Health and Childbearing
"None of the many mysteries displayed by the study of life has been to mankind more unintelligible than that of disease, and nothing is more striking about this than the terribly disproportionate amount of suffering which falls to the lot of women. All my life I have been engaged in the study of their special ailments, and no conclusion is more firmly rooted in my mind than a devout thankfulness that I belong to the other sex."
Sir Lawton Tait, 1890
Much was written in the closing years of the nineteenth century about the innate health – or lack of it – of the female. The middle and upper class ideal of woman was that of an ‘invalid.’ Professional medical theories at the time stated that woman’s normal condition was to be sick. Corresponding to the idea of "separate spheres" for women and men in society, the idea that women were, by their nature, sickly, complemented the idea that men were robust, aggressive, healthy and thus naturally predisposed to the harsh, competitive world of work while women were more suited to the quiet, sanctified life of the home. This is not to say that the illness which did afflict women were inconsequential. For example, for every 100 women who were twenty in 1865, more than 5 would die of tuberculosis by age 30, more than 8 by age 50.
Disease was real, and devastating.
Rural women were required, by the nature of their work, to be healthy and strong. But that was often not the case. Beset by long days of labor, they were often exhausted, mentally and physically. It was generally accepted, however, that the prevalence of sickness and decline was the result of the "peculiarity" of her anatomy - woman as a natural invalid. Contemporary writings often noted the preponderance of nervous disorders and "fretfulness."
Middle and upper class women could and did seek medical care from (male) doctors. Working class women sought help in patent medicines and an increasing number of self-help books and magazines. Cures calling for eggs, tar, soot, herbal extracts and other household ingredients illuminated the pages of popular magazines. For example, a recipe for a cure for rheumatism states,
"To a handful of blue flag root add a pint of good spirits; let stand for a week. Dose, a spoon full three times a day, and increase by degrees to three tablespoons full a day. Or, apply a poultice of hot potatoes; renew as often as it becomes hard or cool. It is said to be a very excellent remedy."
Similar concoctions were proposed for the cure of bleeding lungs, cancer, shortness of breath and cough. These home remedies were often supplemented with a myriad patent medicines, many with high percentages of alcohol, and the liberal use of laudanum.
Childbearing and child mortality remained two of the most serious health issues for women and their families. There is evidence that white women in the later part of the century were controlling their fertility. Between 1800 and 1900, their birthrates dropped by half, while those of blacks and European immigrants grew, even though their childhood death rates were higher. On average, women earlier in the century gave birth to seven live babies in her lifetime. One-third to one-half would not survive to age 5. By 1900, the birthrate had dropped to an average of 3.5 live births. Even with this reduction in birthrate, many families lost children early, before they reached adulthood.
"That our dress may be more healthful, it must first be made looser about the waist, as loose as a man’s."
The Household, 1874
No description of the lives of women in the late nineteenth century would be complete without a discussion of the constrictions of clothing and the influence of style. Once again, the expanding mass culture, expressed in popular magazines and women’s publications, promoted the latest fashion styles to women of all classes, whether those styles were practical for their lifestyles or not. Elaborate dresses, with bustles, and nipped waists and yards of heavy fabric and lace, illustrated the pages of these magazines. One account reported that the "well-dressed" woman of the late nineteenth century wore 37 pounds of clothing in the winter, 19 which hung from her corseted waist.
Probably the most disputed piece of clothing during this period was the corset. Both physicians and early feminists decried their use. One report stated that a fashionable women’s corset exerted, on average, 22 pounds of pressure on the internal organs. Long term results of wearing the undergarment included fractured ribs, collapsed lungs, displacement of the liver and uterine prolapses. Physicians rallied around the idea that corsets compressed the genitals, thus weakening the woman’s ability to bear children. Another theory, proposed by physician Orson Fowler, was based on the assumption that " compression of any part produced inflammation." Consequently, the compression due to wearing a corset would cause blood to flow to the woman’s head, thereby putting pressure on her nervous system, causing, in Fowler’s theory, a personality change.