WILLA v4 - Behind the 'barred windows': The Imprisonment of Women's Bodies and Minds in Nineteenth-Century America

Volume 4
Fall 1995

Behind the "barred windows": The Imprisonment of Women's Bodies and Minds in Nineteenth-Century America

by Michelle Mock Murton

How shall I so cramp, stunt, simplify, and nullify
myself as to make me eligible to the honor of
being swallowed up into some little man?
-- Anna Julia Cooper (1892) 1

While a multitude of women in the mid- to late-nineteenth century brought suffrage to the forefront of society as a means to equal rights, many others involved in the women's movement realized that political enfranchisement alone would not bring women to an equitable socioeconomic footing with men. Key impediments to women's equality were patriarchal ideologies and pronouncements which encumbered women's bodies, adversely affecting their physical and mental health, simultaneously relegating middle and upper-class white women to an inferior status. Male-controlled realms such as fashion, publishing, medicine, psychiatry, and education collectively encouraged society to embrace "sick-making" conventions such as the corset, encumbering dress, enforced invalidism, and skewed notions of female anatomy which in effect imprisoned nineteenth-century American women within their bodies. Consequently, to encumber woman's body is to encumber her mind. This phenomenon is not entirely dissimilar to the twentieth-century chimera which created social diseases for women such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. 2 Then, as today, women activists found misogynist ideologues so detrimental to women's survival that there was no recourse but to counter them.

German theorist and theologian Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendal aptly notes in her 1995 text, I Am My Body , that historically, "women are seismographs for changes in culture, and their bodies are the places where conflicts become unmistakably evident" (9). In a burgeoning industrialized and teleologized patriarchy, women were judged solely as a sex rather than as persons constituting one half of humanity. So coerced were nineteenth-century American women into gender-imprisoning conventions that Charlotte Perkins Gilman vehemently proclaimed: "So utterly has the status of woman been accepted as a sexual one that it has remained for the women's movement of the nineteenth century to devote much contention to the claim that women are persons! That women are persons as well as females,--an unheard of proposition!" (577).

Contemporary historian Ben Barker-Benfield suggests that men's fear and hostility toward the female body motivated them to create gendered constructs to demonstrate that women, because of the very nature of their bodies and minds, were inherently weak ( Showalter 95). To relegate women to an inferior status and to label them as the "weaker sex" reduced women's threat to masculinity. According to Eliza Archard, women, "like sheep," were so coerced by male-created ideologies about women's alleged physical and mental frailties that they came to see these constructed weaknesses as a virtue and "strength" of their sex (1). Not surprisingly, many reformers rebelled against such subversive inversions, urging other women to do the same.

Social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw that nineteenth-century fashions, with their encumbrances, effectively imprisoned women. Fashions, she wrote,

perfectly. . .describe [woman's] condition for. . .everything she wears has some object external to her self. The comfort and convenience of the woman is never considered, from the bonnet string to the paper shoe, she is the hopeless martyr to the inventions of some Parisian imp of fashion. Her tight waist and long trailing skirts deprive her of all freedom of breath and motion. No wonder man prescribes her sphere. She needs his help at every turn. (119)

As Stanton argued, numerous fashion conventions imprisoned women's body through outward attire, hindered physical and mental health, and altered societal notions of women's "natural" body. Thus, these encumbrances enclosed women, often rendering them passive and dependent within a relegated sphere.

As the century waned, Stanton, Gilman, and many other women, envisioned and worked for the world which awaited them beyond the barred windows. Together, they worked to build a less restrictive world, not only for themselves, but for all of humanity. 3 A positive activist who called herself a "humanist," Gilman wrote in Women and Economics : "What we do modifies us more than what is done to us. The freedom of expression has been more restricted in women than the freedom of impression, if that be possible. Something of the world she lived in she has seen from her barred windows" (580).

