Category Archives: Sexism

1895: Voting turns women into barbarians, says Dr Weir

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 tomboy 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. Fourteen years after his death, an amendment to the United States Constitution gave American women full suffrage.

Source: James Weir Jr. MD, “The Effect of Female Suffrage on Posterity” in The American Naturalist, vol.29, September 1895. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1821: Hot iron and straightjacket cures self pollution

self pollution
One word: “Ouch”.

In 1826 the British medical journal Lancet reported a case of “idiocy accompanied with nymphomania”, successfully treated by 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 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.”

Source: Revue Medicale, Oct. 1826, cited in The Lancet, vol. 9, 1826. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1870: Nights-in will “redevelop shrivelled breasts”

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 also 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 shrivelled 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.

Source: Orson S. Fowler, Creative and Sexual Science, or Manhood, Womanhood and their Mutual Interrelations, Cincinatti, 1870. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1647: Grow your own poisonous snake with pubic hair

Ancient writers understood little about the process of menstruation – but they were hysterically afraid of its product. Most considered menstrual blood a deadly poison, potent enough to exterminate or retard all 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, but 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.”

Sources: Pliny the Elder, Natural History, c.79AD; RW, The Problems of Aristotle, with other Philosophers and Physicians, 1647. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1878: Study in pregnancy leads to big-headed children

‘Maternal impression’ is the belief that a mother’s actions and experiences during pregnancy will shape the physiology and character of her child. It was a medieval idea that held sway until the late 19th century.

One 19th-century 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 refers to a case originally described by Hester Pendleton, where a woman who studied while pregnant gave birth to a big-headed child:

“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.”

Source: Walter Y. Cowl MD, “Similia Similibus Generantur” in The North American Journal of Homeopathy, vol.26, 1878. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.