I do not accept excuses from my students, so why would I give you any? Well, maybe these are not excuses, but explanations. What is the difference? I don’t know.
Here are mine: School started. Football season is fully in gear. My blog database failed. Most of the last year’s pages need to have their images rebuilt, and part of me is just ignoring that looming chore. Most importantly, any few hours of free time I have are dedicated toward Sugar Moon. It’s coming. I promise.
Did doctors of the day believe in “virginity tests”?
Did they understand a woman’s body and how to bring it pleasure?
Did they think that sex should be pleasurable for women in the first place?
Finally, how did they feel about masturbation, or self-pleasure?
In my unscientific, random sampling of (cishet) primary sources, the Gilded Age scored 2.5 out of 4, which was a little better than I anticipated. Let’s investigate:
The hymen does not start whole—a perforation is needed to allow menstrual fluid to escape, after all—but a woman can easily tear and rub away the rest through an active lifestyle. Horseback riding, yes. Sneezing? Eh, probably not. But it was nice that Dr. Foote erred in her favor. It is also nice that he acknowledged that the hymen test was “cruel and unusual.”
However, it is depressing to also note that, due to “popular prejudice,” even the best physicians concealed the whole hymen truth. This led some fearful young women to try to “tighten” their vagina with alum, something I found discussed in a magazine of 1880 erotica (written by and for men). The alum suggestion wasn’t new—women had been encouraged to try this since medieval times—but it didn’t work then, and it still doesn’t. It just dries you out. There is no virginity test other than asking a person.
a woman’s body:
This may be the Gilded Age quote that surprised me the most. I had thought for sure that today’s popular culture would be more knowledgeable than 150 years ago, especially regarding the clitoris, but no! In fact, did you know that even in the eighteenth century, the most widely printed medical book in Europe and America informed men about the clitoris? Yay, cliteracy!
Fortunately, my heroine Allegra will have a Gilded Age anatomy book (the one above) to guide her explorations. Every virgin should have one! Her hero, Ben, will appreciate her sharing her new knowledge with him, too. This is why I love writing romance, a genre that prioritizes the needs, strengths, and happiness of women. Real romance doesn’t ignore the clitoris! I’m going to cross-stitch that on a pillow someday.
A woman’s pleasure:
Pleasure and procreation may coincide, but one is not required for the other—for women. Herein lies a problem with how we teach (or don’t teach) women about their bodies. Even today, students may be taught reproductive biology, but that curriculum illustrates a prudish bias: a woman’s anatomy is described like plumbing, with pipes only used for pumping out children. In this narrative, only the male’s sexual pleasure is required for procreation, leaving the impression that men are the only ones who experience desire (or who should experience it).1
How sex-positive were Gilded Age experts? Did they think women should receive pleasure from the act? Dr. Foote, author of the above quote about the clitoris, believed that all aspects of sexual interaction—from friendly conversation to full, pleasurable intercourse—were absolutely necessary for good health: “I place sexual starvation among the principal causes of derangements of the nervous and vascular systems,” he said.
Now let’s check in with a woman, “sexual outlaw” Ida Craddock, who was sent to jail for sending “obscene” sexual education materials through the mail (to subscribers).2 Craddock’s description of a woman taking an active part in intercourse, even to the point of describing specific motions, is refreshing. She also claims that these motions will improve a woman’s sexual passion, which is encouraging. But—and this is a big BUT—Craddock believes the woman’s passion is irrelevant. A fortunate by-product, yes, but unnecessary. Bummer.
In fact, Craddock believed so strongly that sex was for procreation that her vision of contraception was coitus without orgasm—for both partners—for the entire duration of pregnancy and two years following. She thought this sexual brinksmanship would make both partners stronger. Three years of deliberate sexual arousal without release? No wonder Anthony Comstock, self-appointed male protector of American postal virtue, had her thrown her in jail.3
Overall, I’ll give the Gilded Age half a point here, and that’s being generous.
Your own pleasure starts with you:
Rosa did not have a lot of experience—none very good, at least—but neither did Jonas, it seemed. And Rosa knew something he did not. She knew what she liked.
“Look,” she said. She parted her lower lips to reveal the ridge that gave her the most pleasure when she was alone.
Or was this too much? To admit such a dirty secret, especially to a man—had she not learned her lesson? When she had tried to show Archie, he had lectured her about sin and a woman’s shame. Now she risked her husband’s disapproval, too.
Jonas looked up. “Show me what you want,” he said.
If Rosa could do it, so could anyone in the Gilded Age, right? Well, maybe not. Masturbation has long been considered a sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ever since Onan spilled his seed on the ground (rather than give his brother’s widow an heir) and God smote him (Genesis 38:9-10). In many traditional sources, the act is called Onanism. Thus, we are back to the idea that sex is only for procreation, a mission that made sense for the small, struggling band of Hebrews trying to survive the rough-and-tumble world of the ancient Near East.
