Let's Give the Victorians Some Credit


Oh, those silly, ignorant past people! You know, you probably can’t spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at web sites about the history of the past two hundred years without reading someone deploring the Victorian habit, or perhaps it is our habit of attributing this to the Victorians, that women were the “the weaker sex” or that certain physical activities might be dangerous to the frail female, and so on.

What a bunch of sexist hogwash, right? Not so fast. Women aren’t necessarily weaker in any meaningful way, but without question women bear the major physical burden involved in reproducing our species. A lot of the improved lot of women in the past fifty or sixty years was made possible by technological advances, such as birth control a woman could control (“the pill”), effective medical tests and safe and effective gynecological surgery.

For example, perhaps the reader has experienced, or knows someone who has experienced, the condition known as “fibroids.” Fibroids, muscular knots in the uterus that poke and project against the interior space and lining, causing the lining to bleed, are not just a trivial inconvenience. They can cause fatal bleeding if they are large enough. Many a woman has ended up in the emergency room, needing blood transfusions because she believed that bleeding from the uterus was normal or “just a heavy period.” Wrong. Bleeding from fibroids does not stop, or if it does, it quickly resumes. Surgery, of which there are various options, is usually the only real “cure.”

Imagine having fibroids in 1840! Surgery of any kind would not be an option. Your only hope would be to somehow survive until menopause (and fibroids often occur in people who are quite young) when the uterine lining would finally chill out. Undoubtedly a lot of women didn’t make it. Those that didn’t die would be suffering from severe anemia—the symptoms of which would be fainting spells, weakness and having to spend a lot of time on the sofa.

And what about childbirth?  Mother Nature is a careless bitch, and your basic “natural childbirth” has a mortality rate of about 1-2% for the woman and about 10% for the infant per pregnancy. Good news: most of the women didn’t die. Bad news: that’s not the end of the problems that can result from just a basic birth. Rips and tears of the area involved, often reaching through to the rectum and bladder, prolapses (the bladder, rectum or uterus hanging outside where it should not be), and just plain incontinence were distressingly common. They still are, but now we can treat them if needed. Victorian ladies weren’t so lucky. They probably weren’t really up for a rousing game of jolly old lawn tennis or whatever when they couldn’t move around without wetting themselves or their womb falling out.

It’s a balancing act, of course. There’s so much demonization and depreciation of women’s sexuality in our history that one doesn’t want to join in the chorus stretching back to the Greeks and their concern for wandering wombs, knocking about a woman’s body and driving her crazy. On the other hand we need to acknowledge that Victorian and earlier women were not just neurotic basket cases; that their “vapors” and fainting and “mystery illnesses” (which were probably not mysterious at all to the patient, family and doctors, just not spoken of in polite society) had real causes and their struggle to thrive and strive in the face of significant medical issues was real too.

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