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Victorian Men, Women and Menstruation

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Bleedin’ Woman Part 3 –

Victorian Men, Women and Menstruation.

By Nikki Sullings

Men have since biblical times set standards of what is normal and what is not. It is normal for a man to be able to function unimpaired mentally and physically every day of the month unless he is sick. Therefore women who are not able to function at the same level every day of the month are abnormal and menstruation is pathologised as a form of illness (Cranny-Francis, 1995, p.8).

Prior to and up until the end of the Victorian era men were literate and educated so they wrote and read the newspapers and books. Women had no access to education so could not read or write. Therefore there was no advertising directed at women and women were not publicly informed about their bodies by medical writers. At this time it was a mother’s responsibility to inform her daughter with the little she knew about her body as there was not only no accessible information regarding menstruation but also little medical knowledge on the subject.

During the Victorian era in England of the mid nineteenth century menstruating women and the concept of menstruation came under much scrutiny and vilification, under the guise of a new medical discipline in women’s diseases leaving a deep imprint for the medical and social knowledge of women’s bodies in western societies to follow.

A transition in authority over education about women’s bodies also took place at this time. Medical writers and practitioners (who were male by default) assumed an arrogant and obsessive position of authority over women’s menstrual health and the dissemination of information about women’s bodies. Female midwives were seen at this point as incompetent in the face of this new male science (Shuttleworth in Jacobus, Fox Keller and Shuttleworth 1990, p.47-52).

Doctors believed that the regularity of a woman’s period was related to her mental health – her body controlled her mind. English lecturer and cultural researcher Sally Shuttleworth describes the perceived relationship between women’s circulation, menstrual cycles and mental health:

A woman’s period was believed to play a uniquely causative role in the unified circulating system of body and mind. The physiological, mental and emotional economies of womanhood were all regarded as interdependent. Any aberration in the menstrual flow – must inevitably create an equivalent form of mental disorder. Similarly, strong emotions could cause menstrual obstructions leading in turn to insanity and death. If the menstrual flow were obstructed, and thence denied its usual exit, it would, Doctors warned be forced to flood the brain and thus lead to irreparable psychological breakdown. (Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, pp.47-48)

One source of Victorian ideas may have been William Buchan’s section on Menstrual Discharge under the heading Diseases of Women in his book Domestic Medicine. (Not only does Buchan assume that menstruation is a disease but he also relegates women’s health to the realm of domestic life – not a serious medical matter). Sally Shuttleworth explains the theories of Buchan and his contemporaries regarding the precautions a women should take when menstruating:

Any exertion of the mind, whether of intellectual effort, or fierce emotion, might prove fatal, it was suggested, in creating stoppage of menstrual flow. Women should therefore concentrate on dulling the mind, allowing the processes of their body to proceed unimpeded by mental obstruction.(Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, p.57)

Medical texts also proclaimed that women were “attractive to men (and thus truly female) only during the period of activity of their reproductive organs” (Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, p.62). This illustrates the same highly sexist mentality where women are attractive to men only as passive vessels for reproduction and sexual activity as adopted by men of biblical times.

Men’s collective desire to control women was influenced at this time by the emergence of the Industrial Revolution which posed several perceived man. Concerns such as the allowance of workforce (only lower class women in unskilled, part-time positions when industry demand existed), the threat of losing work to a machine and an obsession with accumulation and stockpiling due to new economies- perception of free, uninterrupted flow as a representation of healthy trade were metonymically placed onto the female body (Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, p.53-55).

Victorianism also strengthened and codified in medical science the biblical associations between woman and the body and man and the mind. Medical texts placed a crucial gender distinction between the medical treatment of men and women. Women needed to resort to external medication and supervision regarding menstruation and hence their physical and mental health, while men needed nothing more than their own internal resources of strength and rightness of mind.

As women were not seen as able to control their health it was therefore the responsibility of the father or oldest male as the dominant figure in every household, to ensure that a woman’s ‘menses’ are regular and that there is no cause for obstruction to the menstrual flow (Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, p.57).

Menstruation became an obsessive focus for the male sciences probably because despite extensive research, it was still not fully understood. Medical theorists used it as a vessel to lower women to the status of animals:

Even in 1854 the discharge is still described as the consequence of “a peculiar periodical condition of the blood vessels of the uterus, fitting it for impregnation, which condition is analogous to heat in the inferior animals”.(Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, p.60).

The more research was pursued the more it seemed that a majority of women were suffering from some form of uterine disease. Doctors examining women claimed that it was not male fascination with the female body that led to such examinations but lascivious women luring men on to examine their sexual organs, and that respectable, middle class and unmarried women fell into the mental and moral condition of prostitutes. Once again women were forced to bear the shame evoked by male guilt over their own sexual arousal (Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, p.63).

The first advertising focused on female menstruation emerged at this time, mostly for “corrective pills” that assisted in regulating a woman’s menstrual period, removing “obstructions” to the menstrual flow and relieving the “symptoms” and “affectations” associated with menstruation such as “general weakness, nervousness, giddiness, pains in the head, breast, side or stomach and all nervous and hysterical affectations” (Shuttleworth in Jacobus et al. 1990, pp.49-51). These were the only elements within the newspapers of this era addressed to a female audience (or for those who were illiterate, to their husbands or fathers).

These advertisements were indirect in their mode of address containing codified information and never making mention of menstruation or blood. In the self interested act of marketing their wares, the medical practitioners also skillfully manipulated the language and rhetoric using medical authority to invoke fear and insecurity.

On to next page – Modernist Advertising and the Modern Woman

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