Women in the 19th & 20th Century


Source: kennesaw.edu

“As governed by nature a woman is ruled by her uterus,” it is in this writer’s belief an untrue characterization of women but it is the exact label attached to them . A woman’s mental and physical health dictated by a society who recognized her as weak and dependable creatures. Science has shown how man like Aristotle from ancient times drew references to the size of a woman’s brain, classifying her as inferior to the man. It is for this reason her characterization was not intelligent enough for tertiary education and as a result not formidable for prominent positions in the professional world. Her wage was less for doing the same job as a man who  even if she was just as qualified as. Her physical well-being was so fragile that she needed the constant protection of the man. The woman learned to accept herself as a damsel in distress and always  protected from subjects of sexuality which would cause too much blushing for her. Thus whilst in chambers conversations on topics such as of circumcision for men and the laws against buggery, the issue of lesbianism was a concern but could not be addressed directly to women because the subject was too vulgar. She was the shielded Victorian woman.Therefore, one can posit the view that the view of women’s physical and mental health in the 19th and 20th century was that she inferior and fragile; she could not do to the superior level of the men.

Women perceived less intelligent than men, therefore incapable of excelling in certain profession such as the sciences. The perception that women brains were not formidable as men started before the 19th century; it was a view started by misogynist who were on a quest to keep women subjected to men at all times – both in the private and public sphere. According to Londa Schiebinger the accomplishments of many women in science got negated from history, thereby reflecting the false premise that men were usually always the inventors and not women. The belief was that the “women brain was too small for scientific reasoning,” therefore her contribution in the field of science was not her own.[1] Furthermore, it is instructive to note that when the new discipline of science emerged in the 1920’s and 1930’s, even the few women in the field such as Marie Boas, Martha Ornistein and Dorothy Stimson mentioned very little of the women in science.[2]

Furthermore, it was difficult for the small percentage of women in science in the early 20th to publish their findings and be taken seriously. A few resorted to the use pseudonyms such as  H.J. Mozano because it was a way to make sure that the public not only read the work but also respected their it because it seems as a male name. H.J. Mozano detailed work on women in science published in 1913 in America, blatantly stating that what women had accomplished at that point in science was in favour with a public who believed that the most valued work she can do is in the private sphere.[3] Therefore, it was only after a struggle in the field of the history of science that more literature on women emerged more constantly from the 1940’s and 1950’s. However, the literature on women portrayed the few women who excelled as part of a male dominated world, making it seem that women such as Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin were merely substituting for men in science. This writer agrees with Londa Schiebinger when she points out that the labelling for women in this form in the history of science “retains the male norm as the measure of excellence.”[4] Women are not necessary seen as part of the process  but a mere substitute in the process because of the few that they were the few exceptional women who succeeded. Furthermore, it is important to point out that some authors did biographies in that department to dispel the belief that women were mere few exceptional to the common place but as a usual in the science work place. For example, Margaret Rossiter works on the analysis of the structure of the scientific community and the role of women within that community.[5]

The perception that women’s mental health was not on the same level as men affected their earning power and the personal choice into schools of higher learning. Additionally, in this writer’s belief the view that women were not capable of performing tasks at work or in schools led to discrimination against women. Women entered many prestigious universities at a later date than their male counterparts and it was not because they were not intellectual. According to Londa Schiebinger, as a group women were not admitted to European universities until late 19th century – Switzerland in the 1860’s, England in the 1870’s, France in the 1880’s and Germany in the 1900’s.[6] The discrimination against women entering universities is seen when prestigious scientific academies set up since the 1660’s, only admitted women on in the late 1900’s. For example, Acadѐmie des Sciences in Paris established in 1666 admitted the first woman, Yvonne Choquot-Bruhat in 1979.[7]

