Woman’s Life: A Pen Picture of Woman’s Functions, Frailties, and Follies

Here it is.

“No good and wise man can possibly dispute, or be indifferent to, or unconcerned at, the increase of invalid females.”

I’ve started a collection. Whenever I pass by a secondhand bookstore, I pop in to see if they have a science section. I’m looking for a specific kind of old medical text. The perfect specimen is more than a century old, written for the public, relatively affordable, and outrageously inappropriate. About half the time, something promising turns up.

1. Carmelo Flores Laura, Bolivia, age 123.

Women’s Life: A Pen Picture of Woman’s Functions, Frailties, and Follies (alternate title: Woman and Her Thirty Years’ Pilgrimage) is my latest find. I found it in Manchester By the Book in Manchester, MA. Published in 1879, Woman’s Life is 134 years old — older than the oldest living person on Earth, but not too long ago in the grand scheme of things. [1]

The sentence quoted above is the first line of the book. Here’s the opening in full:

photo (2)

As soon as I read that first page, I knew I had to have the rest.

Woman’s Life is divided into chapters on puberty, menstruation, inflammation of the menstrual organs, symptoms, causes, amenorrheal types, menorrhagic type, dysmenorrheal type, hysterical type, leucorrhoeal type, sterility, and abortion. The information within is apparently intended for the average woman, for “to woman and of woman we write.”

I haven’t had a chance to read through all 400+ pages yet, but have been skipping around according to what looks interesting.

The section on puberty is seven pages long. The first two pages of this are spent waxing poetic about a mother’s love for her child. This leads into a description of puberty that mixes moral training and flights of literary fancy with a little actual biology. Here’s a taste:

“Woman, with a mind expanded, a heart awakened, vibrating with love, pouring forth a melody of affection, an intelligence unfolded, and her noble instincts awakened, so beautiful, so childlike, so confiding, with thoughts so unfettered, yet so delicate, so vigorous, and so original! Her wide, womanly pelvis has become suddenly and visibly increased.”


2. Example: Women from “tropical climates” are said to hit puberty earlier and produce more menstrual blood.

The next chapter, on menstruation, does a fairly good job of describing the actual mechanics. This occasionally degenerates into (a) more soaring descriptions of Woman, (b) Biblical/classical references, and (c) comparisons of women in different parts of the world, with a curious number of allusions to those from “tropical climates”. [2]

The chapter on hysteria probably more or less what you imagined, and includes this choice quote: “In reality, Love is the only physician who can cure his peculiar diseases; and it is in vain for a medical man to expect to supply his place.

For those who are wondering: Men also make an appearance in this book. For example, in the chapter on sterility, several possible explanations are given for infertility. The first is “deficiency of the apparatus naturally designed for the transference of the spermatic fluid to the female organs.”

photo 2

3. Can’t believe I’m not making that up.

Woman’s Life was published by A. W. Lovering. [3] No main author is listed, but the internet says this book is the work of one William White Bliss. Hampden County’s website says:

 Graduated at the University of Pennsylvania, April 4, 1844. Practiced medicine in Griffin, Ga., Newark, N. J., and New York city. He wrote a remarkable medical book entitled, “Woman and Her Thirty Years’ Pilgrimage.” The book was published in New York in 1869. He died at Orange, N. J., Sept. 5, 1873, aged 51. 

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