In 1912, conservatives in New York declared war on “mashing”. Flirtatious and inappropriate behaviour towards women had reached plague proportions in the Big Apple, they claimed. Attractive females could not walk down a New York street without being wolf whistled, propositioned or subjected to a barrage of provocative remarks.
State assemblyman Richard F. Hearn carried out his own research into ‘mashing’ and declared it the leading cause of divorce in the United States. In early 1912 Hearn sponsored a bill that introduced prison terms for convicted “mashers”.
This crackdown produced several arrests over the next two years – though judges tended to be lenient, if not dismissive. This was not always the case, however, as revealed in this report from November 1913:
In June 1895, the Long Island Board of Education issued a stern directive to its female teachers: stop riding bicycles. A member of the board, William Sutter JP, explained this to the press:
“We as the trustees are responsible to the public for the conduct of the schools [and] the morals of the pupils. I consider that for our boys and girls to see their women teachers ride up to the school door every day and dismount from a bicycle is conducive to the creation of immoral thoughts…”
Another board member, Dr A. Reymer, added his support. Reymer suggested that if they continued to ride bicycles, women would eventually end up “wearing men’s trousers”. Long Island’s female teachers, many of whom relied on bicycles to get to and from school, were said to be “very indignant” about the order.
Alonzo Bertram See (1848-1941) was a prominent elevator manufacturer from New York City. Born in Yonkers, See started his own company in 1883 and began to ride the skyscraper boom to success and wealth. By the turn of the century, See was a millionaire several times over and his business – the quirkily named A. B. See Elevator Company – was the third largest manufacturer and installer of elevators in the United States.
New Yorkers rode in See’s elevators, and thus were familiar with his name, but knew little of him until the 1920s. In 1922, Adelphi College, a Brooklyn women’s college, started a fundraising drive and wrote to See seeking donations. He responded in the negative, explaining his views bluntly:
“Of all the fool things in the world, I think colleges for women are the worst… College girls are slangy, they swagger, smoke cigarettes, have bold and brazen manners, paint and powder their faces, use lipsticks, wear high heeled shoes and dress indecently… When they graduate from college they cannot write a legible hand; they know nothing about the English language; they cannot spell… All women’s colleges ought to be burned.”
See’s letter found its way into the hands of the press. Coming shortly after the passing of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing voting rights for women, See’s views unleashed a flood of protest from women’s rights campaigners. As the New York Times put it, many women “hit the ceiling faster than they ever ascended in one of See’s elevators”. See, however, remained steadfast. When a prominent suffragette challenged him to a debate, See publicly declined, saying that:
“I never discuss anything logical with women. They can talk straight for about five minutes and then they go off the handle. They haven’t got the reasoning power a man has, and I wouldn’t think of debating with any woman on any subject.”
Apparently enjoying the notoriety, Alonzo See became something of a social critic. His two favourite targets were women and education, both of which he seemed to regard as a waste of time.
When reformers sought legislation to outlaw child labour in 1924, See wrote agitated letters to the press, claiming that it was physically harmful to keep 13-year-old boys in school. Two years later, he penned a lengthy essay on education, arguing that school causes some children to go blind and others to physically “waste away”. “Children must be rescued from their mothers and from pedagogues,” See wrote, and “women must be rescued from themselves”.
The New York press published smirking references to See’s sexism for many years. In 1936, however, it was revealed that A. B. See had undergone an epiphany with regard to women and had “changed his mind on them altogether”.
Samuel Gregory (1813-1872) was an American physician who specialised in several areas, including obstetrics and women’s health. Born and raised in Vermont, Gregory obtained a medical degree at Yale, graduating in 1840. Eight years later he founded the New England Female Medical College, the first medical school for women in the United States, if not the world.
Despite these achievements, Gregory was no champion of gender equality or women’s rights. In short, he was a prude who considered it highly inappropriate for male doctors to be at the pointy end during childbirth. The business of delivering children and inspecting lady parts, Gregory argued, should be left to suitably trained women.
Like other wowsers of his day, Gregory was also obsessed with sex and masturbation. In 1857, he published a short but pointed diatribe titled Facts and Important Information for Young Women on the Self Indulgence of the Sexual Appetite. Gregory’s tract drew heavily on other anti-masturbation hysterics like Tissot.
The first half of Gregory’s book contained case studies of young women who, after becoming addicted to self pleasure, either wasted away or ended up “masturbating their way to a state of idiocy”. He followed this with his list of ‘dos and don’ts’ for avoiding temptation – and it was a long list. Foods that “stimulate the animal propensities” should be avoided, including tea, coffee, candies, meat, chocolate, spices and alcoholic drinks.
