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.