Victorian Professional Women do not possess the brain power to succeed

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In my previous post, I shared the text from an 1889 dental periodical that illustrated the general horror most of the United States felt toward women who chose to invade “the male sphere”– specifically, employment that required higher education. Today, I’ll illustrate why Victorian Professional Women do not possess the brain power to succeed.

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Kristin Holt | Female Dentists (1889): Man Haters Without Maternal Instincts. Related to Victorian Professional Women do not possess the brain power to succeed.

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Popular Belief

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It was a popular belief that women were not built to take in much knowledge. In his 1875 book Sex and Education; or, a Fair Chance for Girls, Edward Clarke claims that while girls can go to school and study as boys do, this will cause them to suffer from: “euralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system (Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls, E.H. Clarke). [p7]

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~ Women and Madness in the 19th Century: The effects of oppression on women’s mental status, Elisabet Rakel Sigurðardóttir, September 2013,  Sigillum Universitatis Islandiae – Humanities Department of the University of Iceland.

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During the late nineteenth century, co-education (educating boys and girls together) was a hot topic. Educators (men) firmly believed that to attempt educating males and females side by side would prove disastrous. Not only (did they hold in firm belief) did men and women require knowledge of different subjects in preparation for their life’s role, but females simply could not withstand the rigor of an education designed for males. To co-educate would result with either damaged females, or males who were under-educated–because their systems, brains, and physical gifts allowed them to learn what women could not.

Sounds absolutely absurd in 2018, doesn’t it?

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Kristin Holt | Victorian Women do not possess the Brain Power to Succeed. Educational Methods of our schools and colleges for girls are a one of the most important causes of "the thousand ills" that beset American Women. ~ Sex in Education, 1875

Educational Methods, including Colleges for Girls, are a significant cause of “the thousand ills” that beset American Women. ~ Sex in Education, 1875.

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Educating Females Invites Disease

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… Among the female graduates of our colleges… may be found numberless pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic, hysterical, menorraghic [sic], dysmenorrhœic [sic] girls and women, that are living illustrations of the truth… It is not asserted here that improper methods of study, and a disregard of the reproductive apparatus and its functions, during the educational life of girls, are the sole causes of female diseases; neither is it asserted that all the female graduates of our schools and colleges are pathological specimens. But it is asserted that the number of these graduates who have been permanently disabled to a greater or less degree by these causes is so great, as to excite the gravest alarm, and to demand the serious attention of the community. If these causes should continue for the next half-century, and increase in the same ratio as they have for the last fifty years, it requires no prophet to foretell that the wives who are to be mothers in our republic must be drawn from trans-atlantic [sic] homes.

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~ Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls, E.H. Clarke. [p62-63]

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No Females Allowed

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Toward the end of the 19th century, some state universities allowed women to enroll in their degree programs. The private institutions, however, did not follow this pattern. As a result, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Barnard, Radcliffe, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr were established to provide women with single-gender university environments designed to meet their specific educational needs.

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~ The Education of Girls and Women in the United States: A Historical Perspective, Jennifer C. Madigan, San Jose State University

emphasis added

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“Specific Educational Needs” tended to include home economics, basic household bookkeeping, cooking, and the like. Notice this 1873 publication includes “comprehending the whole manner of life” as part of an education. Discipline, comprehending instruction, habits… everything about home life and social life. Balls, Parties, walking and riding, sewing and studying. From my viewpoint well into the twenty-first century, I see many in this era honestly believed that Victorian Professional Women did not possess the brain power to succeed.

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… though Yale University began admitting women to its graduate school in 1892, and though Yale Law School graduated its first African-American student, Edwin Archer Randolph, in 1880, Jane Bolin, the first African-American woman to receive her degree from Yale Law, only graduated in 1931 — showing the double burden women of color often had to deal with when pursuing an education (Bolin went on to become the first African-American woman to join the New York City Bar Association and the first African-American woman to serve as a judge in the U.S.).

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~ “Here’s How Women Fought For the Right To Be Educated Throughout History” by JR Thorpe, May 11, 2017, BUSTLE

emphasis added

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Here we see professional programs, did, eventually, allow women (and people of color) entrance.

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Kristin Holt | Victorian Professional Women do not possessthe brain power to succeed. Photograph of Helen Keller, 1889, with lifelong companion and teacher Anne Sullivan.

Helen Keller in 1899 with lifelong companion and teacher Anne Sullivan. Photo taken by Alexander Graham Bell at his School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech. Image: Public Domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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She [Helen Keller] was very keen to go to college, but this was at a time when college for women itself, of any kind, was regarded as rather controversial, and the practice still widely frowned on. Extended theory about women at that time was that their destiny and life was principally to be wives and mothers, and that excessive intellectual stimulation was dangerous. It was thought that women who became high-pressure intellectuals were vulnerable to hysteria, and the very early women’s colleges had been extremely careful in screening their students for mental and nervous stability so that they wouldn’t risk having their students become hysterical and give further ammunition to the male doctors, the medical orthodoxy, which said higher education for women is a bad idea.

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There was also the belief that educated women would make unattractive wives, they’d become mannish, and they’d start breaking down the necessary distinction between the two genders. So there’s a generalized opposition to women’s education.

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And when Helen Keller expresses a wish to go to college,  there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether she should do so. But luckily, many of her supporters, impressed by the achievements she’d already made, said she should have the opportunity , and enabled her to register at Radcliffe college in 1900. She graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe in 1904.