Gilman and others fought against what Ann Wood has termed a "domestication of death" which imprisoned women as a sex and which was expressed in virtually every sphere ( Gilbert 25). For example, in the literary realm, the domestication of death became so pervasive, physically and intellectually, that women's embodiment became doubly circumscribed. The theoretical delight in women's actual deaths and their death-like passivity nearly reached the level of the sublime in Edgar Allan Poe's "Philosophy of Composition" which dictates that "unquestionably the most poetic topic" is the "death of a beautiful woman" (1463). Poe's raven's insistent refrain of "never more" may be viewed as patriarchy's answer as to when women would receive equality. Poe's "never more" is the American prototype to Milton's patriarchal, restrictive "bogey" applied to imprison English women. Exactly three decades later, in A Room of One's Own , Virginia Woolf would defend women against misogynist ideologues much as Gilman did across the shore, using quintessentially the same metaphorical analogy of imprisonment and "barred windows" to describe women's restricted view and place in patriarchal society by declaring that women must "look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view" (32). Ironically, according to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her 1889 autobiography Eighty Years and More, Susan B. Anthony, like Woolf later, presented a countervoice against Poe's raven and Milton's bogey. Stanton wrote: "She [Anthony] still never loses an occasion to de fend coeducation and prohibition, and solves every difficulty with the refrain, woman suffrage, as persistent as the 'never more' of Poe's raven" (168). Despite men's attempts to imprison women as a sex, Stanton and others chose to fight for liberty and equality, thereby rejecting death, intellectual or otherwise.

Certainly, women's attire was a definite hazard to women's health and an impetus to invalidism. In her 1873 text, What to Wear? Elizabeth Stuart Phelps revealed the deadly truth behind colloquialisms that denoted fashionably attired women. "It has ceased to be a metaphor," Phelps noted of the well-dressed woman, "that she is dressed to kill '" (18). Phelps saw conventions of embodiment as insidious habits to be fixed, to attract their distinct attention. There never was a serpent that did not hide and crawl under foot" (76). So extreme and prominent were these conventions that women came to believe their strength virtually relied upon their weaknesses, complying and enslaving themselves to keep up with fashion. In "Home Truths," the January 15, 1868, edition of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony's suffragette paper, The Revolution , Eliza Archard's latest text, Herald of Health , was quoted profusely. Archard railed against the notion of invalidism enforced upon supplicating and complicitious women:

Woman's weakness indeed!. . .And what more claim to our admiration has a woman who, in a manner, paralyzes herself, and starves every drop of good, red blood out of her body? The lovely creatures who choke the breath out of themselves, eat chalk and pickles, and drink vinegar, are to be counted by the hundred. . .So ground into the souls of women is this notion of the exceeding beauty of woman's weakness, that there are those who think it isn't pretty to exert every scanty strength they have. (1)

Helen Gilbert Ecob, whose 1892 study, The Well-Dressed Woman , outlines the debilitating physical, psychological, and moral effects of fashion, echoed Archard's views. "Alas for a people whose power lies in weakness!" Ecob despaired (20). Advocating equal rights for women in all realms, Ecob inverted the essentializing notion of "true womanhood," emphasizing strength instead of weakness; she perceived physical reformation as women's only means of escaping her genteel imprisonment. Ecob believed that "since physical weakness handicaps woman's activities, bars the way to higher education and hinders the development of many noble traits of character, it follows that an important step in the attainment of true womanhood lies in the direction of physical reformation" (23).

In his 1851 lecture entitled Women's Rights , Wendell Phillips despaired over societal domestications of death and invalidism which encouraged women to grow more pallid and passive in their hot-house domestic spheres while in the "outside" world, their husbands/fathers/brothers developed physical manifestations of economic prosperity, increasing girths and ruddying complexion. Regarding the "woman question," Phillips foregrounded the maternal, one of the essences of the "true woman," noting "I will not enlarge now on another most important aspect of this question, the value of the contemplated change in a physiological point of view. Our dainty notions have made woman such a hot-house plant, that one half the sex are invalids. The mothers of the next generation are invalids...But I leave this sad topic for other hands"(29)

Other feminists took up the cause. In The Well-Dressed Woman , Ecob diligently addressed the notion of women's enforced invalidism. Noting the effects of a weakened body on the mind, Ecob reminded her readers that these were ideo logical constructs, not inherent traits of the sex. Male ideologies supported and encouraged fashions and behaviors that imprisoned women; indeed, these men and women who slavishly carried out their ideologies created a domesticated death for women. Ecob noted:

Invalidism or semi-invalidism is the rule. Even a condition of passive health, or the absence of active disease, is seldom seen. Health in its highest sense, which signifies exuberance of spirit and both vital and moral energy, is almost unknown. The decline from strength to weakness has been so gradual that we have been hardly conscious of the process, and weakness is accepted as a legitimate condition. To assert that this state of invalidism is preordained for the female race is an impeachment of Divine justice. We are forced to the belief that it is the result of false principles and methods of living.(15)

To demystify patriarchal ideology, Ecob felt, was the only means to advance women's equal rights. She quoted Dr. Dio Lewis who agreed with her: "The popular notion that the ill health of our women is natural must be overcome"(16).

