PERCEPTIONS OF WOMANHOOD THROUGH THE CONCEPT OF MENSTRUATION IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN

Today, the science of medicine regards the concept of menstruation as a term referring to the physiological process of discharging blood from the lining of the uterus at approximately monthly intervals and peculiar to the woman’s body only, thus serving to underline the biological distinction between the male and female organism in terms of sex and physiology.  Yet, it seems that 18th century medical though observed this particular type of periodical evacuation in a broader perspective by regarding the menses as a notion giving larger comprehension of womanhood. In particular, a part from highlighting the biological distinction of the woman’s body from that of the man, catamenia, or the discharge of blood from the uterus, also served as a reference to social and cultural differences between men and women, encouraging a distinction between the female and the male not only in terms of sex, but also in terms of gender, thus creating a broad web of attitudes and representations of the female individual. This can make us wonder how women were perceived though the concept of menstruation and how cycles were central to the perception of womanhood in 18th century. In order to answer these questions, as a starting point we shall examine the menses as a physiological process shaping the perception of woman’s place and role in society. Then, we will focus our attention on menstruation as a monthly malady contributing to the representation of the female individual as physically and emotionally unreliable.

The menses as a physiological process shaping the perception of the woman’s place and role in society

In the course of the 18th century, as the historian Alexandra Lord notes, medical observations led “theorists to conclude that menstruation was limited to the female sex” (Alexandra Lord, 1999, 41), thus presenting the concept of menstruation as a central notion in the comprehension of woman’s physics as well as the development of perceptions of womanhood. Moreover, Lord’s further observations that “examinations of menstrual blood led more and more theorists to reject the ancient Greek’s characterization of the fluid as ′so venomous, and malignant, as to be almost ranked among Poysons′” (Alexandra Lord, 1999, 44) may allow one see that the menses was no longer perceived in negative terms. On the contrary, this peculiar for the female individual physiological process was beginning to be comprehended as a sign indicating woman’s maturity to engage in marital relationship. It was also perceived as an evidence for her physical capacity and readiness to secure the future generations which shaped the perception of the woman’s place and role in society.

The physiological phenomenon of menstruation and its very first appearance allowed society, as well as the woman herself, to acknowledge the physical maturity of the female body and envisage the female individual as ready to enter marriage and find its place and status in society as a wife. Indeed, historians point out the idea that in the 18th century, “some writers hint that the onset of menstruation signaled physical maturity; Bacon referred to the onset of ‘the flowers’ as marking a life-stage” whereas “consummation of a marriage may have been deferred until a young wife began to menstruate” (Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, 1998, 79). Therefore, the very first appearance of the menses was presented as a sign of transition of the girl’s body from childhood to womanhood, thus indicating women’s readiness to begin a new phase of their life and contributing to the perception of the female individual as one whose status should be that of a married woman. The idea of woman’s cycles as a central notion in perceiving womanhood through the prism of marriage is furthermore reinforced by 18th century popular medicine according to which “the inclinations of Maids to marriage is to be known by many Symptoms, for when they arrive to Puberty (which is about the 14th or 15th year of their Age) then their Natural Purgations begin to flow; and then the blood, which no longer taken to augment their Bodies abounding, stir up their Minds to Venery” (Aristotle’s Masterpiece, 1717). In this order of reflections, it seems that the appearance of the menses was understood not only as a sign of physical maturity, but also as physiological process which triggered sexual indulgences within the woman’s mind and therefore marked her readiness to engage in a sexual intercourse with a male. Therefore, women were all the more urged to commit themselves to married life and share it with a representative from the opposite sex so as to answer social expectations regarding the female gender whose place in society was considered to be that of the wife. By comparison to women, physicians also agreed that “marriage […] is a state which is suited to man, and in which he ought to employ the additional faculties he has acquired by puberty”. Indeed, in the 18th century, similarly to the female individual’s fate after the arrival of her menses “marriage [was] the natural state of man after puberty” and men were likewise limited on what concerns the number of their partners since “a man ought to have but one wife, and woman but one husband” (Georges Buffon, 1792, 49).

