Nineteenth-century Views of the Female Body and Their Impact on Women in Society

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Nineteenth-century Views of the Female Body and Their Impact on Women in Society


The nineteenth-century "woman question" was the theme of endless books by male physicians, scientists, and philosophers. American physicians argued that woman, by her very nature, was condemned to weakness and sickness because female physiology was inherently pathological. In the 1870s, doctors increasingly focused on the threat of higher education for women, especially in co-educational institutions. Doctors claimed that the strain of brainwork during puberty interfered with the proper development of the female reproductive system.


During the nineteenth century, the United States experienced major economic, demographic, political, and social changes. The challenge to traditional social roles raised by some women met with considerable resistance from conservative factions that feared such changes. As nineteenth-century women began to participate in reform movements and moral crusades, they found that to be effective participants they needed education, financial independence, and control over their reproductive functions.

Periods of interest in the fundamental "nature" of women and the factors that affect their health generally correspond to times of social stress, dislocation, and activism. Thus, in the late twentieth century the "woman question" in nineteenth-century medicine became a subject of great interest to social historians. Some scholars saw evidence of a male conspiracy against women as patients and practitioners, with women as victims and men as oppressors. Others emphasized the complexity of historical change and cultural development, and established more sophisticated approaches to analyzing how the subordinate status of women has influenced their lives.

The importance of science in the nineteenth century led to the use of "scientific" arguments to rationalize and legitimate Victorian culture when traditional social and economic patterns were under attack. Women's attempts to challenge tradition led traditionalists to use medical and biological arguments to rationalize traditional sex roles and to block women's access to education, birth control, the professions, and so forth. Doctors portrayed themselves as scientists, experts, advocates of reason and morality, natural law, and evolution, but they accepted traditional views about the nature of woman. Because woman was seen as the product of her peculiar biology, her natural state was to be nurturing, passive, emotional, spiritual, frail, and even sickly. In comparison to man, woman was said to have a smaller head and brain, weaker muscles and nervous system, and an intuitive, but primitive moral sense that limited her role in society to the domestic sphere.

Woman's whole being, especially her central nervous system, was said to be controlled by her uterus and ovaries. Female biological and social life were naturally "internal," defined by the uterus and the home. All female disease, mental and physical, could be ascribed either directly to the uterus and ovaries, or indirectly to the "reflex irritation" model, that is, disorders of the reproductive system caused pathological changes in other parts of the female body.


When physicians entered the nineteenth-century debate about the nature of woman and the woman's rights movement, they claimed that their special knowledge of female physiology gave their ideas and prejudices the status of objective and irrefutable scientific truth. However, despite their assertion of scientific expertise, their arguments were not based on scientific findings. For example, physicians did not understand the menstrual cycle, but assumed that ovulation, conception, and menstruation occurred at the same time. Many eminent physicians argued that female physiology, including the menstrual cycle, was in itself pathological and that women were naturally weak and sick. The best known proponent of this rationale was Edward H. Clarke, author of an influential book entitled Sex in Education: or, a Fair Chance for the Girls (1874).

In addition to his large private practice in Boston, Clarke was a Harvard professor, and a leader in the battle to prevent the admission of female students to Harvard. He was especially interested in diseases of the nerves, and blamed the woman's rights movement for many nervous disorders. Clarke subscribed to the prevailing idea that the human body was a closed system with a limited "energy bank" or "nervous force." This concept rationalized the idea of conflict between brain and uterus. The body was a battlefield where all organs fought for a share of limited resources, but the struggle between the brain and the female sex organs was particularly dangerous.

It followed that women would graduate from college, if they survived the ordeal at all, as sterile sickly invalids. Only total rest during the menstrual period could allow proper development of the female reproductive system. According to Clarke, the "intellectual force" expended by girls studying Latin or mathematics destroyed significant numbers of brain cells, in addition to decreasing fertility. If they were not totally infertile, educated women would face dangerous pregnancies and deliveries because they had smaller pelvises and their babies had bigger brains. Eventually the rigors of co-education would sterilize women of the upper classes and educated women would disappear because they produced no offspring. Only women who had been protected from the dangers of brainwork during puberty would remain. As Clarke concluded, separate schools were needed for girls that would establish a mandatory rest period of four days per month to accommodate the menstrual cycle.

As evidence, Clarke presented the sad case history of Miss D., who entered Vassar at fourteen, where she started to faint in the gymnasium due to exercising during her periods. She graduated before age nineteen, but suffered from dysmenorrhea, constipation, hysteria, nervousness, headaches, invalidism and a flat chest. Another unfortunate student died soon after graduation; the post-mortem revealed a worn-out brain.

Even though statistical studies from the late nineteenth century found that college women were as healthy as other women were, many doctors ignored the evidence and continued to follow the teachings of Dr. Clarke. Tests of motor and mental skills of men and women found no special effects associated with the female reproductive cycle. Critics of the teachings of Dr. Clarke argued that doctors who shared his beliefs were simply prejudiced and influenced by the fact that the women they saw as patients were indeed sickly. They simply did not see healthy, educated women. Female researchers argued that it was possible that because of bad diet, lack of fresh air and exercise, tight corsets, and restrictive clothing, nineteenth-century girls were often sickly. Indeed, as the female waistline was allowed to get larger, while clothing became less restrictive and cumbersome, and girls were allowed to get fresh air and exercise, their health improved.

Some skeptics argued that the great over-supply of doctors in the late nineteenth century led to the diagnosis of more sickness, such as chronic, but non-fatal "female complaints," especially among upper-class women. Indeed, doctors typically argued that rich women were the most delicate and sickly. Servants, factory workers, and other poor women did not seem to need a week of rest during their menses. Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906), an eminent physician, argued that women were diagnosed as perpetual invalids because doctors saw them as lucrative patients. In 1876 Jacobi won the prestigious Boylston Prize from Harvard for her response to the Clarke hypothesis. Her book, The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation, demonstrated that education and professional work did not damage women's health. Other critics argued that Clarke's work was not a scientific treatise, but a polemic against admitting women into education on an equal basis with men. Certainly, many women were not as healthy as they could be, but the true remedy for them was more education, not less, especially education about human physiology. Representatives of many colleges studied Clarke's claims and argued that their women students were very healthy. Moreover, the resident physician at Vassar College found no evidence for the existence of Dr. Clarke's unfortunate Miss D.

Alternative healers and health reformer advocates, dismissed by orthodox medical practitioners as quacks and cultists, attracted many female followers with their argument that disease was preventable. Although many varieties of health reformers flourished in nineteenth-century America, most shared a basic belief that better diet, fresh air, exercise, and education in the "laws" of human health and physiology would lead to health for both men and women.


Further Reading

Apple, Rima D., ed. Women, Health, and Medicine in America: A Historical Handbook. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Barker-Benfield, Graham J. Horrors of the Half-Known Life:Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-century America. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and English, Deirdre. For Her OwnGood: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1978.

Leavitt, Judith Walzer, ed. Women and Health in America:Historical Readings. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Shorter, Edward. A History of Women's Bodies. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Thompson, Lana. The Wandering Womb: A Cultural History of Outrageous Beliefs About Women. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999.

Verbrugge, Martha H. Able-Bodied Womanhood: PersonalHealth and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Boston. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Vertinsky, Patricia A. The Eternally Wounded Woman:Women, Doctors, and Exercise in the Late Nineteenth Century. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Wijngaard, Marianne van den. Reinventing the Sexes: TheBiomedical Construction of Femininity and Masculinity. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997.