Undoubtedly, the greatest danger to women's health was the corset, a patriarchal cage Phelps nominalized as "that strait jacket--worthy of an invention of an Alva" (19). The corset distorted and deformed woman's natural body, transforming the female body into an hour-glass figure, a grotesquely exaggerated symbol of fertility, reproductivity, and nurturing specularized for patriarchal gaze. To raise the bust and to enlarge the stomach resulted in compressed organs in the abdominal area, reducing the woman's waist to a minuscule circumference. This distortion of women's physical proportions deformed and damaged internal organs. Woman's breathing was so severely affected that as Phelps noted, "her lungs con tract and ache, and her breath comes in uneasy gasps" (19). The corseted woman breathlessly spoke, as Isabella Bird noted, in the "weak, rapid accents of consumption" (183). Indeed, in the fifteenth century (when corsets were composed of steel and had busks of wood), a physician of the period linked the breathless corset-wearer to the consumptive. Corseted women, he claimed, "purchase a stinking breath.. and open a door into consumptions" (qtd. in Ecob 109).

The nineteenth-century corset, often comprised of whale bones and laces, reduced the waist anywhere from "three to fifteen inches," its extreme pressure impairing lung capacity and pushing other organs downward ( Ecob 26-7). Dr. Robert L. Dickinson estimated that the corset's continual pres sure was as "few" as thirty-five pounds of pressure from a loose corset to a greater pressure of eighty-eight pounds; this oppression was inflicted upon a woman throughout all her waking hours (28). In addition to impaired breathing, the corset also adversely affected the liver and heart. Indeed, "tight lace liver" became a common occurrence among corseted women. Autopsies showed livers so altered in shape and so completely lacerated due to tight lacing that serrations from the lacing cut a furrow into the liver deeply enough to cut the organ nearly in two ( Ecob 63). Further, pressure from the corset impaired the heart's capacity to measure blood flow. Undoubtedly, nineteenth-century ladies"'swooning" occurred as a result of restricted blood flow, not from romantic ideals. The spine, too, was affected by daily corset wearing. 4 Ecob quotes Dr. Trall who saw "[s]pinal distortion [as] one of the ordinary consequences of lacing." Trall warned that "No one who laces habitually can have a straight or strong back. The muscles being unbalanced become flabby or contracted, un able to support the trunk of the body erect, and a curvature, usually a double curvature, of the spine is the consequence" (46). Not surprisingly, when a woman decided to discard her corsets for emancipation, her undisciplined muscles and over-exerted organs rebelled. Phelps warned her readers to beware, for initially, "a greater sense of discomfort grows upon you" after the corset is first abandoned (79). After escaping imprisonment, Phelps incites her readers to bum their corsets and not deceive themselves with false philanthropy, giving "in the sacred name of charity" the hateful object to another woman, enslaving her in the very "chains from which you have yourself escaped" (78). "Yes!" Margaret Fuller cried in her 1845 polemic Woman in the Nineteenth Century , "let us give up all artificial means of distortion. Let life be healthy, pure, all of a piece" ( 164). Certainly, physical health was not the sole issue at hand. To discard the corset was to gain emancipation and autonomy. Ecob recognized "[d]eep breathing as a powerful psychical force" (61), and Phelps believed that while a woman "breathes, she thinks, suspects" (30).

Compounding weight in conjunction with the corset to women's already overburdened frame were the heavy, starched muslin and flannel petticoats worn beneath long, trailing skirts (which accumulated the additional weight of mud throughout the day). In addition, tight collars and garters to hold up hose threatened to cut off circulation. Tight-waisted clothing with thick, heavily corded waists, often worn by young girls, were marked as "incipient corsets" by Ecob and others (132). Ecob knew that physically restrictive wear was also restrictive of autonomy and independence. To encumber woman's body was also to encumber her mind. Ecob reasoned that confining attire "is a moral loss not simply be cause it cripples the working power of the brain, but because it makes the mind ever conscious of the body, 'by reason of its uncomfortableness'" (236).

