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July 17, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

History and Women's Health

By Claire Franklin More Blogs by This Author

... Since Sliced Bread!!!

The subject of women’s health has sparked conversation and debate for hundreds of years. One of the best examples of this is hysteria - a vaguely classified disease that became prolific in the 19th century. Its root was in sexual frustration; Victorian females were considered unladylike if they confessed to having sexual desires, rather than merely tolerating intercourse simply to satisfy their husbands. But these women were commonly plagued by a lack of satisfaction in the marriage bed and went to doctors with "symptoms" of anxiety, fatigue, irritability, and arousal.

To make a diagnosis and preserve his professional reputation, the doctor proclaimed hysteria. He then ordered the midwife at his side to give treatment with manual sexual stimulation, performed right on the exam table with vegetable oil for lubricant. The patient was dismissed after she reached the desired effect. Not surprisingly, “hysterical” women were great in number and repeatedly visited their physicians.

Hysteria treatments led to the invention of vibrators in the late 1800s. Physicians’ offices were the first places in which vibrators appeared, and doctors charged $2 or $3 per patient visit. At the turn of the century, these devices were sold as appliances for the home, similar to teakettles and toasters. An intense marketing campaign of newspaper and magazine ads said the vibrators promoted “life and vigour, strength and beauty.” The ads stopped in the 1920s when vibrators became associated with pornographic films.

Today an entire industry is devoted to ensuring females enjoy sexual gratification. Brick-and-mortar stores, online retailers, and independent consultants sell products that promise to tease and please. Women are also encouraged to speak openly to their partners about sexual needs. This is a far cry from centuries ago when sex was performed only to satisfy males and allow women to bear children.

Throwing Away the Key

A second type of hysteria in the Victorian era had more medical basis than the first but was poorly handled. This time period placed considerable expectations on women: They had to accept the dominance of their husbands and quietly perform the duties of wife, mother, and homemaker. They enjoyed little independence and were prone to stress and depression. To provide medical treatment and shelter families from public embarrassment, doctors again diagnosed hysteria and admitted the women to asylums.

Asylums were considered respectable places for ladies to briefly reside until they could again function in society. Two wards, one each for males and females, separated the sexes to prevent the development of unwanted romances. Unlike their male counterparts, females weren’t permitted outside and passed their days performing general housekeeping duties.

Quakers

Obsession with women’s behavior at this time led to a series of reform movements intended to eliminate "sinful" behavior. Those involved with the reform promoted women as pure and gentle creatures who should be faithful wives and caring mothers. The intent was to stamp out contrary thoughts that females may have had with regard to themselves or their roles in society.

A Two-Way Street

Although women are still expected to perform certain roles, they can now ask for help from their partners. Days mired in child-rearing are relieved by stay-at-home dads and telecommuting. Women can also freely express their thoughts without worrying they’ll be admitted to asylums for conditions like “stress” and “fatigue.”

Acceptance of females as independent creatures didn’t come easily. Several Supreme Court judges ruled on the belief that women were impeded by delicate constitutions. In Bradwell v. Illinois (1973), the Supreme Court stated, “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” This decision forbade women from practicing law.

In Muller v. Oregon (1908), Justice Brewer said, “The two sexes differ in structure of body, in the functions to be performed by each, in the amount of physical strength, in the capacity for long-continued labor…” and permitted gender inequality in the workforce.

Despite these rulings, women continued to gain momentum in the workforce and worked diligently throughout the 21st century to create an even footing. Their outspokenness has spurred workplace policies that allow maternity leave and forbid sexual harassment. Some women even earn more than their husbands, rendering mute those who believe females should limit themselves to cooking and cleaning.

PMS

Premenstrual syndrome has also impacted crucial decisions of law. In the 1990s, several women accused of killing their spouses or children blamed their actions on PMS. Some juries agreed this condition is a valid excuse for crime and reduced the charges from homicide to manslaughter. A handful of people saw this as vindication for the monthly plight that women endure, while feminists argued women will never be free of stereotypes if they don’t stop the “woe is me” attitude.

It should be noted that health care providers still question whether PMS is real or fabricated. A growing legion of physicians believe the syndrome was concocted to explain female mood swings. The ongoing controversy surrounding PMS and its effect on women has inspired television commercials, YouTube videos, scientific studies, and research articles. Symptoms associated with PMS have further prompted the development of dietary supplements, pain relievers, herbal teas, and other remedies certain to offer relief. In short, an entire market is devoted to helping women who suffer from PMS.

Making It Up

Another market with considerable influence on society is that of cosmetics and skin care. In Ancient Egypt, men and women used items like eyeliner and body oils to honor gods. Queen Elizabeth I (1559-1603) introduced an entirely new and acceptable way of wearing makeup when she painted her face white with lead-based cosmetics. The 20th century ushered in a whole line-up of cosmetics - including lipgloss and eyewear - that formed the foundation for today’s ongoing slew of products. These reduce wrinkles, tint skin, and even stop acne. While each cosmetic offers a different purpose, the real intent is to improve females’ confidence levels.

Beauty products have changed the way women see themselves. Their faces and bodies are canvases to which they can do what they want. Depending on the image they wish to project, females can go bare-faced or adorned, hair fixed elaborately or worn naturally. Entire stores, boutiques, and salons supported by trained professionals are devoted to giving women what they want.

Conversations about women and their health aren’t likely to end soon. Some people still claim that women are delicate creatures and need to be treated as such, while others say women are crazy and reside on earth only to inspire evil. The point isn’t whether or not females are crazy, but that they have helped to shape society by refusing to conform. They rebelled against Victorian ideals, asylums, social preachings, and Supreme Court rulings to earn their rightful places in society. It’s safe to say we won’t be subdued, even when we feel frustrated at home or have to battle monthly menstrual cycles.

References:

http://faculty.uml.edu/sgallagher/supremecourt.htm

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-sex/201303/hysteria-and-the-strange-history-vibrators

http://www.lib.uwo.ca/archives/virtualexhibits/londonasylum/hysteria.html

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/27/hysteria-and-the-long-strange-history-of-the-vibrator-vertical.html

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/criminal_mind/psychology/crime_motivation/7.html

http://www.thetimechamber.co.uk/beta/sites/asylums/asylum-history/the-history-of-the-asylum

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