Something in the Way She Moves?

Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his own body!

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

If you pity Mr. Hardy, consider the predicament of every poor man who is thrown into relations with a far more precarious object: a woman’s body. This is an issue that seems to have flustered many a nineteenth-century doctor. Women’s bodies were embarrassing, mysterious, and inevitable, and nobody really knew what to do with them. The female body’s place in Victorian culture is a web of contradictions – a nebulous swirl of ignorance, allure, prudery, dignity, exploitation, and general awkwardness.

"You's a ho."

Found - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850s; unfinished). Image via Victorian Web (

Victorians were caught up in the cult of domesticity, cherishing idealized visions of a woman acting as the angel of the household: managing servants, planning succulent yet nutritious menus, squeezing out healthy male babies at regular intervals, revolving peacefully in her quiet domestic sphere. Unfortunately, harsh realities often threatened to pop the bubble of this idyllic dream. The spread of syphilis through middle-class families belied the fable of universal, unwavering marital fidelity. Prostitution continued to thrive in the alleys of London, as documented in countless drawings, paintings, and eventually photographs, as well as in the reams that were written on the issue of fallen women. It’s easy to understand how, in attempting to reconcile these competing concepts, Victorians could have experienced some cognitive dissonance.

...And, apparently, some consonance. Image via Gender Lens (

One of the biggest problems with the Victorian approach to women’s bodies was mere ignorance. As mentioned in my first post, though medical knowledge as a whole advanced by leaps and bounds during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the understanding of women’s bodies tended to lag behind. Excessive crying was thought to be caused by a wandering uterus. Since reproduction was a woman’s patriotic duty, despite the fact that she (supposedly) derived no pleasure from sex, Queen Victoria (legend has it) advised reluctant brides to “lie back and think of England.” Flora Hastings, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria’s mother, was assumed to be pregnant when she began complaining of a painful swelling in her abdomen; she died months later of an undiagnosed cancerous liver tumor. 

So what was the hold up? Were male doctors just too prudish, too embarrassed, or too negligent to thoroughly examine their female patients? Not necessarily. To be fair, this probably wasn’t a simple issue of male doctors’ behavior vs. women’s health needs. Modesty was an issue that popped up in medical practice and may have negatively impacted women’s health, but at least part of it often came from the women’s side. For example, once rumors of pregnancy started floating around the court, Flora Hastings refused to be examined by a doctor for weeks, and once she finally consented (upon great persuasion from friends), she insisted on being seen only by her childhood doctor, not the doctor at court. It’s difficult to assign blame, then, for unfortunate cases like Flora’s. Is it the doctors’ fault for possibly allowing sexism to influence his diagnosis? Is it Flora’s fault for not being more proactive about her own health? Maybe not, since both Flora and her doctors tuned their moral compasses to the culture in which they lived, absorbing its prejudices and hang-ups. Then again, the culture is made up of people just like Flora and her doctors. It’s easy to fall into a trap of judging past attitudes by present norms, and assume that the women really wanted to be freed from their cages of modesty and run around in pants and low-cut tops and be engineers, but it’s entirely possible (even likely) that many women preferred to conform to standards of propriety. The question of whether nineteenth-century women would feel differently if they were taught differently is almost irrelevant to understanding where they were actually coming from: the fact is that many women, like Flora, were genuinely uncomfortable with intimate examinations by unfamiliar male doctors.

One solution to this problem was the use of modesty dolls. These were small (several inches long) statuettes of nude women, and were a diagnostic tool in the Victorian era.

A modesty doll, located at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

The idea was to make the whole affair of the doctor’s visit less awkward for female patients. Instead of having to verbalize embarrassing issues, the patient could just point to the place on the doll that corresponded to her discomfort. The doctor could then narrow down the diagnostic possibilities by asking yes-or-no questions, which the patient could answer by mutely nodding or shaking her head. This may have genuinely alleviated real stress for many women, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine how a doctor could effectively diagnose a problem without a thorough description of the patient’s subjective experience.

There is a whole other dimension of the modesty dolls that also fascinates me: they are strangely sexualized. The doll pictured above (which we saw at the Royal College of Physicians) is elaborately posed, crossing her legs, tilting her head, etc. Strangest of all, she’s also lying down. It would clearly be easier to indicate specific body parts (which is, after all, supposed to be the doll’s purpose) on a doll standing simply in anatomical position. So why go to all the trouble of sculpting a recumbent Greek goddess?

The modesty doll reminded me strikingly of an anatomical Venus. These were wax models of nude female bodies, opened to reveal their viscera, used as teaching tools in anatomy schools.

Anatomical Venus, 19th c. Image by Museu d'Historia de la Medicina de Catalyuna.

[One of the reasons for shortcomings in women’s health care was probably the shortage of female cadavers for anatomists to study and for students to learn from, but more on that in a later post!] Like the modesty doll, anatomical Venuses (Veni?) were posed in sexualized, come-hither positions, for no apparent reason. I don’t really have an explanation for this. In fact, it baffles me. Perhaps it livened up dull study sessions? Classically conditioned exclusively-male medical students to enjoy the sight of blood and guts instead of throwing up? Or maybe it was just an expression of the astounding beauty of the human body, inside and out.

Although I’d be surprised to see a modesty doll in a doctor’s office today, another modesty-preserving invention of the Victorian era remains quite prevalent: the stethoscope.

The first stethoscopes were basically enhanced tubes. This stethoscope is located in the Making of the Modern World exhibit at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London.

The stethoscope was invented so that a physician could listen to a female patient’s heartbeat and breathing without the scandal of actually touching her bosom. It sounds like another case of Victorian prudery interfering with health care. Here’s the catch, though: using the stethoscope turned out to be better than not using one, so doctors eventually used them to examine all their patients, female or otherwise. This important medical technology was born out of the desire to maintain propriety. Sure, this was a lucky chance, but it illustrates an uncomfortably common phenomenon: the march of “progress” is largely nonlinear and unplanned. For all our high-tech research laboratories and our adherence to the scientific method, our medical toolkit still grows in illogicalunintentional ways. Given this pattern, the distortion of female bodies in the media, and controversy over who really owns a uterus and its contents – not to mention the fact that modesty is still a problem in contemporary medical education – I’m not sure we’re much more enlightened than the Victorians. It seems to me like we still don’t really know what to do with women’s bodies.

UPDATE (7/12/2010): I just found a delightful quote in the reading for this week. A certain Dr. M. L. Holbrook wrote in 1892 that it is “as if the Almighty, in creating the female sex, had taken the uterus and built up a woman around it.” There’s just so much to love here. I would elaborate, but that wouldn’t directly serve my uterus, so I physically can’t.

[Originally posted 7/8/10]
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