Certain behaviours in young girls also needed curtailing:
“Young persons should not be permitted to lie on [feather down] beds, nor to sit on soft chairs, to which rush or wooden-bottomed ones are greatly preferable. Neither should they be allowed to remain in bed longer than requisite, or to lie down needlessly on couches.”
Doctor Gregory also blamed literature and the creative arts, which had the capacity to stimulate unhealthy desires in young women:
“All books depicting exaggerated sentiments must be withheld… Even the study of the fine arts may render the imagination too active… Music, being the language of passion, is the most dangerous, especially music of the more impassioned and voluptuous nature… Fashionable music, especially the verses set to it, being mostly love sick songs, [are] all directly calculated to awaken these feelings.”
A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland was first published in London in 1649 and reappeared in various forms over the next decade. Its authorship is open to question. Some historians attribute it to Oxford graduate and minor writer James Howell, better known for coining the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Others believe it was written by Anthony Weldon, a scheming courtier to Charles I.
Whoever was responsible for its creation, A Perfect Description is unabashed propaganda, filled with anti-Scottish jibes and stereotypes. The people of Scotland, it claims, are lazy and incompetent farmers; they would “rather go to taverns” than cultivate the land around them. They are also coarse and uncultured and will “stop their ears if you speak of a play”. They fornicate as a “pastime”, laugh at blasphemy and wink at murder.
The writer reserves particular acrimony for Scottish women, of whom it claims “there are none greater [fatter] in the whole world”. Further, they have appalling personal hygiene and make terrible wives:
“Their flesh abhors cleanliness, their breath commonly stinks of pottage, their linen of piss, their hands of pigs’ turds, their body of sweat [while] their splay feet never offend socks. To be chained in marriage with one of them [is] to be tied to a dead carcass and cast into a stinking ditch.”
James Weir Jr. (1856-1906) was an American physician, naturalist and author. Born into a prominent Kentucky family, Weir obtained a medical degree before setting up a practice in his native Owensboro. The wider medical community came to know Weir through his prolific writings.
A student of Charles Darwin, Dr Weir wrote extensively about the distinctions between human beings and animals. He was particularly fascinated by regressive and animalistic behaviours in humans. Among the works published by Weir were Pygmies in the United States, Religion and Lust and Dawn of Reason, or Mental Traits in the Lower Animals. In an essay called “A Little Excursion into Savagery”, Weir confesses to taking a week off every June so he can romp around the Kentucky forest “living like a savage”, dwelling in a cave and eating roasted squirrel.
Weir was also willing to use his pseudo-scientific theories as a political device. In 1894 he penned an essay asserting that striking and rioting workers were “evidence of [evolutionary] degeneration”. The following year Weir went even further, claiming that female suffrage would create to generations of degenerate women with unhealthy masculine features. He cited historical examples of oversexed and overly masculine female leaders, including Messalina, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I (“she was more man than woman”) and Catherine the Great (“a dipsomaniac and a creature of unbounded and inordinate sensuality”).
If women were given the vote and access to political power, Weir claimed, over time they become “viragints”:
“Viraginity has many phases… The tom boy who abandons her dolls and female companions for the marbles and masculine sports of her boy acquaintances… The loud talking, long stepping, slang using young woman… The square shouldered, stolid, cold, unemotional, unfeminine android…”
According to Weir, those who promote female suffrage and equal rights – suffragettes and campaigners like Susan B. Anthony – are already viragints, “individuals who plainly show that they are physically abnormal”. Extending suffrage to women would cause a slow but inevitable and widespread shift toward viraginity:
“The simple right to vote carries with it no immediate danger. The danger comes afterward, probably many years after the establishment of female suffrage, when woman, owing to her atavistic tendencies, hurries ever backward toward the state of her barbarian ancestors. I see in the establishment of equal rights, the first step toward that abyss of immoral horrors…”
Weir died in agony of ‘abdominal dropsy’ while holidaying in Virginia Beach. He was 50 years old. Just 14 years after his death, an amendment to the United States Constitution gave American women full suffrage.
In 1826, the British medical journal Lancet reported on a case of “idiocy accompanied with nymphomania” successfully treated by a Dr Graefe of Berlin.
The unnamed patient was born in 1807 and remained apparently healthy until 14 months of age, at which point she was struck down by a severe fever and bedridden for almost two years. This illness took a toll on the girl’s mental faculties. According to her childhood physician she was unable to talk and “exhibited unequivocal marks of idiocy”.