It is instructive to recall that it was generally claimed “that women’s brain weights and deficient brain structures were analogous to those of lower rates and their inferior intellectuals explained on this basis.”[8] The general consensus is that women skulls were similar to ‘negroes’, in that it was small, delicate and childlike and not similar to the superior skill of a male. It is for this reason,  that a woman was inept of learning, and there was no need for her to attend university and the qualified place that a university would give. Furthermore, Stephan explains that many believed that women and people of the lower races were “impulsive, emotional and imitative, and not original, and incapable of the abstract reasoning found in white men.”[9] Generally, the view was that women could not form rational decisions as the ‘superior’ man simply because she was a woman. It is for this reason she got denied certain job positions in fields regarded as prestigious such as science. According to Londa Schiebinger even when discrimination became illegal in the 20th century based on sex in employment and education, the number of women in certain fields in science remains low. For example, there was a 200% increase for employed women in the US government and other fields of scientists and engineers, between 1972 and 1982, whilst an employment rate of 40% for men.[10] However, the increase did not apply to the more prestigious positions in science such as physics – only 4% of women employed in that field in 1980, when more women trained and qualified for the place.[11]

Furthermore, note that that although women received fewer degrees, their degrees considered as significant as men, however most of the women scientists were either unemployed or underemployed.[12] Women earned less than men in many professional fields including science. For example, it was not until 1927 that it was legal to use women doctors in England but the actual appointments did not begin until after World War Two.[13] Furthermore, Showalter explains that in the 19th century in asylums in England female nurses and matrons received lower wages than men, attached as less reliable for the job and afflicted with more rules and regulations.[14] This is a clear sign that although the women receive the same training and grades as the men, they were still not considered suitable for the job. Additionally, when women did work with men in science, the relationships developed was not cordial enough for effective team co-operation . They were never seen on equal levels but rather as either father or daughter or boyfriend or girlfriend, hardly as a co-scientist relationship. A clear example is in the career of Waelsh who described her professor Spemann as “anti-Semite and strong anti-feminist.”[15] Waelsh explains that although her professor accepted her, he gave her to work on descriptive study whilst the important projects to a young man who became his favourite student. She continues to explain that she was not the only female graduate students who felt the intellectual discrimination by the professor – she calls names such as Else Wehmeier and Hilde Mangold.[16]

It is important to call attention to the analogy of a female brain to a child and a Negro. In this writer’s opinion, it is a belief that blatantly reveals not only discrimination but racial connotations. It was such a view that affected women employment in the colonial West Indies. According to Sheila Stuart “the professional growth and development of women within the Caribbean is very rarely planned, and career choices tend to be rather limited and limiting.”[17] This means, as Hilary Beckles points out, that the women exclusion from mainstream industrious employment and black women found difficulty in finding respectful employment. According to Beckles, nursing was one of the employments in the colonial West Indies which was not considered a high profession but still socially respectable for the women who held the place, who were mainly whites. The women in the West Indies had to deal with not only discrimination but institutional racism because the local élite whites determination to keep blacks out. For example, before the 1937 worker’s rebellion in Barbados, the medical staffs at the Barbados General Hospital was all white, visiting, and non-resident.[18] Thus, as Margaret Gill puts it the plight of the West Indies women could be seen in  early debarring from the nursing profession. Could you imagine the pain the black West Indian women would experience, in seeing nurses coming from as far as Australia, Canada and England to work in the hospitals and sick houses? Furthermore, Gill explains that very few women such as Nita Barrow held nursing positions because of marginalization. Additionally, it is important to note that even when parents knew the benefit of education, few opportunities for secondary school education were open to many black women.[19] Furthermore, in the West Indies similarly to the metropolis, women received lower rages than men as “by law, minimum pay rates were specified by sex.”[20] It is noteworthy to point out that since the history of slavery purported that all women worked, after slavery mostly all able women did work but were kept in positions that considered subservient. However, in Europe, the condition for women coming out of the Victorian era was different because her place was chiefly expected in the private sphere.

