(WOMENSENEWS)–Progress provokes reaction. After the American Civil War, an energetic surge partially kept in check while the nation tore itself apart was let loose. Serious education for women began to flourish. Professions opened their doors a crack. The reaction came from men with titles, expertise and power.
On December 16, 1872, Dr. Edward Clarke of the Harvard Medical School was the invited speaker at The New England Women’s Club in Boston, where reformers of all stripes met to discuss the issues of the day.
Dr. Clarke issued an alarm. Education for women, he warned, was so dangerous, it could prove deadly. Mental exertion could have catastrophic physical consequences, including “monstrous brains and puny bodies; abnormally active cerebation and abnormally weak digestion; flowing thought and constipated bowels.” The greatest risk, of course, was damage to the most valuable female body part–the womb, already housed in frail bodies “diseased” by monthly bleeding. Womanliness itself was at risk.
Members of the club that December night included a pantheon of female energy and intellect: Julia Ward Howe, club president was a poet whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had nearly become a national anthem. Louisa May Alcott earned money writing. Lucretia Mott was a tireless abolitionist and suffragist. Lucy Stone, an Oberlin College graduate, had started a trend by keeping her own name when she married. Not a puny or weak specimen among them.
As Dr. Clarke went on to publicize his “ideas” in popular books and talks, he inspired others in his profession to prescribe “rest cures” for ambitious women. Howe and the others disputed them. Physician Mary Putnam Jacobi joined the fray with clinical evidence that menstruation was evidence of health, not debility and arguing that women’s capacity in all areas–studying, working, or voting–had been grossly underestimated.
Myths about the frailties of bodies that bled monthly took assumed the form of restrictions on female athletics in our time, but they were rooted in 19th century desires to shut down that most dangerous organ, the female brain.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].