Sunday 16 January 2011

"The mind is always more or less disturbed."

Most Victorians were very conservative in their thinking about the role of women in the workforce. Here is a excerpt from an article by "Ely Van de Warker, M.D." on 'The Relations of Women to the Professions and Skilled Labour' (in Popular Science of 1875) which pretty much confirms every negative thought you ever had about the Victorian world view:
"There is one fact in woman's functional life which is of vast importance to the subject of this paper, and which I refer to with great reluctance. This fact is ovulation. The mental reaction of this function is oftentimes of such a character as, for the time, to totally incapacitate for professional or other mental work. As this paper is written solely with the view of arriving at the truth in a matter of great practical importance, I must let this serve as my apology for referring plainly to this subject; and this importance requires that I let others, who are acknowledged authorities in gynaecology, speak for me.
    Dr. Robert Barnes, of London, the author of the latest work upon gynaecology, uses the following unequivocal language: "The mind is always more or less disturbed. Perception, or at least the faculty of rightly interpreting perceptions, is disordered. Excitement to the point of passing delirium is not uncommon. Irritability of temper, disposition to distort the most ordinary and best-meaning acts or words of surrounding persons, afflict the patient, who is conscious of her unreason, and perplex her friends, until they have learned to understand these recurring outbursts. . . . Not even the best educated women are all free from these mental disorders. Indeed, the more preponderant the nervous element, the greater is the liability to the invasion. Women of coarser mould, who labor with their hands, especially in out-door occupations, are far less subject to these nervous complications. If they are less frequently observed, if they less frequently drive refined women to acts of flagrant extravagance, it is because education enables them to control their dangerous thoughts, or to conceal them until they have passed away." Another of the accidents attendant upon ovulation is hysteria. Dr. Tilt defines it as a disease peculiar to women during the reproductive period of life, and is often known to return at each period of ovulation. This function is constantly liable to accidents. Speaking of the mental effects of amenorrhoea, a disease to which every women is liable who follows an intellectually rather than a physically active life, Sir J.Y. Simpson says that she becomes "subject to fits of excitement which come on most frequently at a menstrual period, and which usually assume an hysterical form, but are, at times, almost maniacal in character." I shall make on other quotation, and I am glad to say that it bears directly and practically upon the matter. Dr. H.R.Storer of Boston, is reported to have spoken as follows in a debate at the Gynaecological Society of Boston, May, 1870: "In the present state of public opinion, it were foolish, and at the same time unkind, to object to female physicians upon any untenable grounds; and he frankly stated that the arguments that physicians had usually employed, when discussing this subject, were, almost without exception, untenable. Some of the women who were desirous of practicising physic and surgery were just as well educated for the work, had just as much inclination for it, and were as unflinching in the presence of suffering, or at the sight of blood, as were many male practitioners. They had a right to demand an acknowledgement that, in these respects, they were as competentto practise as are a large proportion of ourselves. There is, however, one point, and it is upon this that the whole question must turn, that has till now almost wholly been lost sight of: and this is the fact that, like the rest of their sex, lady doctors, until they are practically old women, regularly menstruate, and are therefore subject to those alterations of mental condition, which so universally affect, temporarily, their faculties of reason and judgment. That these faculties are thus affected at the times referred to is universally acknowledged."
    Many other authors may be cited to the same effect; but these are sufficient to render evident the possibilities of danger, if not of disaster, to women subject to the ceaseless calls of professional life.
     Among popular writers upon this subject, the matter of wifehood or motherhood has been treated as if, were woman willing to sacrifice some of her traditional feeling, and voluntary likings for the other sex, she might cast off the fetters of these honorable conditions, and move on untrammeled to the study and practice of a profession. We have been studying woman, in her relation to the subject of this paper, as as sexual being; and, if we continue the study in the same direction, we must arrive at the conclusion that marriage is not an optional matter with her. On the contrary, it is a prime necessity to her normal, physical, and intellectual life. There is an undercurrent of impulse impelling every healthy woman to marry. That this is a law of her sexual being we know by the positive evidence of medical men and others. We also know that the married woman exerts a more marked influence upon men, and society in general, than the celibate. There is also, among married women, a more perfect equilibrium between the intellectual, physical and sexual forces; and yet, necessary as marriage is for woman, in the present relation of the sexes, it must in every way impair her prospects of success in professional work.