The patient’s deterioration continued until 1821, shortly after her 14th birthday, when Dr Graefe was first called to attend:
“He soon perceived that the girl had an insatiable propensity for self-pollution, which she performed either by rubbing her extremities on a chair or by the reciprocal fright of her thighs. From this time there could be no doubt [about] the treatment of the case.”
Dr Graefe ordered a three-step treatment for “self-pollution”:
“A bandage was applied, capable of preventing friction in the sitting position… A straight waistcoat was put on her at bedtime, and counter-irritation by the application of a hot iron to the neighbourhood of the part affected.”
In June 1822 Dr Graefe, deciding that insufficient progress had been made, carried out an “excision of the clitoris”. After the wound had healed the patient made a slow but steady recovery, to the point where she can “talk, read, reckon accounts, execute several kinds of needlework and play a few easy pieces on the pianoforte.”
Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) was an American physician, phrenologist and writer. The son of a New York farmer and preacher, Fowler studied at Amherst College, graduating in 1834 alongside Henry Ward Beecher.
While at Amherst, Fowler became interested in phrenology, the pseudo-science of ascertaining character and personality by studying the dimensions of the skull. Few academics took this seriously but Fowler nevertheless made money by giving ‘skull readings’ to his fellow students. After graduating he opened a phrenological practice in New York City, which later became quite profitable.
A prolific writer and lecturer, Fowler was also known for his quirky theories and social reforms. In the 1850s he pioneered the construction of octagon-shaped houses, claiming they were easier to build, more spacious and symmetrical and conducive to “a harmonious environment”.
Fowler was something of a progressive, arguing against slavery, child labour and corporal punishment. A supporter of the ‘votes for women’ lobby, his views on women were also relatively enlightened. Nevertheless Fowler was still prone to Victorian naivete about women. Writing in 1870 he told his male readers that slackness in their wives’ breasts could be corrected with a little quality time together:
“Have your wife’s breasts declined since you courted and married her? It is because her womb has declined… and nursing up her love will rebuild both her womb and breasts… Court her up again, as you used to do before marriage. Besides reddening up her now pale cheeks, lightening up her now lagging motion and animating her flagging spirits, you will redevelop her shriveled breasts! Stay home at nights from your clubrooms, billiard saloons and lodges to read or talk to her… you’ll get well ‘paid’ every time you see her bust. And your infants will be better fed.”
Conversely, Fowler warned that continuing to ignore your wife and neglect her emotional needs will produce “two opposite results” – in other words, the more you go out, the saggier they will become. In addition, Fowler was also a vocal critic of women who read novels.
While ancient writers scarcely understood the process of menstruation, they were hysterically afraid of its product. Most considered menstrual blood a deadly poison, potent enough to exterminate or retard most forms of plant and animal life.
According to Pliny the Elder, the mere presence of a menstruating woman could turn wine sour, drive away bees and spoil fruit. Farmers could rid their crops of grubs, wrote Pliny, by having a menstruating woman walk around their fields, naked from the waist down. Menstruation was not only dangerous to others, it also heightened the fertility of a woman’s entire body.
One common claim, attributed to Albertus Magnus and cited in a 1647 text, is that a menstruating woman’s pubic hair could be used to grow a snake:
“Albertus does say that if the [pubic] hair of a woman in the time of her flowers [menstruation] be put into dung, a venomous serpent is engendered of it.”
Maternal impression – a belief that a mother’s actions and experiences during pregnancy will shape the physiology and character of her child – was a medieval idea that held sway until the late 19th century.
One physician who perpetuated it was Dr Walter Y. Cowl, a New York obstetrician and homeopathist. Writing in 1878, Cowl repeated numerous anecdotal accounts of maternal impression. In Rome, “ugly boors and women with hideous features” give birth to “sons and daughters of surprising beauty” – because they spend their lives looking at “grand statues and paintings”. A Boston lawyer bore a striking resemblance to Napoleon Bonaparte because his parents, obsessed with the French leader, had Napoleon’s picture in their bedroom.
In a cautionary tale to mothers, Cowl cites a case, originally described by Hester Pendleton, of a woman who studied while pregnant:
“For some months previous to the birth of her fifth child [she] exercised her mental powers to their fullest extent. She attended lectures, both literary and scientific, and read much of such works as tended to strengthen the reason and judgement… Her labour, always before short and easy, was this time two days in duration and exceedingly painful, owing to a very large foetal head, with especial prominence of the forehead. The child, a son, now grown, bids fair to outstrip in ability all her other children.”