Monday, August 4, 2008

The More Things Change ...

I'm about halfway through Lisa Appignanesi's Mad, Bad and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors, and it's full of interesting stuff. One of the points she makes that I found most interesting was that the symptoms of each historical period's most-talked-about disorders tended to reflect the social concerns of their time and place, particularly questions of what it means to be a woman. Some disorders, like neurasthenia*, resulted in their female sufferers embodying an extreme version of their time's ideal of femininity --- the neurasthenic woman was so delicate she could not get up out of bed, or turn the lights on. Reading, writing or rigorous intellectual work were out of the question, as doctors prescribing the "rest cure" were wont to insist.

Neurasthenia could also be invoked as a bogeyman to threaten women who wanted to pursue independent, nontraditional lives: the literature of the time was full of claims that women's nerves were weaker than men's, and could not handle the strain of serious mental activity.

This is a matter of physiology, not a matter of sentiment; it is not a mere question of larger or smaller muscles, but of the ... nerve force which drives the intellectual and muscular machinery; not a question of two bodies and minds that are in equal physical condition, but of one body and mind capable of sustained and regular hard labour, and another body and mind which for one quarter of each month, during the best years of life, is more or less sick and unfit for hard work. (Henry Maudsley, "Sex in Mind and Education," quoted in Appignanesi)

[S]uffice it to say that multitudes of our young girls are merely pretty to look at, or not that; that their destiny is the shawl and the sofa, neuralgia, weak backs, and the varied forms of hysteria, that domestic demon which has produced untold discomfort in many a household, and, I am almost ready to say, as much unhappiness as the husband's dram.
During some of these [teenage] years they are undergoing such organic development as renders them remarkably sensitive. At seventeen I presume that healthy girls are as well able to study, with proper precautions, as men; but before this time overuse, or even a very steady use, of the brain is in many dangerous to health and to every probability of future womanly usefulness. (Silas Weir Mitchell, Wear and Tear, or, Hints for the Overworked)

The growth of this peculiar and marvellous [reproductive] apparatus, in the perfect development of which humanity has so large an interest, occurs during the few years of a girl's educational life. No such extraordinary task, calling for such rapid expenditure of force, building up such a delicate and extensive mechanism within the organism ... is imposed upon the male physique at the same epoch. The organization of the male grows steadily, gradually, and equally, from birth to maturity. The importance of having our methods of female education ... allow a sufficient opportunity for the healthy development of the ovaries and their accessory organs, and for the establishment of their periodical functions, cannot be overestimated. ...There have been instances, and I have seen such, of females in whom the special mechanism we are speaking of remained germinal, undeveloped. It seemed to have been aborted. They graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married,and were sterile. (Edward H. Clarke, Sex in Education) (All emphases mine.)

These dire imaginings have a familiar ring for me, and not just because I've read some women's history books. No, these alarms are still being sounded. The controversy isn't about women's education anymore --- on that right, at least, almost everyone agrees --- but about women putting off marriage and children to start careers. Since the 1980s, women have been bombarded with messages about how our fertility and marriageability decline drastically throughout our late twenties and early thirties. Intellectual work is again set at odds with future marriage and parenthood, not because of some imagined physical rivalry between the brain and the uterus, but because women supposedly do not have enough time to "do it all." The same specter of the dried-up, childless thirtysomething spinster is still evoked as the ultimate fate of the too-bookish or ambitious woman, and it is still assumed that women, unlike men, have to choose between family life and meaningful work. The messages are the same; it's only the rationalizations that have changed.

*Neurasthenia could also be seen as a literal manifestation of the Victorians' ambivalence toward industrial modernity and urbanization, as Appignanesi says: "The times themselves, it seemed, were a shock to the nervous system, with their crowds and dirt, and the inevitable 'decadence' that followed."

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