Victorian Attitudes: The Weaker Sex & Education

Kristin Holt | Victorian Attitudes: The Weaker Sex & Education. Stylized image: "Be Smart."

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Victorian Attitudes: The Weaker Sex & Education

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WOMEN ARE DUMBER

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     In the late 1900’s (yes, that’s exactly as it appears on page 170 of the book, but surely the correct reference is “in the late 1800’s“) many physicians regarded increased female education as a primary factor in a general decline of female health. A woman’s brain was simply not capable of assimilating a great deal of academic instruction. Education past high school, many specialists warned, was both physically and mentally destructive to the female. A study published in the Medical Record in 1892 illustrated the problem. Of 187 high school girls diagnosed, 137 constantly complained of headaches–clear evidence, concluded the report, of female inability to deal with the complexities of a rigorous academic program.

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     The rising number of neurotic girls, young women afflicted with emotional or psychic disorders, was directly linked to increased female education, many doctors believed. The affliction was often characterized by fatigue, depression, feelings of inadequacy, and other physical and mental ailments. Young women, commented one physician, “whose mental powers are overtaxed before their brains are sufficiently developed,” were the most likely individuals to break down in nervous exhaustion.

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     Even though a high percentage of specialists believed the female brain was simply not made to perform intellectually, a woman’s natural constitution did make her much less susceptible to many physical abnormalities that commonly afflicted men. Senility, loss of sight or hearing, and a host of other ailments were primarily associated with men. Doctors warned, however, that female efforts to imitate the male would destroy a woman’s inherited immunity to certain maladies. Already, doctors reported, male afflictions such as paralysis, insanity, alcoholism, and crime, which were caused by overwork or prolonged worry, were on a frightful upswing among the gentler sex.

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     One-Night Stands with American History: Odd, Amusing, and Little-Known Incidents, by Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger, 2003, page 170, which cites the SOURCE:  John S. Haller Jr., and Robin M. Haller, The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), p. 37

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In closing, I recommend this book as a fun way to explore history, seek enlightenment, and (gasp) promote ongoing learning in females. Might every member of the weaker, gentler sex find intellectual freedom in exploring history. (Among all subjects.)

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My series of professional women includes a doctor, lawyer, and dentist. Ladies who love learning and love healing. Their advanced educations denied them marriage in late Victorian-era America. What fun to write a romance for each, showing them (and all naysayers) that love could find them. Even in careers reserved for men.

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Updated August 2019
Copyright © 2015 Kristin Holt  LC
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