While corsets distorted the bodily image of woman, woman's body in itself was viewed as suspect. The embodiment of "woman" continued to see women's bodies as a dark continent in an alien world--particularly in the realm of re production. "Misplaced ovaries" caused a "great deal of trouble" to women's health, according to Dr. S. W. Mitchell, the nineteenth-century neurospecialist made famous for his infamous "rest cure" for the "hysteric" woman, one of whom was Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 5 Myths regarding women's menstrual process often served as a guise for misogynist and enslaving techniques. One famous menstrual myth appears with startling regularity in controversies over co-education in colleges and universities. Elaine and English Showalter note that in 1873 Dr. Edward Clarke of Harvard College published a work entitled Sex in Education in which he argued that higher education was destroying the reproductive functions of women by overworking them during a crucial time in their formative years. Supporting Clarke 's thesis, Mitchell pointedly noted the case of "Miss C." in his medical treatise entitled Nervous Diseases , a text devoted primarily to women. "Miss C.," a seventeen-year old, "lost" her menstrual cycle while attending (Mitchell pointedly reminds his readers) a "school in which boys and girls were educated together." Prior to attending the coeducational academy, the young woman's menstrual cycles, Mitchell claims, had been "regular." Once she was sent home, however, her menstrual flow miraculously returned in but a few short weeks and the young woman's health was gradually restored (96). Sadly, her educational process was not.

Note that despite protestations of concern for feminine health and well-being, Mitchell endorsed the notion of women's physical inferiority. In "Doctor and Patient" (1904), Mitchell expressed concern over the "grave risks" to health and life chanced by young women willing to "risk injury" through scholastic endeavors enjoyed by their male peers (149). Not content simply to relegate women's physicality to a weakened and inferior realm, Mitchell, a well-educated man who published a plethora of medical texts as well as fictional narratives, also espoused what he perceived to be women's mental and intellectual inferiority to man. Between the male and female intellect, Mitchell wrote, "there is difference, both quantitative and in a measure qualitative, I believe, nor do I think any educational change in generations of women will ever set her, as to certain mental and moral qualifications, as an equal be side the man" ("Doctor and Patient" 138).

Much of "woman's weakness," both physical and intellectual, was attributed to her reproductive system. Certainly George Henry Lewes conflated values to facts when he explained why, in 1852, women were unlikely to be great writers. Referring to then-unmarried, and consequently child less, women writers such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, Lewes believed:

For twenty of the best years of their lives--those very years in which men either rear the grand fabric or lay the solid foundations of their fame and fortune--women are mainly occupied by the cares, the duties, the enjoyments, and the sufferings of maternity. During large parts of these years, too their bodily health is generally so broken and precarious as to incapacitate them for any strenuous exertion. (qtd. in Showalter 43)

And Charles D. Meigs , in his 1851 text, Woman: Her Diseases and Remedies , questioned the notion of "woman" artist, labeling her creative aspirations as an aberration crime against man and nature:

Do you think that a woman, who can produce a race and modify the whole fabric of society, would have developed in the tender soil of her intellect, the strong idea of Hamlet, or a Macbeth...Such is not woman's providence, nature, power, or mission. (50)

Myths regarding menstruation and women's reproductive system endorsed and virtually enforced women's embodiment as the weaker sex in both physical and intellectual realms. From 1840 to the early 1900's, the psychiatric establishment went so far as to posit a direct and causal connection between women's reproductive organs and insanity. In "The Weaker Vessel: Legal Versus Social Reality in Mental Commitments in Nineteenth-Century New York," Ellen Dwyer argues that nineteenth-century physicians, fearful of the female reproductive system, perceived that women's "susceptibility to endometriosis and cervical ulceration increased women's susceptibility to insanity" (95). Dwyer goes on to point out that in its "most extreme form," the correlation between the feminine reproductive system and insanity encouraged a faction of physicians to perform hysterectomies and clitorectomies as a means of restoring mental health (95). Certainly the author of a late nineteenth-century article entitled "The Usefulness of Spaying" indicates a fear of the female anatomy; he attempted to persuade peers among the medical profession to adopt his oppressive techniques, despite the "prevalen[ce] among crudely educated minds that the ovaries are organs of social necessity and economic importance" (qtd. in Dwyer 95). This writer argues that the ovaries, while important for a brief period in a woman's life and important for the propagation of the human race, were in general, the basis for much racial, domestic, and individual distress and should be re moved ( Dwyer 96).

Despite the gendered constructs which dictated and enforced domesticated death and its resulting physical, intellectual, and mental weakness upon nineteenth-century "woman," virtually imprisoning her both body and mind, enough women broke through these barred windows, becoming, in a sense, societal outlaws. Margaret Fuller could empathize with the plight of collective activists: "Such beings as these, rich in genius, of most tender sympathies, capable of high virtue and chastened harmony, ought not to find themselves, by birth, in a place so narrow, that, in breaking bonds, they become outlaws" (75). Inscribed as "outlaws," women such as Stanton, Gilman, Phelps, Ecob, and others resisted the cage of fashion and convention, encouraging emancipation for others, so that all could behold a view and place in society.

