Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Last night I watched a taped episode of “Downton Abbey” that sent me to bed musing about the advantages / disadvantages (?) of being an independent woman, one who had several careers, (and still has) did her own housework (and still does), maintained (and still does) her own finances, and hardly ever pleads a case of “the vapors” that assailed women of the late 19th and early 20th century. This morning, I got up and opened two file cases of articles published in The Daily Iberian, searching for one of my old columns, “Cherchez la femme,” in which I had a lot to say about the liberation of women.

My column in The Daily Iberian
 The column I sought and found had to do with my remarks to a man who had teased me about being a liberated woman, quipping that he had heard the Shah (this was 1975) had posted “Wanted” posters and offered a reward for me after I left Iran that year because of my incendiary writing in “In A Persian Market” and “Cherchez la femme” concerning the rights and appropriate place of women in society. After he had finished his tirade about contemporary women, I asked him if he had rather be married to the kind of woman who “wimped about” in 1875. Then I went home and wrote a column describing this frail creature, deriving material from a book entitled Counsels to Women, written in 1878. I am including some of the material below.

Seems that the fair maiden of 1875 gained her name as “fair” for several reasons. Poor woman was encased in a special housespun cocoon. She wasn’t allowed to warm up at the fireside because sitting over the fire spoiled her complexion, “causing it to become muddy, speckled and sallow.” And a breath of wind wasn’t allowed to touch her cheeks because strong air gusts caused her to become “wan as clay and bloodless,” or if the gales induced color, that color was termed the “hectic flush,” which foretold “speedy decay.”

I don’t know how this fair maiden stabilized her temperature in winter – she couldn’t walk in the wind and she couldn’t hang over a fire. If she sat too close to the fire, she not only ruined her complexion, she became nervous and dispirited.  She couldn’t turn her back to the fire as this brought on sickness and faintness, “injured the spine, weakened the spine marrow and debilitated the whole frame.”

Presuming our 19th century belle lived through the rigors of winter, she could tipple a little sherry.  According to Henry Chavasse who wrote "Advice to a Wife and Mother," published in England in 1878, a lady couldn’t eat her dinner unless she had a glass of sherry before or during dinner and one glass after dinner, but she was never to exceed two glasses of wine daily. If wine didn’t agree with her, she was to drink home-brewed ale or Burton bitter ale or good sound porter instead of water. However, if she drank beer, she had to exercise or otherwise she’d become bilious.

As if this fair female didn’t have enough trouble staying the right color, she had to carry along a valise of varmint repellants when she travelled or slept in a strange bed. She had to have four things in her trunk; namely, a box of matches so that at any moment in the night, she could strike a light as bugs never bit when there was a light in the room; a box of night lights; a packet of La Poudre Insecticide manufactured in France; and a four ounce bottle of oil of turpentine, a little of which was to be sprinkled between the sheets and on the pillow as the oil of turpentine kept the bugs at a respectful distance. The bug-besieged damsel had to be careful not to place the turpentine too close to the candle, or she might catch her hair on fire.

If she still had hair after her bout with the bugs, milady kept her mane tidy with an "application" for it. According to Chavasse, scented castor oil or coconut oil applied with an old toothbrush did the trick. And if her hair “fell off,” as he phrased it, she could use that same castor oil or coconut oil, rubbing it literally into the roots. As I write this, I can’t help wondering if the male who teased me about liberated women would have enjoyed climbing into bed with this turpentine smelling, well-oiled female who had gone to bed after tippling two glasses of strong sherry or stout ale!

Woebetide the female who showed precocity of intellect in the late 1870’s. Chavasse claimed that if she exhibited premature talents, greater arterial blood was sent to the brain, and this blood fed and excited inflammation, causing convulsions, water on the brain, insanity, or idiocy. “Precocity is an indication of disease,” summed up Chavasse.

Seems to me that this Englishman was one of the first male chauvinists who thought that women’s charms lay in intellectual inferiority, and he advvised young women to take up housewifery to keep healthy and happy. He polished off his counsels for the happy and healthy wife with Swift’s adage: “The reason why so few marriages are happy is because young ladies spend their time in making nets, rather than making cages [the home].”

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