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~ Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, PhD, American Identity(The Great Courses)

emphasis added

Note: Audible offers a 30-minute snippet of this 24+ hr. course, titled American Originals: Helen Keller

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Kristin Holt | Victorian Professional Women do not possess the brain power to succeed. Photograph of Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D., Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory Univeristy

Professor Patrick N. Allitt, PhD of Emory University.

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Excessive Cerebral Exertion Stunts and Destroys Ovulation

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One of the greatest arguments for educating males as men and females as women–and never daring mix the two in co-education, resides in the late Victorian era’s strongly held physiological stance that the female body and male body are unerringly different.

It all boiled down to the reproductive system. While children were somewhat androgynous–they play, romp, run, and climb fences and trees, by the time of maturation (puberty), the medical specialists argued, that the “force” (energy) required for the once-in-a-life-time-chance to get the development right and completed couldn’t be taken too seriously.

After all, a body can’t sleep on a full stomach and expect the stomach to digest and the body to rest. Nor could a man create a poem and saw a log! Either the sawing would suffer or the poetry would–for they couldn’t exist in harmony. Sexual maturation, they argued, couldn’t occur in a stressful intellectual (or educational) environment.

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The brain cannot take more than its share without injury to other organs. It cannot do more than its share without depriving other organs of that exercise and nourishment which are essential to their health and vigor. It cannot be otherwise.  ~ Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls, E.H. Clarke, p43.

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Heaven forbid female students be subjected to high schools in preparation for college.

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“It is not enough,” says Dr. Charles West, the accomplished London physician, and lecturer on diseases of women, “it is not enough to take precautions till menstruation has for the first time occurred: the period for its return should, even in the healthiest girl, be watched for, and all previons [sic] precautions should be once more repeated; and this should be done again and again, until at length the habit of regular, healthy menstruation is established. if this be not accomplished during the first few years of womanhood, it will, in all probability, never be attained.” 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.

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~ Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls, E.H. Clarke.

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The same Dr. Clarke went so far as to conclude that women with small breasts were dangerously underdeveloped (arrested in the germinal states of development), and the likelihood of her ability to nurse her babies (should she actually be able to conceive and carry to term), close to nil. He cited several mysterious cases wherein small-breasted, scholarly women had been unable to nurse their babies and forced to resort to wet nurses or hand-feeding. Philosophy extended so far as to warn mothers that paying the dressmaker to pad their daughter’s bodices in selective (and necessary places) was a desperate warning sign that they’d ignored the critical developmental times in their daughters’ maturation, and allowed them to study too much.

No wonder that judge in a mining camp ruled that a bride who “padded” her figure could be rejected and the mail-order marriage agreement nullified.

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No Physical Capacity

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George R. Thomas, a graduate of the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, was an early skeptic of women dentists. He did not believe women were physically capable of performing lengthy oral surgeries. Thomas wrote, “it is an impracticable idea for women to enter the practice of dentistry. The constrained position of the operator is obliged to assume, and continue in for hours together, would, doubtless, under certain circumstances, prove very disastrous and perhaps fatal to a female operator.”

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~ University of Michigan Dentistry– Controversy: Supporters and Detractors

emphasis added

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Kristin Holt | Victorian Professional Women do not possess the brain power to succeed. Photograph: George R. Thomas, President, Michigan Dental Association (1872-1873 and 1876-1878).

George R. Thomas, President, Michigan Dental Association (1872-1873 and 1876-1878)

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“Insane by Reason of Over-Education”

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There’s a solid reason why Victorian Professional Women do not possess the brain power to succeed if I’ve ever seen one.

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A woman was supposed to be the dutiful wife, not to quarrel with her husband or demand equal rights. Even an independent woman did not have the right to vote, nor did she have any autonomy over her own self. As women began testing their boundaries and vying for their freedom, some of the more powerful opposition came from the scientific and medical establishment which specialised [sic] in nervous and mental illness. “The medical warnings against any activity that might change women’s domestic status, seen as a fact of God and nature, were deafening” (Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the present, Appignanesi, 120) [p6]

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… Edith Lanchester was admitted (to Frency [sic] asylums for twenty-four years) against her will in 1895, simply for refusing to marry. She was diagnosed as insane by reason of “over-education” (The Female Malady; Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980 by E. Showalter, p. 146).

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~ Women and Madness in the 19th Century: The effects of oppression on women’s mental status, Elisabet Rakel Sigurðardóttir, September 2013,  Sigillum Universitatis Islandiae – Humanities Department of the University of Iceland.

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The threat of being “judged insane” by a doctor, jury, or simply one’s closest male relative, was one of the greatest terrors a woman faced in the 19th century. A woman could be locked up in an asylum and bear terrible mistreatment, simply because her husband said she was insane.

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So Much Has Changed

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Most of my readers aren’t old enough to remember the hard-and-fast line in the sand, separating male privileges in education (and work) from women’s. Here’s one quick way to prove my thesis:

Do you remember Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972?

This moment marked the time when students were finally protected from discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal assistance. In 1974, the Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) was enacted.

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Kristin Holt | Victorian Professional Women do not Possess the Brain Power to Succeed. Quote from Epictetus (50 AD to 135 AD), "Only the educated are free."

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Updated October 2019
Copyright © 2018 Kristin Holt LC