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The Frailty Myth
A hundred years ago, women were pushed backward in a very particular way. Just as they were beginning to demand education and political and economic power, they were stripped of the power of their bodies. Just as they began to get ideas about fighting for justice, they were required, with all the persuasion of a moral movement, to cultivate frailness. Nineteenth-century women were given to believe that weakness was their natural condition. It was a total gaslight job. There wasn't a plot. No single group could be held accountable. What made the concept so powerful was the influential mix-the various groups whose interests came together into a single compelling philosophy about woman's purpose on the planet. That philosophy-some scholars have dubbed it "the frailty myth"-became the rope that restrained women from developing physically, restricted them to small half movements, isolated them in rooms hidden from the sun, and threatened them with the worst of all punishments should they refuse to comply: the loss of their capacity to bear children.
The theory behind the frailty myth was this: Women could not be allowed to follow their own pursuits-physical or mental-because every ounce of energy they could generate was needed for maintaining their reproductive processes. No option was offered in this matter. In the nineteenth century female confinement was considered a social necessity. Women owed it to the next generation, and the generations thereafter, to cultivate nothing but their fertility-not mind, not artistry, and certainly not body. This became known as "the cult of true womanhood." Educators, psychologists, churchmen, and physicians-particularly obstetricians and gynecologists-were its chief proponents. Men were certain that if women weren't controlled, the very species (or "race," as they called it then) was at risk. They drummed up a role for women, an idea called "femininity," an appropriate "character," an appropriate "look"-and with all of these, they persuaded women that their reason for being was essentially heroic and thus worth giving up a lot for.
For years my image of Victorian women was narrowed by stereotypes. I had been taught that women of the late 1800s were frail, overprotected creatures who didn't have much of a life. Everything they did seemed to require undue effort. As a young woman reading about Victorian "ladies," I could only imagine trying to swim in the ocean weighed down by wet bloomers and baggy blouses. The daily struggle with corsets and merry widows, the attempt to walk, much less run, in huge skirts and hats-it seemed, to my generation, pathetic. Those women had lived their lives according to bizarre rules, and courtesies, and restraint. Rags were used for mopping up menstrual blood. Sex was a joke because Victorian men didn't know the first thing about the parts of women's bodies that give pleasure. It was hard to see how the Gay Nineties could have been all that frolicsome.
Mine was, of course, a glib view of those times. To think about actual flesh-and-blood women living in that way-to contemplate the hard, merciless doctors' couches on which they lay, trying to make sense of their ailments-would have required more emotional imagination than I possessed. I chose not to relate. It was the same way I'd distanced myself from my mother's history, thinking of her life as too strangely different from my own for us to have much in common. Hers was another time; it might as well have been another country. I wanted to be safe from my mother's rural Nebraskan history, her fifteen siblings, her diabetes-ravaged mother, the farm that failed, she and her sisters were given to believe, because there weren't enough boys to do the heavy work. Because I preferred to think that my mother and I were not quite the same under the skin-just as I viewed those strange Victorian ladies-I lived for years without knowing important things, things that would have strengthened my appreciation of my own womanhood and allowed me to see myself as belonging to a family-not only a personal family, but the historical family of my gender.
Old habits die hard. In tracing the frailty myth back to the nineteenth century, I found myself at first wanting to gloss over what I was starting to see: an inevitable connection between the women at the end of that century and women of our day-a continuum of actual physical oppression in which all of us had been kept down. I wanted to be able to name the final decades of the nineteenth century as the flowering of the frailty myth and move on. But as I began to dig further into the journals, and studies, and diaries of those women, it became clear that something fundamental to growth and development had been taken from them and that the loss was not only theirs, but ours. More and more I began to see that the frailty myth hadn't died, it had only wedged its way a little further underground. I wanted to comprehend the forces keeping women from their bodies, their physical strength and spirit.