A woman’s body considered  inferior and weak compared to a man, thus she needed protection and instruction on how to care for it. Karl Figlio explanation of chlorosis and chronic disease in Britain in the 19th century reveals that many thought womanhood was a disease because of the menstrual cycle. It was one part of a woman which was completely different from a man; hence it was socially constructed as a disease which needed a cure. Thus, when a woman was on a menstrual cycle she was unclean and because of her cycle she was “bound to a special, delicately balanced physiology from puberty to menopause.”[21] Additionally, Llana Lӧwy further expound on this point by showing how the thought that menstruation was a monthly waste and menopause signalled the end of the woman’s “biological potential.”[22] On the other hand, the sperm was as an extremely useful substance that contributed to procreation. It is very interesting how a woman, when she is in her most fertile years gets mark as partaking of a wasteful process. However, when the process has ended she is still seen as unfit but when her male counterpart ejaculates it is productive.  Furthermore, the woman deemed, as fragile and unfit for masculine activity, which meant protection and shelter for her in society. Hence, according to Mary Poovey when the debate on  chloroform ensured in Europe, the complaint was that women would not be able to control themselves when administered the drug. Meaning she would be left exposed to the wills of a doctor – who most likely was male. Mayhem broke out in the medical field in Europe as many argued against a woman  left helpless in the private chambers of a doctor’s office. Immediately, one can note that the health of women because more problematic in the eyes of men, who dominated the medicinal field. The drug chloroform created grave concerns for the medical field because it would be use in childbirth. One must remember in the Victorian period that the uterus was the essence in a woman. In this writer’s opinion, the value placed on the reproductive organ of the woman more than a man’s own, suggests that women lack in being defined more than a man on their reproductive capacity.

One must be cognisant of the fact that women’ opinion on the decisions of the drug  used on their body was not given great attention. It is very ironic how a priest and a doctor can decide the correct drug  used on a woman than listening attentively to how it affected her through her words – as a patient she almost silent. Furthermore, chloroform brought out a number of issues that the medical community wanted hidden. Firstly, the debate on the drug engaged the public and certain doctors such as Dr. Robert Lee believed that the authority and control that the medical community had on the issue was diminishing. It was a concern because it meant that people such as women were gaining insight on the monopoly that men held over their bodies. Secondly, for the medical community, a woman’s sexuality was given too much attention when it was readily agreed that  a ‘moral woman’ would be used to describe the Victorian woman.

In this writer’s opinion, the medical community wanted complete control over  a woman’s sexuality and when they felt they, were losing control, sort ways to show women in a negative light. For example according to Ornella Moscucci, from the mid-Victorian era many constructed nervous diseases  simply to eradicate masturbation. They believed that masturbation cause most sicknesses among women, therefore to reduce the women received the diagnosis that they were sick because of it. Therefore, doctors such as Isaac Baker Brown practised clitoridectomy – the removal of the clitoris – which is the source of sexual pleasure for women. When women, in Britain discovered the clitoris it was troubling for men because the woman now had the means of pleasuring themselves, an act that the men supposedly were in control of. Furthermore, according to Moscucci, although both male and female masturbation deemed as self-destructive, for women it was considered graver because the social order of the day became defiled. There was the concern of the increase self pleasure in women and the raise in lesbianism, which means less dependence on men for sexual gratification. Additionally, in Africa clitoridectomy was a practise to keep female sexuality in check. It was believed that prostitutes and blacks linked to uninhibited sexuality and therefore venereal disease.

Moreover, it is important to note that  women’s mental and physical health treatment, demonstrates the nature of a patriarchal society. Since men were the decision makers on not only finance but the human body, they derived ways  to separate women from men and to keep up that separation. For example, according to G. Stanley Hall neurasthenia affected men and women differently. For a man, the disease affected him because of his job as a business person or professional to the technological revolution in the 19th century. However, a woman became affected more because of the strain of industrialization on her mental activity – it believed to drain her ability of being healthy mothers. Immediately, one realizes that the fragility that connected to being a woman and the dominate role assigned to her – a mother. In addition, women fragility showed  in the 19th century in Britain when poor women placed in asylums because of the classified as pauper lunatics.  According to Showalter, for every 1, 000 men in Britain in 1872, there were 1, 242 female pauper lunatics.[23] They were paupers because they were either neglected by husbands or were wives of prisoners or single parents. What is alarming is rather than the government address the economic conditions of the women; they dubbed them lunatics. Furthermore, another attempt to separate a woman’s mental structure from a man is when doctors struggled to name the change in the behaviour of soldiers. “Charles Mayers did not want to stigmatize British soldiers as hysterical”[24] because women were known as hysterics and not men. Therefore, until the end of World War One, they blamed the  change on the exploding shell – the illness called shellshock. Furthermore, the patriarchal view could be seen in biology when Lowy shares a very interesting view on the concept of fertilization. The egg seen as the passive one, just sitting waiting for the aggressive sperm to do the work of facilitating conception. Sadly, a woman is seen as timid in every aspect of life.

Work Cited

Angela Creager, N. Lunbeck and Londa Schiebinger. Feminism in Twentieth Century Science, Technology and Medicine. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2001.

