Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Underneath it all

A 15-year-old girl works on corsets in Boston in 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Comfortable, stylish and straight yet with enough curve to “conform to healthful anatomical lines.” That’s the glowing ad copy that hawked the R&G “extreme straight-front corset” to its customers back in 1900. Of course, R&G, like other corset companies, offered a variety of colors and dozens of styles “to fit every figure.” And millions of women bought them every year.

Yet corsets were far from controversial. Arguably, no woman hated them more than Alice Bunker Stockham, a Chicago ob/gyn and only the fifth female U.S. doctor. Indeed, she called the corset “an instrument of torture.”

“If women had common sense, instead of fashion sense, the corset would not exist,” she wrote in her popular 1897 book Tokology. “There are not words in the English language to express my convictions upon the subject.” She was particularly irate over women’s insistence on wearing corsets well into their pregnancies.

Yet corset lovers would not to be swayed. And corset makers would not be thwarted. Women routinely read newspaper “articles,” claiming that a corset was “indispensable to health and beauty.” Women were counseled to call on corsetieres to ensure an expert fit. And “modern” corsets promised to support spines, provide natural breathing, and prevent poor poise and stooping shoulders. There were even “college girl” corsets designed to allow movement for golfing, horseback riding and biking.

Eventually, the corset haters won out. Stockham recounted one woman’s response on having shed her corset: “For the first time in my life, I am an emancipated woman.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Packing for College: Whisky and Witch Hazel

A rowing team of Wellesley students dress in their finest, circa 1913.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.  

Vassar College was the first university to offer a full liberal arts program for women beginning in 1865. At the time, when most young women seeking higher education were enrolled in teachers' colleges, inviting women to study such subjects as art history, French and psychology was a radical idea. 

Forty years later, while other such women-only universities had opened their doors, the majority of women students still attended "female seminaries." Despite that and surprisingly, the number of "coeds," as they were dubbed, was equal to the number of male students by then.

Regardless of what type of educational institution women were attending, when it was time to go away to school, they weren't heading to Target for fashionable decor and minifridges. No, an incoming freshman was told to bring mostly first-aid supplies. Here's her typical list: bandages, antiseptic, hot water bottle, syringe, roll of prepared mustard sheets, three porous plasters, absorbent cotton and a roll of old linen, bottle of "pure whisky," flasks of turpentine and alcohol, witch hazel, medicated clay, eye cup and eyewash, medicine glass and dropper, thermometer, salve, quinine tables, family-tested headache and cold cures, scissors and safety pins. 

Today's college first-aid kit? Likely a box of Band-Aids and the phone number to the on-campus health office.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Old Girl Celebrates Her 90th

Women march in a suffrage parade in New York City, May 4, 1912.
Both photos, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
CHARLOTTE WOODWARD WAS JUST 18 when she traveled by wagon, with other hopeful and liberal-minded friends, to the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention in 1848. There, the radical notion of women's right to vote was first seriously suggested by rabble-rousers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Woodward was among 68 women to sign the meeting's Declaration of Sentiments.
Little could Woodward have realized that it would take another 72 — yes, 72 — years, for that right to be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. When the 19th amendment was finally ratified in 1920, she was roughly 90 years old. Unfortunately, she was ill and confined to her home and did not participate later that year when women first voted in a presidential election.  
Last month, women's suffrage celebrated its own 90th birthday. A girl born on August 18, 1920 — the date the 19th amendment was ratified — never knew a time when she couldn't vote. And she's had the chance to vote myriad times — 18 times in presidential elections alone.
As we approach another election, albeit a midterm, we raise a glass to the Old Girl, women's suffrage, and to all the women who pressed for its passage, including Woodward. 
"My heart is with all women who vote," she said in 1920.
Cheers to that.