Fish-wives, savages and the curse of Eve

More Ladies’ Handbook of Home Treatment for you! My original post is here, in which you are treated to a few sage words on choosing a mate, a woman’s role, and how to prepare for a wedding demurely and chastely.

At La Doctorita’s and Callie’s request, next:

Chapter XXIV: Dress and its Relation to Health, Part I.


Ever since the entrance of sin into the garden of Eden, one of the most perplexing problems of women has been, “Wherewithal shall we be clothed?”

At first this problem included merely the protection of the body from the gaze of others, and later on from the inclemency of the weather. But the problem of woman’s dress has been growing gradually more and more complex, until to-day its solution involves her in a veritable slavery, a slavery to custom and fashion. We have now to consider the appearance of our clothing, its suitability, its durability, its cost, and a multitude of other things. The chief consideration should be now as in the beginning – the protection of the body, its comfort and health.

It is to be feared that we as women have sacrificed much of our bodily health and strength upon the altar of fashion. None of us can deny that we are growing weaker, disease is increasing among us, and our sex largely maintains the ever-growing medical profession. While we recognise and acknowledge these facts, we endeavour to quiet our troubled conscience with the assurance that nothing else could be expected of us, as we are only the “weaker vessels”.

We have allowed our conscience to be altogether too easily soothed, we have been too passive, we have taken for granted the truth of a statement which we have never even seriously considered.

Let us consider it now. Need woman be the weaker vessel (physically) and if so, why? Is there any anatomical reason why a woman should not be as strong and enduring as her brother? We know of none. The woman possesses the same vast array of muscles attached in the same manner to similar bones as the man. They may be a little finer in structure than his, but this should make them none the less enduring. Her movements and bodily functions are controlled by a marvellous nervous system, in no way differing from her brother’s. Her vital organs are just as perfect and quite as large in proportion to her size as his. In fact, her liver and stomach are larger, this fact being accounted for by the exigencies of motherhood.

No one could make a careful study of woman’s anatomy without being strongly impressed with the fact that as a whole her body is so planned as to render it capable of the most strenuous and enduring effort.

The women of savage nations, and even the peasant women in civilised countries, exemplify the truth of this statement while we women who boast of our advanced civilisation must be considered the exception that proves the rule.

The native women of America (the American Indians) were as hardy and strong as the Indian warriors. In fact, all of the hard work in the Indian camp was performed by the women folk. And so it is among other heathen races. The woman are strong and vigourous, and can do an equal amount of work to the men, or even more. In the “black country” of England, the peasant women work side by side with the men in the brickfields and the potteries. Both of these occupations require the constant lifting of heavy weights, and yet the women perform their part as easily as the men. The peasant women of Germany, and of other European countries, carry immense loads on their heads with ease and grace. The fish-wives of Scotland trudge about all day with heavy fish baskets on their backs, and at night they seem as fresh as when the day began. At Cardiff, one of the chief Welsh seaports, women are employed to unload potatoes and other produce from the cargo vessels. On inquiring why women were employed to do this work, the reply was made that the men couldn’t stand the heavy work. These and numerous other instances afford ample proof that women who live natural, simple lives are equal to, or even excel, the men in physical strength and endurance.

As a class of women, then, our physical weakness is chiefly accounted for by our “highly civilised” manner of living. The hurry and worry, the press and stress of modern civilised life, no doubt play a part in causing our physical degeneration. But are not men subject to the same, or even greater pressure of strenuous living? –Yes. This, then, is not the chief factor in causing our weakness. Nor is it the burden of child-bearing, for the simple women mentioned above bear their children almost painlessly. What can it be then that causes us to fall so far behind our humble sisters in physical strength and endurance? We believe it is our pernicious mode of dressing.


I shall leave you hanging. More later. Look forward to the pictures.

Categories: Culture, gender & feminism, health, history

Tags: ,

7 replies

  1. Bless them – they’re quite radical in their way, are they not? My own guess is that unhealthful modes of dress were a related symptom, rather than a cause of the precariousness of the bourgeois lady’s physical wellbeing. Being primarily ornamental and having no useful occupation would have been the thing that did the real damage.

  2. Savages and peasants! You’ve got to love it. Perhaps Pauline is studying this for her new manifesto?

  3. I love that they’re acknowledging the strength of women living a vigorous life. Back when I was practising as a physiotherapist, I remember regularly astonishing new acquaintances with my strength (as did the other women physios, and as do most nurses). Simply being involved in a job that required a lot of walking and lifting did it.
    I can’t wait for these photos.

  4. Bourgeois women then also had nannies, so they didn’t even have to tote their babies much.
    I find all the warnings at work about not carrying anything over ten kilos rather laughable when I spend the rest of my time hauling an 8 kg baby plus nappy bag, toys, pram etc etc… At least the paintings at work don’t squirm out of my arms.

  5. Back in the old soviet capital of snow, the workers shovelling the constant falls were always women, usually 40-50yr olds (the foremen, wotta surprise), for the simple reason that they were able to keep going and going and going. Men may be stronger for wild bursts of (brief)exertion but not for staying power.
    In the old days of typing pools, the women had incredibly powerful forearms and fingers, those keys actually needed to be pressed not caressed like a modern keyboard.


  1. “So in studying the human figure we must have a standard of grace and beauty with which to compare the abnormal figure.” at Hoyden About Town
  2. Rising damp of the womb: more Ladies’ Handbook at Hoyden About Town
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