The Frailty Myth is about the social domination of women's bodies. It is about girls' and women's restricted physical development. It is about the attempt to keep them feeling as doctors, educators, and even religious leaders have intended them to feel: physically limited. Unable to run long distances. Unable to play five sets of tennis. And even more important, unable to raise a barn or (once it was invented) fix a car. Unable to go for a walk in the woods unaccompanied. Unable to exist, in short, without the muscular heft and presumed physical assistance of the other half of the species.
For centuries women have been shackled to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffectual. This perception has been nothing less than the emotional and cognitive equivalent of having our whole bodies bound. The myth of women's frailty has been so systematically entrenched that it could fairly be called a hoax. But a hoax is a conscious deceit, while myths are believed in as truth. What propels them is complicated and invisible. The frailty myth was driven by men's repressed wish to preserve dominion. To make the myth viable, society constructed elaborate ways of keeping women cut off from their strength; of turning them into physical victims and teaching them that victimhood was all they could aspire to.
Historically, strength has been encouraged in women only when the economy needs it-during wars, while the men are away, or when helping to pioneer new lands. But as feminist scholarship in the past quarter century has uncovered, women in fact lived far more complicated and demanding lives over the course of the first millennium than you might imagine if you looked at the picture of "true womanhood" to which women were restricted in the nineteenth century. It was striking to learn, when it was first published in the late 1990s, that in Paleolithic times women weren't sequestered in caves, sweeping up stone dust and suckling their infants, as male anthropologists had always suggested. That particular view of Ice Age females' physical ability was the result of certain questions not being asked, according to Olga Soffer, one of the world's leading authorities on Ice Age hunters and gatherers. Soffer's research and that of other feminist scholars in the 1990s led to the discovery that Paleolithic women were strong and physically active, and provided up to 70 percent of family nutrition. And they weren't just gathering nuts and berries. Paleolithic women hunted small animals with bows and arrows and used nets to trap larger ones. Even the children participated in these hunts. Women and children "set snares, laid spring traps, sighted game and participated in animal drives and surrounds-forms of hunting that endangered neither young mothers nor their offspring," reports Heather Pringle in an article in Discovery, "New Women of the Ice Age." "They even hunted, on occasion, with the projectile points traditionally deemed men's weapons."
The new research opens to question the idea that women and families, from the beginning of human time, relied on male strength for their survival. Even the much vaunted killing of very large animals for meat, long associated with Ice Age man's superiority, was rare, owing to the sheer difficulty of slaying a six-thousand-pound pachyderm with a short-range spear, Soffer explains. "If one of these Upper Paleolithic guys killed a mammoth, and occasionally they did, they probably didn't stop talking about it for ten years."
Women's strength was appreciated and made use of in later societies as well. In the Minoan civilization on the Greek island
of Crete (this flourished between 6000 b.c. and 1450 b.c.), bull vaulting was popular among aristocratic youth. Only recently have we learned that men and women worked as bull-vaulting teams. They actually took turns, one grasping the horn of a bull to steady it while the other somersaulted over its back. "The equal partnership between women and men that seems to have characterized Minoan society," Riane Eisler wrote in The Chalice and the Blade, "is perhaps nowhere so vividly illustrated as in these sacred bull-games, where young women and men performed together and entrusted their lives to each other." It may sound apocryphal, but many urns and other artifacts show women's participation in bull vaulting. Yet we never heard about these Amazonian women until recently.
In ancient Greek and Roman times women hunted, rode horseback, swam, ran, and drove chariots. In Sparta, whose social organization was not typical of Greek city-states, men lived apart from women in military barracks until they turned thirty. Forced to live on their own, females became thoroughly independent. Not surprisingly, young females were encouraged to develop strength. Spartan girls were taught to foot-race, wrestle, and throw discus and javelin.