Beckles, Hilary. “Nursing Colonial Wounds: Nita Barrow and Public health Reform after the 1930’s Workers’ Revolution.” Cobley, Eudine Barriteau and Alan. Stronger, Surer, Bolder: Ruth Nita Barrow, Social Change and International Development. Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001. 26-45.

Figlio, Karl. “Chlorosis and Chronic Disease in Nineteenth Century Britain: The Social Construction of Somatic Illness in a Capitalist Society.” Social History (1987): 167-197.

Gill, Margaret. “Nursing Politics and Social Change in the Caribbean: The Nita Years.” Cobley, Eudine Barriteau and Alan. Stronger, Surer, Bolder: Ruth Nita Barrow, Social Change and International Development. Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001. 49-73.

Hall, G. Stanley. “”Teaching Our Sons to Do What We Have Been Teaching the Savages to Avoid”.” Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the US. Chicago: The University Chicago Press , 1995. 46-77.

Lowy, Llana. “Gender and Science.” Gender and History (1995): 514-527.

Moscucci, Ornella. “Clitoridectomy, circumsion, and the politics of sexual pleasure in mid-Victorian Britain.” Adams, Andrew Miller and James. Sexualities in Victorian Britain. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. 60-78.

Mosse, George L. “Shell Shock As A Social Disease.” Journal of Contemprary History, Vol. 35, No.1, Special Issue: Shell Shock (January, 2000): 101-108.

Poovey, Mary. “Scenes of an Indelicate Character: The Medical Treatment of Victorian Women.” Laquer, Catherine Gallagher and Thomas. The Making of the Modern Body. Berkeley: Carlifornia UP, 1987. 24-50.

Schiebinger, Londa. “The History and Philosphy of Women in Science: A Review Essay.” Signs (1987): 302-332.

Showalter, Elaine. “Victorian Women and Insanity.” Victorian Studies (1980): 157-179.

Stephan, Nancy Leys. “Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Science.” Isis 77 (1986): 261-277.

Stuart, Sheila. “The Smell of Sweet Apples.” Cobley, eds. Eudine Barriteau and Alan. Stronger, Surer, Bolder: Ruth Nita Barrow, Social Change and International Development. Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001. 75-100.

[1] Londa Schiebinger, “The History and Philosophy of Women in Science: A Review Essay,” Signs 12 (1987): 311. (Stephan)

[2] Ibid., 312

[3] Ibid.,311

[4] Ibid., 314

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 316

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nancy Leys Stephan, “Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Science,” Isis 77, (1986): 263.

[9] Ibid., 263

[10] Schiebinger, 318

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 319

[13] Elaine Showalter, “Victorian Women and Insanity,” Victorian Studies (1980):  165

[14] Ibid.

[15] Angela Creager, N. Lunbeck, and Londa Schiebinger, Feminism in the Twentieth Century Science, Technology and Medicine (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2001), Introduction

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sheila Stuart, “The Smell of Sweet Apples,” Stronger, Surer, Bolder: Ruth Nita Barrow, Social Change and International Development, eds. Eudine Barriteau and Alan Cobley (Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001), 75

[18] Hilary Beckles, “Nursing Colonial Wounds: Nita Barrow and Public Health Reform after the 1930’s Workers’ Revolution,” Stronger, Surer, Bolder: Ruth Nita Barrow, Social Change and International Development, eds. Eudine Barriteau and Alan Cobley (Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001), 27

[19] Margaret Gill, “Nursing Politics and Social Change in the Caribbean: The Nita Years,” Stronger, Surer, Bolder: Ruth Nita Barrow, Social Change and International Development, eds. Eudine Barriteau and Alan Cobley (Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001), 51

[20] Gill, 52

[21] Karl Figlio, “Chlorosis and Chronic Disease in Nineteenth Century Britain: The Social Constitution of Somatic Illness in a Capitalist Society,” Social History Volume 2 No.3 (1978), 171

[22] Llana Lowy, “Gender and Science,” Gender and History Vol.11 (1995), 518

[23] Showalter, 160

[24] George L. Mosse, “Shell-Shock as a Social Disease,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.35, No.1 (2001), 103


2 responses »

    • Thank you for your recommendation Doug. I followed the link an the summary pulled my interest. I have made a note of the title, as soon as I am able I will get it.


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