Women as Healers: A "Gendered" Exploration
in Puerto Rico and Elsewhere
Joan D. Koss-Chioino
Arizona State University, George Washington University
Why are women more numerous and important as healers in some medical systems and men in others? Do women healers have special attributes that differ from those of male healers? Relatively few accounts address why and how gender may be important to the healing role, and even fewer answer these questions by exploring the experiences of women as healers. Decades ago, I. M. Lewis (1971) offered the now classic thesis that women are healers where there are "cults of affliction," covert protest movements with possession-trance rituals that seek to compensate gender inequalities. Other anthropologists, such as Morsy (1978), suggested that because some men suffer the same types of initiation illness as do women, and also participate in possession cults, an explanation of why more women are healers in these cults can be found in the relationship between the gender system and systems of power and authority. More recently, Lewis's notion has been critically reviewed by Janice Boddy (1989). Based on studies of the Zar cult in northern Sudan, she suggests that although the idea of status and power balancing may be accurate, it is too one-dimensional to adequately explain Sudanese women's behavior. Boddy describes, in beautiful detail, how complementarities in men's and women's roles underlie women's involvement in the cult, expressed in Zar spirit possessions. The aim of the Zar cult is to address the "major issue" of "cultural over determination of women's selfhood" as reproductive beings (Boddy, 1988, p. 4). Finally, in contrast to appealing to sociocultural factors such as gender role constructs, Jeanne Achterberg (1989, p. 197) suggests that certain gender-related, stereotypical personal attributes are found in women who become healers—subjectivity, relatedness, and understanding—which are also the attributes of the "wounded" healer, considered by her to be the ideal healer.
In my book, Women as Healers, Women as Patients, I elaborate on a perspective of the cultural construction of the healer role that selects for female gender, partially constrained by culturally defined gender-role attributes and behavior (Koss-Chioino, 1992). To briefly summarize, women's predisposition to affiliate as a lifelong pursuit can manifest as an enlarged capacity to receive. A woman can more easily learn "to receive herself, receive what is other than herself and also be received by others" (Ulanov, 1981, p. 15). She can then learn to grasp previously unattained attributes of her personal reality, such as power, aggression, spirituality, and earthiness, characteristics that may be denied to her in conventional social intercourse but are essential to the healer role in many healing systems, even though denied to women generally.