Theory That Girls Damaged Their Fertility by Studying

Posted on: 31 October 2017

One of Freda’s overarching aims is to bust myths around periods so we’ve started looking back at some of the weirder notions surrounding menstruation. In a fantastic article by Lalita Kaplish of the Wellcome Collection, she looks at medical theories of menstruation in the late 19the century which promised healthier womanhood through limiting ‘unseemly’ mental exertion.

In 1873 Dr Edward Clarke, a physician at Harvard Medical School, claimed that girls who were educated alongside boys in school and college were developing their minds at the expense of their reproductive organs. He suggested that the pain girls experienced during their period was an early sign of damage to their reproductive system.

Clarke based his ideas on the ancient medical theory of vitalism. According to his theory, in order to function, the body needed a certain amount of vital force or energy. He argued that during puberty girls needed to reserve this vital force for developing reproductive organs instead of diverting it towards strenuous mental activities such as studying at the same rate as boys!

Clarke suggested that ‘during every fourth week, there should be remission and sometimes intermission of both study and exercise’ in order to minimise any risk to the reproductive organs during menstruation. Young men, by the way, were also warned against excessive masturbation and sexual activity that would drain vital force and affect their mental activity. But women, whose primary function was reproduction, were expected to sacrifice education for sexual health for the sake of future generations.

Clarke interestingly had no issues with women doing housework all month or working in factories or shops, it seemed that he saw education as particularly draining! His defence was that mental effort needed more vital force than housework and that working women ‘work their brains less’ so their reproductive organs were not at risk.

We wonder what he thought of female writers, artists and musicians who must have used up their entire reserve of vital force.

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