I countered by inquiring why it was that when he had a cold the doctor always told him to go to bed.
Some time later I sprained my ankle. I told my husband it hurt too badly to be broken, but he insisted on rushing me to the orthopedist. Two X-rays and $20 later, the doctor was taping me up with a professional flourish.
“I suppose I’ll have to stay off my foot for a few days,” I ventured.
“Not at all,” he boomed. “These things heal fastest when you keep on using them.”
I mentioned that when my cousin sprained his ankle they told him to stay off it for a week.
“Well, circumstances alter cases,” the doctor said evasively. “I’ll tell you, though, it’s a good idea to put your foot up occasionally while you are sewing.”
“Thanks a lot,” I muttered.
Not long after, I found evidence that doctors will apparently stop at nothing. The following is an Associated Press dispatch datelined Calgary, Canada:
To housewives who aim at top physical condition: get down and scrub the kitchen floor. This advice comes from Dr. D. Plewes, consultant for Canada’s health and welfare department, who says, “Some of the best exercises for women are done on the hands and knees and utilize floor scrubbing motions.”
I was busy planning a counter-campaign that would persuade doctors to prescribe lawn mowing instead of golf for middle-aged males, when I discovered I was in what used to be called “a delicate condition.” My husband waited on me hand and food — until after our first visit to the obstetrician.
“Now about exercises,” he said cheerfully. (Have you ever noticed how maddeningly cheerful doctors are?) “The best exercises are ones you can do while you work around the house. Bend your knees and keep your back straight when you do your dusting. Practice deep breathing while you wash dishes and —”
“ — Inhale the steam,” I said absently.
“The Work Cure for Women” appeared in the April 1958 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available here.