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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
Surveying the health of her personal acquaintances, she concluded, “I am not able to recall, in my immense circle of friends and acquaintances all over the Union so many as ten married ladies born in this century and country, who are perfectly sound, healthy, and vigorous.” Although Catharine Beecher’s casually gathered statistics provide impressionistic rather than conclusive measurements of the health of her generation, they do show that great numbers of women perceived their health as precarious, and they demonstrate the ubiquity of the image that linked women with infirmity in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
Catharine Beecher’s remedies for this situation fell into three categories. First, she campaigned for dress reform and an end to the suffering women experienced through fashions that distorted their physiology and hampered their freedom of movement. Second, she urged women to exercise regularly and rigorously to restore the natural resilience of their bodies. Third, she recommended the water cure and its attendant comforts.
Not all water-cure propagandists were as “respectable” as the Beecher sisters, however. Given hydropathy’s emphasis on the physical emancipation of women, it is not surprising that women’s-rights advocates of all kinds should have been drawn to the movement. The career of Mary Gove Nichols—a leading water-cure lecturer from 1845 to 1853—serves as an example.
Born to a freethinking father and a Universalist mother, Mary Neal married Hiram Gove in 1831 and bore their first child a year later. Four subsequent pregnancies were abortive or produced a stillborn child. While Gove grew increasingly tyrannical, petty, and economically dependent on her needlework during the 1830’s, Mary began to administer cold-water treatments to neighboring women; and by the end of the decade she began lecturing to women on anatomy, physiology, and hygiene. In 1838 the newly formed Ladies Physiological Society in Boston invited her to give a course of lectures, and this launched Mrs. Gove on a health-reform career dedicated to relieving women from the suffering they experienced due to their ignorance of biology and especially of sex. In 1842 she published her Lectures to Ladies on Anatomy and Physiology and left her husband.
After lecturing to female patients at Brattleboro in 1844, she established her own water-cure center in New York the next year and increasingly emphasized the necessity of mutual love for the procreation of healthy children. In 1848 she married Dr. T. L. Nichols, and together they opened a new water-cure establishment in New York City, established a short-lived co-educational water-cure medical school—the American hydropathic Institute—in New York, and increasingly adopted radical answers to the questions posed by the status of women. She and Nichols planned a “School of Life,” to be located at Modern Times, site of a Long Island utopian community. At the school complete freedom was to be practiced in every human relationship, including that of sex. Every woman was to have the right to choose the father of her child. In their joint work on marriage in 1854 and in Nichols’ Journal of Health, Water-Cure, and Human Progress they attacked marriage as the origin of most human misery and evil. This advocacy of “free love” was totally out of Victorian bounds, and from then on the Nicholses were ostracized by respectable water curists.
Mary Gove Nichols was one of several women who lectured to women audiences about their physiology at midcentury. Such lecture courses were a standard event at water-cure centers, especially those designed primarily or exclusively for women. The Glen Haven Water-Cure of up-state New York employed Harriet Austin as resident physician for women, and her advertisements in the Journal stressed the fact that women at Glen Haven “walk erect as God made women to walk.” Summing up the Glen Haven attitude toward women, Dr. Austin said: “We eat, we drink, we sleep, we work, we dress, we laugh, we pray with freedom ” She encouraged women to come to Glen Haven to learn “our ideas, our notions, our plans, our purposes” and to carry back “our forms of life into the centers where they dwell. … We propagate our principles … we make thorough converts of those we have not seen.”
Whether or not it was converting women sight unseen, hydropathy was encouraging new forms of freedom for women. Some of these were revealed in an article by Thomas Nichols in his Journal in 1851. There Nichols concluded by condemning (and at the same time probably informing most of his readers about) the shocking practices begun by “a mercenary and libidinous wretch” whose medical practice consisted in “manipulations and anointings, managed in such a way as to stimulate the passions and produce a temporary excitement of the organs which his deluded victims mistake for a beneficial result.” This masturbatory cure was “extremely lucrative,” Nichols said, deluding “thousands of women” in New York City alone, and “has been taken up in other places.” He assumed that “every pure-minded woman” condemned these “shameful practices.”