The Question of the Woman-Machine: Gender, Thermodynamics, and Hysteria in the Nineteenth Century


In recent scholarly works on automata, a major topic of discussion has been the man-machine, or the idea of considering a human being in mechanical terms. But what of the woman-machine? This essay traces the origin and development what could be called the hysterical woman-machine that was born in the mid-nineteenth century when the new materialist science produced thermodynamic and electromagnetic theories that, in turn, gave rise to a neo-mechanistic physiology. As this occurred at a time when the notion of the essential difference between the male and the female body was being solidified and elaborated on in the medical establishment, it became necessary to conceptualize two radically different and gendered human machines.

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