“The Full Perfection of Womanhood”

I just got done reading Janis McLarren Caldwell’s Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain and found this doozy of a story. There was a great deal going on in the early nineteenth century in the development of childhood medicine, and one of the major schools of thought was that in order for children to thrive, parents and doctors should attempt to prolong childhood as much as possible.

This led into a great deal of other stuff to do with the ‘nineteenth-century cult of childhood’, which is waaaay outside my area of expertise, but it’s a really interesting realm of academic study and you should check it out.


Caldwell writes, “The ideal of a prolonged childhood shows up as well in conduct books addressing the difficulties of adolescence – particularly of female adolescence. E.J. Tilt, in his 1851 On the Preservation of the Health of Women writes ‘[T]he art of educating girls in order to bring them to the full perfection of womanhood, is to retard as much as possible the appearance of first menstruation.’ Later in the century, E.H. Ruddock, in The Common Diseases of Women, echoes Tilt’s advice, and modifies [T.J.] Graham’s [author of Domestic Medicine] prescriptions for infants, which are now applied to teenage girls:

‘Probably the most successful mode of rearing girls, so as to bring them to the full perfection of womanhood, is to retard the period of puberty as much as possible, at least until the 14th or 16th year . . . It is the duty, therefore, of the mother to enjoin on her daughter to frequent use of cold baths, free exercise in the open air, or in cool, well-ventilated rooms, to provide plain and digestible diet for her.’

“By this time, the link between child and nature is so strongly forged that natural treatment like outdoor exercise, scant diet, and liberating clothing is supposed to fend of maturation and menarche” (76).

Despite the generally good advice about keeping your kids healthy through fresh air, good food, loose clothing, and exercise, this shit is really creepy to me: keep ’em infantalised until they’re hot. I’d like to know how many parents successfully kept their daughters from menstruating until age 16, through virtue of good health. My guess? NONE.

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