Edward H. Clarke was a Harvard-educated doctor who initially specialized in otology, but despite his expertise, his general popularity with patients led him to transition to general practice. In addition, he became a professor of medicine Harvard Medical School. With Vassar having been opened in 1865, the topic of education was of intense interest to women, so in December, 1872, the New England Women’s Club in Boston asked Dr. Clarke to address the group at their regular monthly meeting. His topic was to be women’s higher education; it was presumed he was an ally, and his opening comments seemed to support that. In his treatise, which relates the details of the remarks he made at the meeting, he states,
Neither is there any such thing as inferiority or superiority in this matter. Man is not superior to woman, nor woman to man. The relation of the sexes is one of equality, not of better and worse, or of higher and lower. By this it is not intended to say that the sexes are the same. They are different, widely different from each other, and so different that each can do, in certain directions, what the other cannot; and in other directions, where both can do the same things, one sex, as a rule, can do them better than the other; and in still other matters they seem to be so nearly alike, that they can interchange labor without perceptible difference.
Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. In an odd confluence of Darwinism, the “synthetic philosophy” of Herbert Spencer, and thermodynamics (yes, really), Clarke subscribed to a medical theory of the closed system proposed by Spencer. In her 1985 book, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine, Regina Moratz-Sanchez explained the Spencerian theory:
According to Spencer, the human body was a closed energy system in which any abnormal demands made on one part would inevitably deplete the healthy development of some other part. (p. 205)
Dr. Clarke, being a reasonable man, does admit that female weakness and poor health (particularly as compared to European women with “the red blood that fills and colors the faces of ladies and peasant girls, reminding one of the canvas of Rubens and Murillo”) has multiple causes.
An immense loss of female power may be fairly charged to irrational cooking and indigestible diet. We live in the zone of perpetual pie and dough-nut; and our girls revel in those unassimilable abominations. Much also may be credited to artificial deformities strapped to the spine, or piled on the head, much to corsets and skirts, and as much to the omission of clothing where it is needed as to excess where the body does not require it; but, after the amplest allowance for these as causes of weakness, there remains a large margin of disease unaccounted for. Those grievous maladies which torture a woman’s earthly existence, called leucorrhœa, amenorrhœa, dysmenorrhœa, chronic and acute ovaritis, prolapsus uteri, hysteria, neuralgia, and the like, are indirectly affected by food, clothing, and exercise; they are directly and largely affected by the causes that will be presently pointed out, and which arise from a neglect of the peculiarities of a woman’s organization.
Clarke goes on to explain, within the context of a “closed system,” that for girls, the ages 14-18 are critical. “Girls, between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, must have sleep, not only for repair and growth, like boys, but for the additional task of constructing, or, more properly speaking, of developing and perfecting then, a reproductive system,—the engine within an engine.” (p. 59) Boys are exempt from the same demands; essentially the argument is that they have fewer “parts” so the constructing, developing, and perfecting of their reproductive systems causes less depletion of other parts of their system, especially the brain.
Dr. Clarke has “data” for his claims. He provides case studies of seven girls/women, who after attending and even excelling in schools that used the same curricula as for boys, showed a significant decline in their health. In his words, this approach to education, without consideration for the demands of their reproductive system, resulted in “slow suicide.” Here he describes the case of Miss A___:
The system does not do two things well at the same time. One or the other suffers from neglect, when the attempt is made. Miss A—— made her brain and muscles work actively, and diverted blood and force to them when her organization demanded active work, with blood and force for evolution in another region. At first the schoolmaster seemed to be successful. He not only made his pupil’s brain manipulate Latin, chemistry, philosophy, geography, grammar, arithmetic, music, French, German, and the whole extraordinary catalogue of an American young lady’s school curriculum, with acrobatic skill; but he made her do this irrespective of the periodical tides of her organism, and made her perform her intellectual and muscular calisthenics, obliging her to stand, walk, and recite, at the seasons of highest tide. For a while she got on nicely. Presently, however, the strength of the loins, that even Solomon put in as a part of his ideal woman, changed to weakness. Periodical hemorrhages were the first warning of this. As soon as loss of blood occurred regularly and largely, the way to imperfect development and invalidism was open, and the progress easy and rapid. The nerves and their centres lacked nourishment. There was more waste than repair,—no margin for growth. St. Vitus’ dance was a warning not to be neglected, and the schoolmaster resigned to the doctor. A long vacation enabled the system to retrace its steps, and recover force for evolution. Then the school resumed its sway, and physiological laws were again defied. Fortunately graduation soon occurred, and unintermitted, sustained labor was no longer enforced. The menorrhagia ceased, but persistent dysmenorrhœa now indicates the neuralgic friction of an imperfectly developed reproductive apparatus. Doubtless the evil of her education will infect her whole life. (p. 72)
(As an aside, I must note that throughout the entire tract, Dr. Clarke uses the word menstruation only twice. Most of the time, he uses expressions like “periodical tides of her organism.”)
