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Education: Higher Education

The Troubled Mind in Medicine and Society

Class 3: Women, Aspiration, Menstruation, and Higher Education in Gilman’s Era


The third class explores the gendering of mental health and illness in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s time. It takes up in greater depth issues raised in the first class, Mental Illness Historically Considered. According to the doctrines of evolutionary biology, women were both dominated by the demands of their reproductive organs and had delicate nervous systems requiring protection. The corollary was that girls in puberty should not be subjected to the rigors of higher education. Dr. Edward H. Clarke, a professor at Harvard Medical School who fiercely opposed the admission of women to the medical school, elaborated these arguments. After his book, Sex in Education; Or, a Fair Chance for the Girls, was published, the medical school took the subject of menstruation and rest as the question for its Boylston Prize competition (all entries anonymous), and Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi won with The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation. Drawing on survey and medical data, she challenged two important ideas—that all females needed to rest during menstruation and that healthy women had reasons to fear debilitation from their monthly cycle. See also discussion of this controversy in “The Body in the Library,” one of the readings for the first class, Mental Illness Historically Considered, and a brief biography of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi from the Changing the Face of Medicine exhibition web site.

Class Resources
  • Clarke, Edward H. Sex in Education; Or, a Fair Chance for the Girls. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1873. //
  • Jacobi, Mary Putnam. The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1877, Conclusion (pp. 223-232). If possible, students should also explore the earlier chapters to see both the social science and the medical data behind the conclusion. //
  • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll, and Charles Rosenberg. “The Female Animal: Medical and Biological View of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of American History 60, no. 2 (1973): 332-56. Reprinted in Women and Health in America, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Discussion Questions
  1. On what grounds did Dr. Clarke believe that girls should not study and menstruate at the same time? Might his view have been affected by his opposition to women entering Harvard Medical School? How might his book have affected women in his era who aspired to education and economic independence?
  2. What were the two lines of argument that Dr. Putnam Jacobi used to counter Clarke’s argument? Why, when she had science on her side, was her prize-winning work ignored and Clarke’s continued to be read?
  3. How does the article “The Female Animal” help put these particular issues—menstruation, education, and aspiration—into perspective? What are some additional issues that Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Charles Rosenberg raise? How do they explain the animus against aspiring women?
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