A more recent concern by the Catholic Church about masturbation is the idea that it draws away from the sexual relationship—a withholding of yourself from what should be the most intimate aspect of marriage. It is considered “radically self-centered.” While, yes, an addiction to masturbation may be unhealthy, the knowledge of one’s own body cannot help but lead to a better-shared experience. A shocking idea, I know.
And it was shocking in the Gilded Age. Edwardian prophets took the above warnings and turned them into near paranoia. The same level-headed, seemingly enlightened Dr. Foote who criticized the hymen test, described the importance of the clitoris, and said sex was healthy—well, he had only dire warnings about masturbation in 1887: “Many a promising young man has lost his mind and wrecked his hopes by self-induced pleasures.” Another author agreed: “That solitary vice is one of the most common causes of insanity, is a fact too well established to need demonstration here.” (That logic is convenient: it’s so true that I don’t need to prove it. Hmm…)
Dr. Jeffries (1985) listed more terrible symptoms of this vice: a slimy discharge from the urethra, a “wasting away” of the testicles, ringing in the ears, heat flashes, large spots under the eyes, nervous headache, giddiness, solitariness, gloominess, and the inability to look the doctor in the eye. Others added cancer (!), acne (yep, that old hogwash), and a craving for salt, pepper, spices, cinnamon, cloves, vinegar, mustard, and horseradish. That last one is a head-scratcher. So if you wanted to eat anything with flavor at all, that was a giveaway? I’m in trouble.
Speaking of food, did you know that Corn Flakes were invented in 1898 to keep you from masturbating? For real.4
The John Harvey Kellogg quoted above is the Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame. His obsession with sexual purity was so extreme that he never consummated his own marriage. He and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and adopted their children. By the way, who did Kellogg believe were the worst masturbatory offenders? Foreigners, of course. Russians especially. Add eye roll here.
The cure? Clean living! Rising early in the morning, eating the recommended bland breakfast, abstaining from smoke and drink, keeping busy, avoiding solitude, and circumcision. This is why the procedure became routine in American hospitals in the twentieth century and still predominates today. It is not good medicine but good morals. Or so they said.
There is still a bit of taboo in talking about masturbation today—well, maybe more than a bit. In 1994 President Bill Clinton forced his Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign because she said that masturbation should be taught in schools as a preventative for teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. Still, I think we are a far cry from saying it causes cancer. And we’ve sweetened breakfast cereals beyond recognition, so there, John Harvey Kellogg! More and more parents are questioning routine circumcision for non-religious reasons, though the procedure has traction because it is what people in the US are used to.
All this brings me to an interesting realization: if you asked me which parts of my books would have most shocked real Gilded Age readers, it would have been the openness most of my characters have toward masturbation. And, guess what? I’m not going to stop writing it, historical accuracy be damned. Long live romance!
(Featured photograph is a close up of a Fallopian tube and ovarian ligaments in Henry Morris’s Human Anatomy: A Complete Systematic Treatise by English and American Authors, 5th edition, 1914, p. 1270.)
1. What follows is a whole domino chain of bad decisions, including a teenage “hook up” culture that emphasizes sexual trophy hunting (most often by boys), rather than two people finding mutual pleasure in a mature relationship built on respect and trust.↩
2. The law against this distribution of “obscene” materials, the Comstock Law, is still on the books in a modified form. It no longer covers sexual education or contraception, the latter of which became a legally protected right—to married couples, originally—under the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v Connecticut, also known as the Birth Control Revolution. Good thing, too, because this post would have gotten me jailed.↩
3. And she was not the only sexual rights crusader to have disturbing ideas. Marie Stopes believed in eugenics and forcible sterilization for those “unfit” to carry on their genes. She even “disinherit[ed] her son when he married a woman who had poor eyesight.” Yikes. And Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger dabbled in eugenics, too, by the way. We need to question everything from this period because racism, classism, and ableism were pervasive.↩
4. The original purity food was the graham cracker, which was nothing like your s’mores building block of today. It was made of unrefined flour with no sugars or spices—deliberately bland. Because that contained sexual desire, didn’t you know?↩
At long last, an alphabetical listing of the Sugar Sun glossary terms! Simply click on the graphic of your choice to open the annotated post in a new window. This list will be updated to include new terms as their posts are written.
I hope the posts are helpful in rounding out the historical context of the Sugar Sun series. They are certainly fun to write! Enjoy.
In February I will be boarding a plane for Manila. It will take me 24 hours airport to airport, and that will feel like a long time. I will probably complain about how tired I am, or how small airline seats have become. Both will be true.