Dr. Clarke, however, does have a solution for the debilitating effects of education on the the woman’s “organization.” He is not opposed to educating females; he is merely opposed to educating girls using the same methods, schedules, and settings as boys.
Experience teaches that a healthy and growing boy may spend six hours of force daily upon his studies, and leave sufficient margin for physical growth. A girl cannot spend more than four, or, in occasional instances, five hours of force daily upon her studies, and leave sufficient margin for the general physical growth that she must make in common with a boy, and also for constructing a reproductive apparatus. If she puts as much force into her brain education as a boy, the brain or the special apparatus will suffer. Appropriate education and appropriate co-education must adjust their methods and regimen to this law.
Another detail is, that, during every fourth week, there should be a remission, and sometimes an intermission, of both study and exercise. Some individuals require, at that time, a complete intermission from mental and physical effort for a single day; others for two or three days; others require only a remission, and can do half work safely for two or three days, and their usual work after that. The diminished labor, which shall give Nature an opportunity to accomplish her special periodical task and growth, is a physiological necessity for all, however robust they may seem to be…The periodical type of woman’s way of work must be harmonized with the persistent type of man’s way of work in any successful plan of co-education. (pp. 157-158)
Dr. Clarke recognizes the difficulty and expense of implementing his vision, but he views it as necessary for the perpetuation of healthy womanhood and in Darwinian and white supremacist terms, the race. Because of the inherent difficulties, he proposes an interim approach:
It does not come within the scope of this essay to speculate upon the ways—the regimen, methods of instruction, and other details of college life,—by which the inherent difficulties of co-education may be obviated. Here tentative and judicious experiment is better than speculation. It would seem to be the part of wisdom, however, to make the simplest and least costly experiment first; that is, to discard the identical separate education of girls as boys, and to ascertain what their appropriate separate education is, and what it will accomplish. Aided by the light of such an experiment, it would be comparatively easy to solve the more difficult problem of the appropriate co-education of the sexes. (p. 154)
His proposal for separate-but-equal education was greeted with support and approval by the medical establishment and even male educators of the time. Women, on the other hand, were unimpressed and unconvinced. In 1874, Julia Ward Howe compiled and edited a collection of essays in the book, Sex and Education: A reply to Dr. E.H. Clarke’s “Sex in education”. (Available here) The controversy didn’t go away; in 1882, 65 college-educated women formed the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, and, “The organization’s headquarters were set up in Washington, D.C., and local chapters emerged in cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston. In 1885, the ACA’s first research report was released, debunking the myth that college can adversely affect a woman’s health.” (Unsung Heroes: The Association of Collegiate Alumnae) Even 25+ years later, Dr. Clarke’s essay was remembered:
Although today we can easily dismiss and even laugh at Clarke’s theories, his assertions left an indelible mark on the minds of ACA leaders for many years. It was still a vivid memory at their 25-year anniversary meeting held in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1908. In the welcoming address, Florence Cushing reminisced about the days “a little more than a quarter century ago when, almost within a stone’s throw of this building, one of the noted physicians of Boston wrote, ‘It is the first observation of a European landing on our shores that the women of the country are a feeble race.’” She continued with a greeting to Clarke: “Some of the remnants of this ‘feeble race’ are here to give you welcome tonight.”
Elizabeth M. Howe, a former ACA president who attended the Boston meeting, joked about the first job of the woman college graduate, which was to “find out whether or not she was alive.” Howe recalled the days when “physicians opened their case books and displayed a gruesome list of victims of higher education — ‘poor creatures’ experimented on and ruined in health.” There is a comical, sarcastic tone at times to these women’s reflections, but it is underscored by a more serious one as we all know that Clarke’s beliefs had the potential to hinder women’s advancement and to permanently affect their lives. (College Doesn’t Make You Infertile)
The ACA was the predecessor organization to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), so Dr. Clarke had a positive legacy after all.