Menstruation tended to be defined by physicians through the concept of “periodical evacuation”. In particular, according to Hamilton, “women […] are subject to a certain Evacuation, which recurs periodically generally every fourth week” the beginning of which “introduces an important change in the female constitution” (Alexander Hamilton, 1974, 75). Hamilton’s allusion that the discharge of blood from the uterus is indeed an “important change” may lead us think that the concept of menstruation was also presented as a phenomenon central to woman’s reproductive potential, thus establishing a link between women and their role of a mothers and shaping the perception of the female sex as the one confined to procreation. In particular, according to Thomas Denman, an 18th century physician, menstrual blood “was designed to preserve the uterus in a state fit for conception” since medical observations proved that “women who do not menstruate from the uterus […] cannot conceive” (Thomas Denman, 1788, 160-161). Denman’s observations upon the connection between the menses, the uterus and conception may be furthermore exemplified through Gautier Dagoty’s image which, although not including any explicit signs of menstruation in its painting, exemplifies 18th century medical thought according to which the female body, together with the process of procreation and the biological functions performed by uterus, were unquestionably linked, thus confining women the function of procreating and giving life.

Sans titre.jpg‘’Standing pregnant woman from side and seated woman wih interns open’’, 1773
From: Anatomie des parties de la génération de l’homme et de la femme … jointe a l’angéologie de tout le corps humain, e a ce qui concerne la grossesse et les accouchemens
By: Gautier Dagoty
Published: J.B. Brunet & Demonville,Paris:  1773, Plate V, Size: (fol.), Collection: Rare Books, Full Bibliographic Record: Link to Wellcome Library Catalogue

But it appears that menstrual blood had been considered as a phenomenon performing a double function since a part from securing the health of the woman’s body and in particular, the uterus, the menses also represented a “supply of Blood which Women ought to collect for the use and aliment of their Offspri” during pregnancy (John Freind, 1729, 48-49). Therefore, the idea that catamenia, or menstrual blood, were perceived as central to the woman’s body biological functions helped shaping the perception of female’s reproductive potential and the female individual as confined to the function of childbearing.

As one can see, if menstruation was understood as an essential physiological process for women, it was because on the one hand, it indicated physical maturity pointing at woman’s readiness to engage herself in marriage while on the other hand, it was also comprehended as an indicator of a healthy organism ready to secure the continuation of the family and the future generation, thus shaping a positive perception of women and their role in society who were therefore ultimately seen as the epitome of fertility, as wives and mother-figures. And yet, this powerful vision of womanhood was questioned since menstruation and pre-menstrual suffering could be also represented as characteristics of the female’s body indicating weakness.

Menstruation as a monthly malady contributing for the representation of the female individual as physically and emotionally weak

In the 18th century, menstruation was presented as a physiological process which gave women the strength and capacity of conceiving whereas menstrual blood was considered as essential for the growth of the fetus. And yet, that “divine providence”, as called in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, was also represented as a monthly malady rendering the periodical discharge of blood a painful experience which not only affected woman’s mood and behavior but also shaped the perception of women as physically and emotionally weak.

In the course of the 18th century, as the historian Alexandra Lord observes, “the onset and continuing presence of catamenia marked the nadir of a woman’s physical well-being” (Alexandra Lord, 1999, 57). Indeed, by contrast to early 18th century popular medicine exemplified through Aristotle’s Masterpiece, by the end of the 18th century medical observations started focusing on the various phenomena surrounding the cycles rather than questioning the redistribution of gender roles through the concept of the menses. In particular, physicians like Hamilton marked the existence of pre-menstrual suffering which, among many others, tended to cause “depraved appetite, impaired digestion, frequent headache, and hardness and tightness of the breasts” (Alexander Hamilton, 1794, 75) so as to represent the female body’s weak constitution and fragility and shape the perception of women as characterized by physical weakness and delicacy.  The idea of the woman’s fallible physique during the period of her cycles may be furthermore reinforced by Denman’s observation according to whom “the pain with which some women menstruate at each period, is sufficient, from its violence and duration, to render a great part of their lives miserable” (Thomas Denman, 1788, 172). Denman’s observation does not only present womanhood as characterized by physical weakness, but also reveals the attitude of 18th century medical observations according to which, the representatives of the female sex were rather perceived as victims, entrapped in their body and overwhelmed by their own natural bodily functions, thus victimizing women through the biological process of menses.

