Autonomy, marriage and reproduction

September 25th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

This week, in preparation for a class visit to Jennifer Denbow’s political science class Autonomy and Reproductive Politics, I have been gathering materials that reflect some of the historical perspectives on women’s autonomy (both general and reproductive).  In the above Ladies’ Medical Guide, Samuel Pancoast provides counsel on “When and Whom to Marry,” which covers age spans in healthy unions, the health of a potential spouse, and temperament.

“The choice of a husband requires the coolest judgement and most vigilant sagacity,” Pancoast advises. (p. 241)

Later in The Ladies’ Medical Guide, Pancoast writes, “When we speak of ‘Woman’s Rights’ and ‘Woman’s Sphere of Action,’ we do not wish to be placed in the category of those Modern Pseudo-Reformers who would have Women unsex themselves by running into those wild vagaries and excesses of a Political and Social nature which have of late years brought odium on the glorious cause of Woman’s perfect emancipation from the condition of the Servant and Mistress of Man.  We go for her advancement in every attribute consistent with her normal organism, and the attainment of every exaltation that will render her fully the equal of man in all the moral and social relations of general society.” (p. 335)

As I was browsing the shelves in the HQs in our reference section, I found a small pamphlet that I had not seen before, entitled Judge Ben B. Lindsey on Companionate Marriage.

This crumbling pamphlet describes Judge Ben B. Lindsey’s support of the idea of companionate marriage as a precursor to (or not) a family marriage, in which the couple specifically decides to have children.  “A companionate marriage, to put it succinctly, would be a legal marriage entered into by two people with the deliberate intention of having no children for an indefinite period and in which neither would assume any financial responsibility for the other.” (p. 5)

The author goes on explicating on this idea, “A high school boy and girl of sixteen, let us say, have a desperate case on each other.  They feel that their love is a very real one.  With all the beautiful sincerity of youth, they wish to belong to each other–openly.  Therefore, instead of having secret sexual relations at school and in automobiles they tell their parents frankly that they wish to marry and discuss the matter with them.” (p. 7)  Haldeman-Julius describes the ensuing marriage and the birth control counseling that a couple could receive (though he cannot talk about that in the text “because of the laws of this puritanical country”).


A few of the other titles I am going to be taking to Biddeford on Thursday include The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion by Dr. A.M. Mauriceau (1853), The Awakening of Woman: Suggestions from the Psychic Side of Feminism by Florence Guertin Tuttle (1915), Modern Woman and Sex by Dr. Rachelle S. Yarros (1933), A Marriage Manual: A Practical Guide-book to Sex and Marriage by Hannah and Abraham Stone (1937), and The Diary of an Expectant Mother (1917).  These are just a handful of the relevant works in our collection, but I think they will help students to understand the ways that women’s roles have been perceived in the past and how those perceptions still influence current policy decisions.

Barbara Banker Kamar collection

September 18th, 2012 by Ann Morrissey

Barbara Banker was a 17 year old girl from Newton Highlands, Massachusetts who corresponded (sometimes daily) with her family when she began attending Mount Holyoke College in 1935.  The Maine Women Writers Collection has obtained almost 200 letters between Barbara and her family from the years 1935 through 1939 when she graduated.  The letters cover her concerns with clothes, boyfriends and expenses.  Even in the late 1930s, college expenses were difficult to meet.

Included in her materials is an information sheet from Mount Holyoke that explained available scholarships, loans, and various jobs that students could expect to find while attending Mount Holyoke.  It is sobering to see that unskilled work was paid at thirty cents and hour with typing work ranging “as high as fifty cents and hour.”

MWWC has an equally large collection of letters from Barbara Banker’s war years.  She joined the WACs in 1943 and was commissioned later that same year.  The WACs captivated the interest of our country at war and included in Banker’s materials is a Christmas Card printed especially for women in the WACs.  (Note that the card carried the original name of the WACs (The Women’s Army Corp) which was first known as the WAACs (The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp) until it was integrated into the regular Army in 1943.)

