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.
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.”