But apart from being central to the presentation of women as physically weak, pre-menstrual suffering was also considered to be the cause of women’s emotional instability before and during menstruation. For instance, Anna Larpent, an 18th century housewife, described herself as “very unwell & low. Murmuring. Unhappy” and compared her emotional status to an “inconceivable state of depression” (Anna Larpent, 1773–1783). Larpent goes even further in her attempts to depict her gloomy mood by stating that she “was relieved by Hysterics”. In her article, the historian Marilyn Morris seeks for a justification of Larpent’s peculiar physical and psychological dispositions and arrives to the conclusion that “the journals reveal Larpent to have been plagued by a short menstrual cycle” which gives reasoning to her “hormonal mood swings” and points out the source of her complains as being the one of the menses (Marilyn Morris, 2010, 96). Larpent’s diaries and Morris’ diagnosis make one question to what extent society perceived women as psychically stable and reliable during their periodical evacuation since the female individual herself seems to challenge the trustworthiness of her own emotions by comparing them to diagnosis such as depression and hysterics, both being medical terms depicting mental conditions characterized by severe feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy and lack of interest in life. Indeed, the perception of womanhood as emotionally unstable during menstruation was furthermore developed by historians, such as Stolberg, whose researches point out the idea that in the 18th century, the female individual was “subject to very peculiar caprices, to whims of character and taste” whose “intellectual capacities were diminished”. Stolberg also concludes that “in extreme cases […] the periodical deterioration of a pre-existing epilepsy, mania or hysteria could be observe” (Michael Stolberg, 2000, p.312) so as to suggest that women’s intellectual capacities and emotional reliability were highly undermined due to pre-menstrual suffering, thus reinforcing the idea that menstruation was presented as a monthly malady which contributed for the perception of the female sex as characterized by emotional instability.

As one can see, in 18th century, the concept of menstruation was not perceived as a mere biological process underlining the distinction between the male and the female sex. On the contrary, the menses was presented as a notion allowing a broader comprehension of womanhood. In particular, it was an indicator for the maturity of the female body and an essential bodily substance indispensable for the nourishment of the fetus, thus presenting a powerful vision of womanhood and determining women’s place and role and society as wives and mothers. And yet, it seems that menstruation and menstrual disorder were also presented as a counterpoint to this vision since through the prism of pre-menstrual suffering and disorder, women were characterized as physically and emotionally unstable and unreliable individuals, thus creating a complicated ensemble of attitudes and representations of the female sex and representing the cycles as a central notion to the perception of womanhood in the 18th century.

Bibliography

 Primary Sources Secondary Sources:

  • Alexandra Lord, “′The Great Arcana of the Deity′ Menstruation and Menstrual Disorders in Eighteenth-Century British Medical Thought”, Bulletin of the History of medicine 73.1, 1999: pp.38-63
  • Michael Stolberg, “The monthly malady: A history of premenstrual suffering”, Medical History, Volume 44, issue 03, 2000: 301-322
  • Marilyn Morris, “Negotiating domesticity in the Journals of Anna Larpent”, Journal of Women History, Volume 22, Number 1, Spring 2010: pp.85-106
  • Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720, Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 1998

Primary Sources:

  • Alexander Hamilton, “The family female physician: or, A treatise on the management of female complaints, and of children in early infanc”, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1793
  • Anna Margaretta Larpent, A Methodized Journal, 1773–1783, Huntington Library Manuscripts, HM 31201, volume 17, folio 4, Huntington Library, San Marino
  • Anonymous, Aristotle’s master-piece compleated, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1717
  • Buffon, Georges, “Buffon’s Natural History, containing a theory of the earth, a general history of man, of the brute creation, and of vegetables”, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1792
  • Denman, Thomas, “An introduction to the practice of midwifery”, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1788
  • Gautier Dagoty, “Standing pregnant woman from side and seated woman wih interns open”, Wellcome Library, London, 1773
  • John Freind, Emmenologia, trans. Thomas Dale, London, 1729
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