But my Edwardian sisters—known as “Gibson girls” after popular illustrator Charles Dana Gibson—would be shocked by how spoiled I am. For them, a trip from Boston to the Philippines would have taken seven weeks. And they thought themselves lucky, since the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal had cut the trip in half. Their bargain ticket would have cost $120 in 1900—the equivalent of almost $3500 today. My ticket cost around $800.
I also have another advantage: knowledge. I know what the Philippines are like. Things may have changed in the last five years, as things do, but generally I know what I will find. But my three Gibson girls featured here—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish, M.D.—did not. These women either had no information or bad information about the Philippines. For example, a United States senator, John W. Daniel, from Virginia explained that “there are spotted people there, and, what I have never heard of in any other country, there are striped people there with zebra signs upon them.” To you or me such drivel is beyond racist to the point of being ludicrously stupid, but Senator Daniel thought this information important enough to pass along in the middle of a government hearing.
If travel to the Philippines was long, expensive, and potentially dangerous, why did women like Fee, Kent, and Parrish do it? Their reasons probably varied. Fee, a teacher, may have gone for the good salary; Kent wanted to prove that she could travel the globe alone; and Parrish was a medical missionary whose faith led her to the islands. But there is one thing all three women had in common: they were more adventurous than the average man of their day. And they were probably more intrepid than me.
Let’s start with Mary Fee, principal of the Philippine School of Arts and Trades in Roxas City. Fee was one of the first teachers sent by the U.S. Government to establish a secular, coeducational, public school system throughout the Philippines. The Thomasites, as they were called, were sent all over the islands with their Baldwin Primers to read lessons on snow, apples, and George Washington—and none of the students knew what the heck they were talking about. Mary Fee realized that the point was to teach her students to read and write in English, not to have a comprehensive understanding of American meteorology. Soon she was one of four authors (including another woman) of a new Philippine Education series. The First Year Book had lessons about Ramon and Adela, not Jack and Jill. They learned about carabao, not cows. Stories included the American flag, but it was small and in black-and-white, not a full-page color spread. The women went to market for fish and mangoes, and they wore traditional clothing. In other words, the book made sense to the children who read it.
I relied upon Fee’s memoir, A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, for help in creating my character Georgina Potter in Under the Sugar Sun. I exercised artistic license, of course: Fee’s faithful description of the Christmas Eve pageant, for example, was turned into a courtship opportunity for my hero, Javier Altarejos. Though Fee would eventually return to the United States—not marry a Filipino sugar baron—I am happy to say that her spirit lives on.
In comparison to my careful researching of Mary Fee, I stumbled upon Annabelle Kent’s raucous description of arriving in Manila by ship. While everyone else had horrible seasickness, Kent thought the bumpy ride a blast. The ship bucked like a bronco, and she reveled in it. As I read more, though, I found Kent’s explanation for her sturdy sea-legs: she was deaf. She traveled the globe by herself without an ASL interpreter, and that took guts. It seemed to have started on a type of dare. Kent wrote:
A deaf young lady made the remark to me once that it was a waste of time and money for a deaf person to go to Europe, as she could get so little benefit from the trip. I told her that as long as one could see there was a great deal one could absorb and enjoy.
I knew right then that Annabelle Kent would be my model for a new character, Della Berget, in Hotel Oriente. At a time when American senators were postulating about people striped like zebras, Kent was getting a steamer and seeing everything for herself, including schools for the deaf in China and Japan. The book is the most joyful travel memoir I have ever read.
My final Gibson girl, Rebecca Parrish, was used to being a trendsetter. She was a doctor at a time when medicine was a possible career choice for a woman, but not a common one. And, in the Philippines, it was unheard of. One of her first skeptical patients asked, “Can a woman know enough to be a doctor?” Parrish had to prove herself a million times, by her own account, but she did.
Parrish built a 55-bed hospital in Tondo, the Mary Johnston Hospital, that operated on the principle that no one could be turned away. The hospital began its working life fighting a cholera epidemic but transitioned into a maternity clinic with a milk feeding station. Today, it is a teaching hospital specializing in internal medicine, obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics. Parrish also opened a training institute for nurses. If the doctor seems like a busy woman, you are correct. She wrote: “Hundreds of days—thousands of days, I worked twenty hours of the twenty-four among the sick, doing all that was in my power to do my part, and hoping the best that could be had for all.” I get tired just thinking about it.
Maybe these Gibson girls—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish—did not go “wild” in the cheap DVD series kind of way, but by contemporary standards they were braver than Indiana Jones. My trip to Manila will be tame by comparison, but I will try to honor the memory of those who came before me…and pick the in-flight movie they would want me to see.