    The effect of celibacy upon women has often elicited the remarks of gynacologists. Dr. Tilt says of marriage: "It is easier to prove the benefits of marriage than to measure accurately the evils of celibacy, which I believe to be a fruitful source of uterine disease. The sexual instinct is a healthy impulse, claiming satisfaction as a natural right." Again: "An enlarged field of observation convinces me that the profession has not in any wise exaggerated the influence of marriage on women, and that its dangers are infinitesimal as compared with those of celibacy." Nearly every treatise upon gynaecology may be quoted to establish the same fact. It is upon the mind of woman that the defeated sexuality acts reflexly in a morbid manner. Dr. Maudsley, who has had abundant opportunities for observation, says: "The sexual passion is one of the strongest in Nature, and as soon as it comes into activity it declares its influence on every pulse of organic life, revolutionizing the entire nature, conscious and unconscious; when, therefore, the means of its gratification entirely fail, and when there is no vicarious outlet for its energy, the whole system feels the effects, and exhibits them in restlessness and irritability, in a morbid self-feeling taking a variety of forms." While it is true that the engrossing cares of professional life, or of a skilled labour, will serve as a partial "vicarious outlet for its energy," in contrast to an idle life, yet this will in no manner acts a substitute for the natural expression of this physiological want. Its constant suppression will tinge the thought and manner of the woman. This is not an unreasonable statement, when we reflect that bodily derangements, not at all serious, will often account for changes in the mind and manner, as well as for the entire mental habit of men otherwise strong. If we contrast her with man in this respect, the chance are infinitely against women in professional life. The penalty of sex is an episode in a man's life. The tribute to his sexuality once paid, he is practically unsexed, and the trained intellectual man moves among women and men with scarcely more than a consciousness of his reproductive faculty. But sex in women is a living presence. From the age of fifteen to that of forty-five, her life is crowded with startling physiological acts. Ovulation, impregnation, conception, gestation, parturition, lactation, and the menopause, contend with each other for supremacy - each act a mystery; each attended with its peculiar peril; and most of them evoking in its behalf the highest efforts of which her physical organization is capable. It will demand genius indeed to enable woman to rival man in the field of labor, and, at the same time, contend with the inexorable law of reproduction.
    Having shown that women are not free agents in the matter of marriage, but do so in obedience to a primal law of their sexual life, we will next consider what are the chance for the married women in professional life. In a physiological study such as this, we will not concern ourselves with the social obstacles a married woman must encounter. We have a right to consider every women who has a husband as either a mother, or liable to become one. Any attempt on the part of a wife to avoid children in order to free herself of that obstacle to professional life would be attended with consequences to her mental and physical health which would seriously impair her usefulness. It broadens and elevates her intellectually and physically. The influence over society reached by wives-mothers is a natural outcome of the stimulus of maternity. The maternal instinct, which lies dormant in the nature of every woman, awakens her mental being into increased activity the moment it is called into life. I think that it is for this reason that frail women, with no knowledge of life, when widowed, often succeed in keeping their families together and providing for them. With the woman who is constantly liable to the demands of a profession, or skilled labor, the maternal affection, anxiety, or care, may intrude at moments when her occupation will demand her highest mental efforts. The manual labor of rearing children the professional woman may delegate to others, but the ceaseless love, care, and forethought, so beautiful in a mother's love, the true woman must assume herself. Physically, children are necessary to the married woman. The sterile wife is constantly exposed to diseases that the fecund wife is comparatively exempt from. The sterile wife is not a normal woman, and sooner or later this physical abnormality finds expression in intellectual peculiarities. Not upon the mind alone, but upon the body as well, does motherhood have a maturing influence. Gestation is nearly the completion of the sexual function. The process involves increase in the size of the heart, and in the volume and strength of nearly all the muscles of the body.  It is evident from this that gestation is not only a functional completion, but it is necessary to structural maturity, and to me it seems a natural corollary that it has an equal effect in increasing mental vigor. Having shown that maternity is necessary to insure mental and bodily health in the mass of women, it is proper for us to ascertain if the last of these conditions - gestation - is not of itself, physically and mentally, an obstacle to professional life in women. The physical incapacity is too evident to need any comment.
    Mentally, the changes undergone are most singular and multiform, and operate upon the cultivated and ignorant alike. Dr. Montgomery, speaking of the nervous irritability of pregnancy, says: "It displays itself under a great variety of forms and circumstances, rendering the female much more excitable and more easily affect by external agencies; especially those which suddenly produce strong mental or moral emotions. Hence the importance of preventing, as far as possible, pregnant women from being exposed to causes likely to distress or otherwise strongly impress their minds." These objective mental conditions described by the author must not be regarded as exceptional; on the contrary, they are classed among the usual symptoms of that condition. Still more marked mental disturbances may occur and are not rare, as in the following quotation from Dr. Storer: "Strange appetites or longings, as they are called, and antipathies, are well known as frequent attendants on pregnancy in many persons." And further: "The evidence that I have now presented proves that the state of pregnancy is one subject to grave mental and physical derangements, giving rise to serious anxieties, and requiring judicious treatment." These mental effects are of minor importance in the relation we are studying, when we consider the fact that absolute insanity may be an accompaniment of either gestation or follow parturition. Dr. Maudsley refers to this as explaining the excess of female insane over that of the other sex.
    Dr. Forbes Winslow draws a startling picture of this catastrophe: "When, after numerous struggles to repress them, the propensities excited into such fearful and almost supernatural activity by ovarian irritation burst forth beyond all control, and the pet of the family is seen to be the opposite, morally, in every respect to what she had been - irreligious, selfish, slanderous, false, malicious, devoid of affection, thievish in a thousand petty ways, bold, maybe erotic, self-willed and quarrelsome; and if the case be not rightly understood, great and often irreparable mischief is done to correct what seems to be vice, but is really insanity."

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