Monday, November 23, 2009


I found Wald's exploration of Typhoid Mary absolutely fascinating. By discussing how Mary was portrayed in the media around the time of the massive typhoid epidemic, Wald seems to uncover a sticky trail of gender-related residue left behind the media in their unforgiving attack on Mary as the healthy carrier of a national threat. In following Mary across the country by uncovering her contagion "footprints", Soper uncovers a slew of social faux pas committed by the previously unknown Mary Mallon and reveals them to the public, (inadvertently?) attaching all sorts of gender-related issues to the topic of typhoid fever. Of utmost importance, and fairly removed from Mary's femininity was the issue of food regulations and sanitation, for Mary was a cook, and her position got all of her employers sick. Before Mary and other healthy carriers in Europe and Asia were discovered, typhoid was believed to have been caused purely by contaminated fluids, dirtied in the national sewage system. However, with the discovery of Mary's ability to pass the disease through contact, a transition occurred from fear of invisible microbes to fear of filthy (and overpopulated) environments and contact. Also, Mary's status as an irish immigrant created a certain xenophobia that revealed itself in the known immigrant districts of industrial areas. As Mary continued to avoid Soper, he uncovered more and more of her life and began to attach gender-related issues to her status as healthy carrier.
Wald states, "Fallen-women narratives accompanied these outbursts. They encompassed a variety of stories and genres unified by their condemnation of female sexuality that was not sanctioned by the state through marriage." In this, she [Wald] refers to Soper's propensity to link Mary's filth (in referring to her disease and in describing her home) to her sexual promiscuity. Soper's accounts also linked nicely to a progression in the view of venereal diseases at the time and aided in identifying females as "weak receptors" of venereal disease. Also, Mary's constant movement (and multiple sexual partners) called attention to a recent cultural "move toward greater female agency and mobility, [which] prompted renewed attention to the problem of female sexuality and its consequences."Important in this, is a shift from the conception of woman as the bearer of life to woman as the carrier of disease (both venereal and other). There are many more parts of Wald's discussion of Typhoid Mary that I would love to discuss in section, but what I found of significant importance was the societal movement in the understanding of woman-as-victim to woman-as-threat caused by Soper's attack of Mary in the press and medical journals.

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