‘A fair chance for girls’: the law of periodicity and the Viavi system

31 October 2017

Image of Lalita Kaplish
Lalita Kaplish

New medical and commercial theories of menstruation in the late 19th century promised healthier womanhood through limiting unseemly mental exertion.

In 1873 Dr Edward Clarke, a physician and prominent board member at Harvard Medical School, published Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for Girls. Clarke 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 periods was an early sign of damage to the reproductive system, and even if there was no pain during puberty, later in life they could find themselves unable to bear children.

Clarke based his ideas on the ancient medical theory of vitalism. In order to function properly, the body needed a certain amount of vital force or energy. Problems with the body, such as disease, occurred when the vital force was depleted.

 Victorian schoolgirls in a needlework class
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Victorian schoolgirls in a needlework class.

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. His solution, The Law of Periodicity, proposed that girls should take an easy course of study during adolescence. For women he suggested that “during every fourth week, there should be remission and sometimes an intermission of both study and exercise” in order to minimise any risk to the reproductive organs during menstruation.

Men were also affected by depletion of the vital force. Young men in particular, were warned against excessive masturbation and sexual activity that would drain vital force and affect the performance of other bodily functions including mental activity. But women, whose primary function was reproduction, were expected to sacrifice education for sexual health for the sake of future generations.

The question of rest

Clarke’s ideas did not go unchallenged. His critics pointed out that Clarke had no problem with women doing housework all month or working in factories or shops, and perhaps his objection to women in education had something to do with increasing numbers of women applying to study at Harvard Medical School. His defence was that mental effort needed more vital force than housework, and that labouring women “work their brains less” so their reproductive organs were not at risk.

In 1874, physician and researcher Mary Putnam Jacobi won Harvard’s Boylston medical prize for her essay 'The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation'. Jacobi submitted her essay anonymously and the prize committee were so horrified when they found out she was a woman that they gave her the prize money but refused to publish her work. Fortunately her father was a publisher and her work reached a broad audience.

Jacobi had questioned 268 women about their menstrual cycle and found that while nearly all experienced pain at some time in their lives, there was no correlation with their level of education or periods of study. Although she included both paid and unpaid women in her survey, she excluded others, such as “negroes who for our purposes may be excluded from the reckoning.” Jacobi made her arguments within the same eugenic framework as Clarke.

Despite pushback from people such as Jacobi, Clarke’s book was enormously popular in America and Europe, running to 17 editions in 13 years. His ideas were supported by physicians and educators. John Harvey Kellogg wrote that during her period a woman “should be relieved of taxing duties of every description and be allowed to yield herself to the feeling of malaise which usually comes over her at this period, lounging on the sofa or using her time as she pleases” (1891).

Many women today might find the idea of “lounging on the sofa” for a week every month tempting, but as many of Clarke’s critics pointed out at the time, it’s a luxury that few women could afford. Both Clarke and Kellogg intended their advice for a certain kind of woman.

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The new woman on washday.

Middle class white women were traditionally understood to be delicate and at the mercy of their reproductive system. But in the last quarter of the 19th century the ‘new woman’ aspired to go to college and work for a living. The response from much of the medical establishment and the popular press to this threat to traditionally male spheres of life was to argue that women were best suited to domesticity by virtue of biology not culture.

The Viavi System

Conflicting views about women’s health at the end of the 19th century contributed to the success of the Viavi System, a commercial product range aimed at the wealthy middle class woman.

The Viavi system was developed by two brothers, Hartfield and Herbert Law, in San Francisco. It consisted of several products, including capsules, cerate (an ointment) and ‘tablettes’. All of the products were made from the same “natural vegetable materials” and used to help restore the natural balance and allow the body to heal itself.

The products were sold door to door by a team of trained female ‘specialists’, who brought with them a large impressive display book called the The Viavi Gynaecological Plates. The book was essential to their sales technique because according to the Viavi Manager’s Guide, “all the processes of the Viavi business are educational; the sellers have to be educated to sell and the patients to buy.”

The sympathetic female specialist was there to educate and to share the customer’s concerns: as the Viavi Hygiene book says “The mutual confidence that grows up between a sufferer and a Viavi representative is beautiful”. The extensive training that specialists received included how the customer should be approached, and instructions on how to use the Plate book: “It should be held on the last three fingers of the left hand....Systematic and positive pointing should always be in harmony with the impressive tones and earnest manner in which the words are spoken”

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Hartland and Herbert Law

The Viavi Hygiene book, aimed at “women, men and children” has several chapters on menstruation. In the guise of informing its readers, the Law brothers proceed not only to reinforce a pathological view of menstruation but to make it the defining feature of womanhood:

"If a woman experiences any irregularity, pain or discomfort from menstruation, she should know that the very foundation of her womanhood and womanliness is menaced….The Viavi treatment offers the only known means for producing a perfect state of health in this regard."

Treatment with the Viavi system consisted of a routine of inserting the capsules in the vagina and applying the cerate to the skin around the afflicted area. Vaginal douches were advised in order to maximise absorption from the capsules. But in addition, “Well ventilated sleeping apartments exposed to the sun’s rays, with judicious exercise in the open air, either walking, riding or playing tennis or croquet, but never to the point of exhaustion, and plain nutritional food, perfectly regular habits, early retiring and abundant sleep will greatly hasten the cure”

The physician's role

Aside from the money spent on the products and the risk of introducing infection into the vagina, the miracle cure had little effect, though following the general advice about regular sleep, exercise and diet would have benefitted many of the women ‘afflicted’ by their period pains.

A firm of analytical chemists reported that the capsules “contain nothing but the extract of hydrastis (a traditional herbal cure) and cocoa butter”. The greatest danger was that the Viavi System actively discouraged women from seeing a physician for serious conditions such as tumours.

 A reclining female patient with a standing doctor taking her pulse
A Wary Politician, Albert Talbot Smith. Source: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.
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The traditional view of the male doctor with his middle class patient.

The increasing role of the (male) gynaecologist was a cause of anxiety in a world dominated by separate spheres for men and women. The Viavi publications played on concerns about internal examinations - “Let a father reflect what it means to a girl to be submitted to an examination, even by a most considerate physician”.  They warned that “a woman afflicted with any form of painful menstruation is in positive and imminent danger of a surgical operation, whether minor or capital, unless she adopts the Viavi System of treatment”. Ultimately the medical establishment reacted and in several court cases in the UK and USA, Viavi specialist’s were condemned for advising women with cancer and other serious conditions not to see a doctor.

The Viavi System was successful because it appealed to middle class woman, with its apparently progressive emphasis on education and the chance to take control of your own health. Yet it was built on the same vitalist thinking as Clarke’s Law of Periodicity and a separate spheres ideology, which argued that women were biologically destined to stay in the home. A chapter on Non-Development might have been written by Clarke: “the schoolroom, particularly the American schoolroom, is responsible for the wrecking of countless women’s lives.”

It’s something to bear in mind when for example a company is lauded for finally accepting that menstrual blood is red not blue.

Image of Lalita Kaplish
Lalita Kaplish
Lalita is a web editor at Wellcome Collection.