I love used bookstores. So much fun to browse for treasures that are dusty with torn covers, but irresistible. My latest find is a book with an intriguing title: What a Woman of 45 Ought to Know. The author, Mrs. Emma F.A. Drake, M.D., was born in 1849. The book frontispiece says she was a graduate of Boston University Medical College: formerly Physician and Principal of Mr. Moody’s School at Northfield, Mass; and Professor of Obstetrics at Denver Homeopathic Medical School and Hospital.
When I read her qualifications and the “praise” blurbs from “Eminent men and women” like Emily Bouton, author of House and Domestic Decorations and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “noted woman suffragist,” I was hooked.
The doctor authored or contributed to a number of books such as The Story of Life which was published in 1909. Parts were excerpted in Safe Counsel where the she describes the husband’s role in reproduction: “Sometimes it is the wind which blows the pollen dust from one plant to the other, and sometimes it is the bees gathering honey from the flowers. As they suck the honey from the blossoms some of the plant dust sticks to their legs and bodies, and as they go to another plant in search of sweets this is rubbed off and so the parts of the father and mother plant get together and the seed is made fertile.”
Safe Counsel was reprinted at least 40 times from 1893 through 1930. Perhaps it contributed to the euphemism, “the birds and the bees” along with many pregnancies that must have seemed like miracles because there were no blossoms or bees at the time.
The book I bought comes from a series called “Pure Books on Avoided Subjects” which includes books for men too, such as: What a Young Husband Ought to Know. In case you were wondering: the copyright on What a Woman is dated 1902.
So just what did a woman of 45 in 1902 need to know? She needed to know about menopause. Apparently woman will find it harder, “even with a large store of grace, to keep her mind unruffled, her words always gentle and kindly considerate.” Women before this time in life are urged again and again to a “more careful conservation of her forces, that she may have sufficient to tide her over these trying years.” The doctor said she could look forward to vomiting, jaundice, constipation, asthma among a whole host of other unpleasant problems. Even worse, there would be “outbursts of insanity,” attempts to undertake “unequal tasks,” contracting uncongenial marriages, neglecting family and the “formation of the habit for the stronger stimulants.” The final blow comes on page 65: “Undoubtedly the withdrawing to a considerable extent of the blood from the sexual system causes a greater distribution of that element to the brain or to the central nervous system.”
But wait!! There’s help. The woman needed to learn the art of resting – fancy embroidery is to be avoided. Her children should be allowed run the plain things through the wringer and use bath towels that don’t need ironing while the mother should learn games to play with the family because, “It is a woman’s business to please. I don’t say it is not her business to vote, but it is essentially her business to please…” The good doctor was also enamored of the habits of upper class Englishwomen who apparently took long sea-voyages (years long apparently). But above all the woman of 45 in the throes of menopause she should avoid “unbridled passion.”
I cannot imagine how all this advice played out to the women who labored in factories, farms, and mills just to keep bread on the table. They probably never heard of the book with its mostly-useless advice anyway. And with no birth control it wouldn’t have mattered if she wanted to avoid unbridled passion, nor would she ever have the luxury to sleep nine hours a night with naps during the day.
Ah, well, I’m apparently a living miracle to have survived. I closed the book to contemplate the advice. As I put it down, a faint whiff of cigarette smoke escaped the pages. Could some woman of 45 have taken a break, enjoyed a quick smoke, and laughed as she enjoyed an afternoon of unbridled passion before she threw away the book?