When the young recruits were first sent to Fort Devens in Massachusetts they were given a pre-filled post card to send home to their family.  It told them that the recruit had arrived in good health and that their first days in training would be very busy.  It then allowed the recruit to fill in their new address for letters from home.  Banker’s letters from her years in the WACs are full of her discovery of new places and new people.  She is very open about her fellow recruits and about the almost maddening Army procedures, the movies provided for them, and the array of social life that that the WACs had available to them.

Banker marries in 1946 to a career Army officer and the remaining letters in their collection are from her husband while stationed both in Korea and later back in Massachusetts.  Included below is a letter from her husband to their son.

Most summers were spent either in Maine and references to Maine are sprinkled through the entire 400 letters.  You are welcome to visit these facinating letters here at the MWWC.

Health care in the 19th century

September 14th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

In a ritual I have participated in every Fall semester since I arrived at UNE, I searched our stacks for books that might spark some interest in our incoming pharmacy students.  One morning last week, I spoke to 60 students on their obligatory tour through the library.  With their busy schedules and pragmatic interests, a pleasure trip to the Maine Women Writers Collection to look at old materia medica or artists’ books is a bit of a hard sell.  Still, we try hard to make the interdisciplinary connections that this campus prides itself upon.

I pulled a few texts from the 1830s and 40s to show them, along with a few artist’s books by Martha Hall.  I always focus on Hall’s books because they speak so directly to the pharmacist-patient dynamic.  One page from Prescriptions straightforwardly says, “The pharmacist always asks if I have questions and I always say no.”  In these show and tell sessions, I highlight the importance of the patient’s experience in achieving good health outcomes, and entreat them to use these books as a resource.  A few stop and look, maybe even reading a few pages.  This simple pause gives me hope that perhaps an opening has taken place.  It is a rare thing to have a special collection so easily accessible, and I want students to take advantage of it, but I know that it is difficult for them to find the time, even if they have the interest.

So, as I pull books off the shelves to prepare for this yearly event, I flip through the pages of A Guide to Health or New England Popular Medicine or The Physician’s Assistant.  I get great joy from looking at the engravings, reading about the old uses of herbs.  You see, when I am not working in the library, one of the things that I do is cultivate and use medicinal herbs.  I read about them; make teas, tinctures, and cordials; and have recently begun teaching workshops on using plants.  So it is a beautiful thing when I can spend a few moments at work looking at books that overlap with this other love that I have on the side.

Calendula that I picked on my lunch break in the UNE community garden

One of the pages that I turned to this year was in A Guide to Health, being an exposition of the principles of the Thomsonian system of practice, and their mode of application in the cure of every form of disease… by Benjamin Colby (Milford, NH: John Burns, 1846).  It detailed a recipe for “The Mother’s Cordial,” which used partridge-berry vine, cramp bark, unicorn root, and blue cohosh along with sugar, water, and brandy “to shorten and diminish the sufferings of child-birth, and thus place both mother and child in a state of safety.”  Colby advises its use “daily for two weeks immediately preceding confinement” at a dosage of “from half to a wine-glassful two or three times a day, and one at bed-time, in a little hot water.”

While we use these herbs in different formulas and preparations these days, all of these plants are still used for women’s health (with many more warnings about how herbs affect women during pregnancy, of course, and a lot less brandy!).  It is fascinating to me to see how, despite medical advancements, many traditional ways of using plant remedies remain because, over centuries, people studied and observed the effects of plants on the body.

Dr. Brooks’ The Physician’s Assistant… (1833) is another example of an old materia medica in our collection.  Its information is much more focused on disease states, but these pages describe some common field weeds that are useful as medicine.

Finally, here is a bit from George Capron’s New England Popular Medicine (1848), which describes “Monthly Sickness” (or Menses, Menstruation).  This entry is a good illustration of how women’s health was treated for centuries, pathologizing normal conditions like menstruation and childbirth.  The entry begins, “Every healthy woman, from the age of about fourteen to forty-five, is subject to an effusion of blood from the womb once every month.  It is a secretion like the bile or the milk, and appears to be essential to the reproduction of the human species.” (p. 389)  I found it curious that the entry is called “Monthly Sickness” but begins with the notion of a healthy woman.  You be the judge.