End Notes

  1. Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice from the South by a Black Woman from as the South , p. 70. Cooper, as many women reformers, foregrounds the essential of 'true woman's" maternity as a legitimizing force for reformation. However, Cooper 's multiplicitous subject positioning offers her readers variant positioning which traverses centers and margins from the subjectivity of race and gender.
  2. The practice of inscribing fluctuating societal values and cultural conflicts upon the female body has plagued Western culture's matrilineage for centuries. Undoubtedly, the similarities between late-twentieth-century American women and their nineteenth-century predecessor 's cojoined obsession with bodily image are plentiful. However, variant dissimilarities do exist. While nineteenth century women adhered to the standard of the "hour-glass" figure and mutilated their bodies in an attempt to "naturalize" this ideal, their period neither established nor adhered to the pursuit of thinness as late twentieth-century Western, industrialized cultures have done. For a more detailed examination regarding the historical context and cultural values of anorexia nervosa and bulimia, see Roberta P. Said's Too 'Close to the Bone': The Historical Context for Women's Obsession with Slenderness in Fallon, Patricia, et. al. Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders. New York: Guilford, 1994.
  3. Rebecca Harding Davis, Fanny Fern, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Anna Julie Cooper, and Dorthea Dix are but a few of the women too numerous to explore in depth here, who, while not affiliated directly with the Women's Suffrage Movement but with other movements such as dress reform, sanitarium reform, the temperance movement, or simply literary denouncements, directly influenced the women's rights movement with their works and voice.
  4. The corset not only affected the wearer but also the woman's children. Many women wore corsets throughout their pregnancy in order to appear more "respectable" during their time of internment. And for pregnant women who did not, their musculature had already been grossly affected by years of corset wearing and their expulsive power in childbirth would be drastically weakened. Ecob quotes numerous physicians who implicate corset wearing with childbirth cases (434).
  5. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is a fictionalized account denouncing Mitchell's "cure," its debilitating effect upon women, and patriarchal society's devaluation of half of its population. Although Gilman was an active advocate of women's rights, a prolific writer of a multitude of genres devoted to women's socio-political rights, and a well-known lecturer, her short story is an exceptional example to illustrate the reformatory praxis evident in nineteenth-century American women's literature.
Works Cited

Archard, Eliza. "Home Truths." The Revolution 15 January, 1868.

Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice from the South by a Black Woman from the South . Xenia. Ohio: Aldine, 1892.

Dickinson, Robert L. "The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement." New York Medical Journal 5 November, 1887.

Dwyer, Ellen. "The Weaker Vessel: Legal Versus Social Reality in Mental Commitments in Nineteenth-Century New York." Women and the Law: A Social Historical Perspective . Vol I . Ed. D. Kelly Weisberg. Cambridge: Schenkman, 1982.

Ecob, Helen Gilbert. The Well-Dressed Woman: A Study in the Practical Application to Dress for the Laws of Health . New York: Fowler & Wells, 1893.

Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century . 1845. Introduction Bernard Rosenthal. New York: Norton, 1971.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution . 1898. Ed. Carl N. Degler. New York: Harper, 1966.

Meigs, Charles D. Woman: Her Diseases and Remedies . Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1851.

Mitchell, S. Weir. "Doctor and Patient". Philadelphia Lippincott, 1904. Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous System, Especially in Women . Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea's Sons 1881.

Moltmann-Wendel, Elisabeth. I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment .. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. What to Wear? Boston: James R. Osgood, 1873.

Phillips, Wendell. "Woman's Rights." Speeches, Lectures, and Letters . 1884. New York: Negro UP, 1966.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Philosophy of Composition." 1846. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. vol. I . New York: Norton 1989. 1459-66.

Showalter, Elaine and English Showalter. " Victorian Women and Menstruation." Suffer and Be Still . Ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1973.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 . 1898. Introduction Gail Parker. New York: Schocken, 1971.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own .. 1928. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1964.

MICHELLE MOCK MURTON is a doctoral student and an instructor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation is on Rebecca Harding Davis's theories of art. A former editorial assistant for Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, Murton has published critical reviews on both Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland and Ann Petry's Country Place for the revised edition of Masterplots: Twentieth Anniversary and Masterplots 11: African American Literature .

Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is granted to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Murton, Michelle Mock. (1995). Behind the "barred windows": The imprisonment of women's bodies and minds in nineteenth-century America. WILLA , Volume IV, 22-26.