In the Middle Ages women often showed athletic courage. They jousted at one another with lances, on horseback. Some were fine archers. Others competed in a forerunner of the modern game of darts that involved throwing eighteen-inch projectiles. But however skilled they might become, they never got to the elite levels of competition. Occasionally they were invited to keep score. Often they made awards presentations. Sometimes they were the awards. But they could never know the thrill of victory because any important contest was closed to them. Even at the tournaments, so central a part of medieval life, women were "little more than cheerleaders for chivalry," as two sports historians have put it. This exclusion of women whenever big athletic competitions were organized continued up to and including the modern Olympics.
But left to their own devices, women happily threw themselves into the competitive fray. Roberta J. Park, who's written widely on the history of sport, says that women in the eighteenth century had prizefights with one another. In an odd kind of marital minuet, husbands and wives staged fights against other couples, using swords or quarterstaves and competing for cash prizes. Even wrestling had the odd female combatant. Margaret Evans of North Wales was reported to be such a powerful wrestler that even at the age of seventy, "few young men dared to try a fall with her," Park tells us.
In the 1700s the most popular activities of women were running and racewalking. In 1765 a young woman completed seventy-two miles from Blencogo, Scotland, to Newcastle in two days. It was worth a mention in Sporting magazine, in 1806, that a woman racewalker in her forties was "victorious" over a younger man. In fact, in hindsight, women had begun to mark their turf as champions of endurance marathons. Women's individual achievements at the time included walking for a month with less than ten or fifteen minutes of continuous rest, walking and running more than four hundred miles in six consecutive days, and defeating all men contestants in endurance marathons.
Women's walking races were "significantly more frequent than those for men," according to one researcher. In the 1820s British and Scottish girls and women between the ages of seven and eighty-five were gaining money for their families and public notoriety for themselves with pedestrian races. During the 1850s women in New York and in the Midwest performed exhibitions in saloons, walking back and forth for hours along wooden planks measuring fifteen to thirty feet. In the late 1800s the sport gained even more in popularity as media coverage of women athletes increased. Between 1876 and 1881 women's walking and running events took place on sawdust ovals in major cities throughout the United States. Reports Dahn Shaulis (University of Nevada), who made a study of nineteenth-century women's endurance efforts, "In music halls, indoor arenas, and national guard armories around the country, women walked against men, participated in multi-day women-only races, and sometimes walked solo, to break endurance records." Paying crowds of hundreds, and sometimes several thousand, watched and gambled on the women walkers. Journalists noted that to gain large crowds, women athletes were forced to attempt increasingly difficult feats, such as walking four hundred meters every fifteen minutes for thirty or forty consecutive days. Religious preachers publicly condemned pedestrian sport as "evil" and "coarse." In 1879 the Brooklyn Women's Temperance Union protested against both women walking on Sundays and the alcohol and tobacco use and gambling that took place among their spectators. These races were soon ordered closed by the New York City Police Department. By 1880 the "pedestrian industry" had all but collapsed. Schools and universities forbade females from endurance walking and running. And the modern Olympic Games excluded women from running events until 1928.
Not all physical feats were pursued for recreational purposes. In America in the 1700s, women performed backbreaking labor in helping to pioneer a new country. Many "became part of the movement to stake out new farms and towns in the western back countries," writes historian Nancy Struna, "and this meant clearing trees and planting fields and few neighbors." In the South, developing plantations required of women efforts that often were equal to men's. Mrs. Francis Jones, who with her husband carved a plantation out of the wilds of Virginia, stunned the official auditor of property boundaries when he saw how strong she was. Yet, he put in his records, she still retained that lovely female daintiness men so feared strong women would lose. Though she showed "nothing of ruggedness or Immodesty in her carriage," the auditor wrote in a 1710 report, Mrs. Francis Jones not only worked in the field, but would "carry a gunn in the woods and kill dear . . . catch and tye hogg, knock down beeves with an ax and perform the most manfull Exercises."
Following the shift from agrarianism to industry that formed
the Industrial Revolution, millions of women and children moved to the cities, where they performed menial and frequently dangerous tasks in factories and mills. Again, and notably, these were times when women's physical capacities were valued by the economy-especially in light of the fact that they could be paid a fraction of what men got for doing the same work.