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“All Hail to Pure Cold Water!”
Beset with ailments, Victorian women found solace, in more ways than one, in a new panacea—hydropathy
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
One of the reasons nineteenthcentury women thought themselves frail and weak was that they became frail and weak during the protracted convalescence that orthodox medicine prescribed after childbirth. Most women remained in bed for several weeks and grew progressively enfeebled. Mrs. M. M. Gross, a doctor and a practicing hydropathist, believed that childbirth was a season of “purification” for a woman, and “it is absurd for her to envelope herself in blankets, and live for weeks in an unventilated room, where no air or water is permitted to clean her person, or purify her lungs.” Women who had benefited from water-cure principles during childbirth frequently compared its effectiveness to orthodox methods in the pages of the Journal . One Mrs. O. C. W. wrote that she was “kept confined to my bed nearly two months”, with the birth of her first child, and “it was not until about the middle of the following summer that I attained my former health and strength.” Wanting to avoid this “regular” treatment and “regular” results with her next child, she converted to “hydropathic, that is, natural principles.”
Except for the heavy reliance on cold water those principles, as Mrs. O. C. W. describes them, bear a remarkable similarity to modern maternity care: At my confinement, I was attended by intelligent females of the Water-cure order. Of doctors we had no need. At the commencement of labor, I took a sitz bath, and an enema of cold water; these soothed me into a quiet sleep, and seemed to prepare me for my coming trials. After the birth of the child, I was allowed to remain about an hour; I was then bathed in cool water, and linen towels wet in cold water were applied to the abdomen. The next morning I was again bathed, and I arose from my bed, walked to a chair, and sat up while I ate my breakfast, which consisted of Graham bread, a glass of cold water, and a few stewed peaches. In the afternoon I again arose, and partook of similar refreshments.
On the third day after her delivery she walked outside, and within a week she was once more enjoying her “usual health,” she wrote—a typical water-cure recovery. So strikingly did her maternal care contrast with the usual experience of women in childbirth that this woman’s daring became the talk of her upstate New York town. Originally she herself “could not… really believe that I should be quite so speedily raised up,” and her neighbors had warned her of the “rashness, presumption and folly” of her watercure plans. Nevertheless her rapid recovery and sound health showed that her trust in the water-cure had been well placed.
The success of hydropathy in gynecological treatment arose from its willingness to abandon orthodox theory and practice, its willingness to transcend contemporary stereotypes and conventions pertaining to women, and its belief that the best medical practices for women were those that the patients liked and that made them feel good. This new health care was based on what had been found to work rather than what physicians believed ought to work. In keeping with this pragmatism, hydropathy encouraged women to take an active role at all levels of their own health care—by becoming physicians themselves ( The Water-cure Journal anticipated that women would soon dominate medicine, it being a field properly theirs through its close association with qualities of nurture); by reforming their dress and abandoning the fashionable garb that deformed their ribs, impaired their internal organs, created chronic shortness of breath, and generally inhibited their free movement; and by taking personal charge of their own health after mastering the basic invigorating principles of bathing, exercise, and a spare diet. A revolutionary premise stood behind these hydropathic beliefs: that a woman’s body belonged to herself—not to her doctor, not to her children, and not to her husband.
In fact, the control by women of their own bodies was a basic tenet of the water-cure; its corollary was the regulation of male sexual impulses. While orthodox physicians “saw woman as the product and prisoner of her reproductive system,” water curists tried to help women exercise control over this system. The Journal not only hammered away at their campaign for more women doctors but also exposed and ridiculed the growing tendency of the medical profession to treat women as ignorant children who must be guided by their betters—especially by their physicians. When a leading gynecologist attacked female midwives as “cold, hard, calculating,” hence unwomanly, and hence dangerous, the Journal denounced such self-serving misogyny, pointing out that a struggle was being waged for the control of the medical treatment of women. The Journal vowed to resist orthodoxy’s effort to “wrest from our hands the very-wellpaying and correspondingly important practice of midwifery.”