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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
T. L. Nichols, a doctor, a frequent contributor to the Journal , and a supporter of women’s rights, declared: “Women must become their own physicians, and the physicians of each other. They have leaned too long upon a broken reed.” He further insisted that every woman must have “control of her own [life]” before she could be cured of illness. The control of a woman’s sexual life by her husband was especially pernicious, Nichols implied, since it subjected her to the potentially deadly abuse of her generative system. “By the sensual and selfish indulgences of those who claim the legal right to murder them in this manner, and whom no law of homicide can reach, and upon whose acts no coroner holds an inquest,” Nichols wrote, “thousands of women are consigned to premature graves.”
Although Nichols’ language may seem exaggerated, it should be remembered that the sexual experience of nineteenth-century women occurred in a culture that attributed an almost insatiable sexual drive to males, but practically none to females. Acting on such cultural definitions, many men assumed that women had no sexual needs of their own and that their role in sexual intercourse was merely that of an agency through which male satisfaction could be achieved. In these circumstances it is not surprising that many women were dissatisfied with their sexual lives in the nineteenth century and that they began to speak by midcentury of controlling “conjugal excesses.” In this effort to assert some female control over sexuality the water cure provided emotional support and medical documentation. Most important, it advocated sexual abstinence as an essential ingredient in the cure of a wide variety of female illnesses ranging from nervous prostration to inverted wombs. On the question of sexual expression itself the Journal decried “conjugal excesses” as “a shame to our race” as well as a danger to female health and maintained that “the true and only safe rule in the exercise of the propensities and instincts God has given us for the wisest of purposes, is to be temperate in all things .”
To understand fully the eagerness with which middle-class nineteenthcentury women flocked to water-cure centers, it is first necessary to understand how widespread’ ill health—usually associated with the reproductive system—was among them. In fact, so general were physical disorders among women of childbearing age that invalidism often became both chronic and ritualized. Invalidism did offer certain compensations. The decline, convalescence, and recovery ceremonies of the female sickroom allowed women to communicate with one another about their physiological fears and to express their normally repressed emotions. Whether they were nurses, companions, or patients, women in the sickroom were freed from the usual taboos against intimacy between females.
Invalidism was also a means through which women could express their resentment at being excluded from the culture’s dominant values of competition, achievement, strength, and self-assertion. If their sex disqualified them from full social usefulness, then it could also disable them for the performance of their unrewarding routine duties.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, after ten years of childbirth and marriage, retreated for nearly a year to Brattleboro’s water-cure, from which she declared her unhappiness to her husband, Calvin. Assessing her marriage, she recalled the “sickness, pain, perplexity, constant discouragement, wearing, wasting days and nights” of the early years when Calvin was often absent and of little help when he was present. “Ah, how little comfort had I in being a mother—how all that I proposed was met and crossed and in every way hedged up! In short,” Harriet concluded, “God would teach me that I should make no family be my chief good and portion, and bitter as the lesson has been, I thank Him for it from my very soul.”
Calvin managed the household as best he could in Harriet’s absence. Remaining at Brattleboro months longer than she had originally anticipated, Harriet slowly but deliberately advanced through the steps leading to an invalid’s cure. Defending her need for a prolonged stay, Harriet gave herself sufficient time to think through her attitude toward American society’s treatment of women and her own response to that treatment. Uncle Tom’s Cabin , written a few years later, was built on the premise that there was something basically incompatible between the institutions of American society and the well-being of its oppressed minorities—especially of its women, both white and black.
The extent of female invalidism was recorded by Mrs. Stowe’s sister, Catharine Beecher, in an 1855 publication, Letters to the People on Health and Happiness . In a personal poll that sampled a total of seventy-nine communities and over a thousand women, she found that the sick outnumbered the well by a ratio of three to one. In a typical community profile of Batavia, Illinois, she recorded: Mrs. H. an invalid. Mrs. G. scrofula. Mrs. W. liver complaint. Mrs. K. pelvic disorders. Mrs. S. pelvic deseases. Mrs. B. pelvic diseases very badly. Mrs. B. not healthy. Mrs. T. very feeble. Mrs. G. cancer. Mrs. N. liver complaint. Do not know one healthy woman in the place.