College Doesn’t Make You Infertile: AAUW’s 1885 Research

May 13, 2013

In 1885, as its first research report, AAUW’s predecessor organization called the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA) set out to disprove the ridiculous theory that a college education would harm a woman’s health and result in infertility. In his 1876 book Sex in Education: Or, a Fair Chance for Girls, Harvard Medical School physician Edward H. Clarke based his assertion on the theory that the sum of energy in a body is constant. So, a woman who spent her time on the “excessive” studying required in college would transfer energy from her reproductive organs to her brain. Clarke described what he saw as “numerous pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic … girls and women that are living illustrations of this monograph.” In vivid words, he described the “thousand ills” of American women, all attributed to the “educational methods of our schools and colleges.”

Annie Howes, who led the ACA’s survey committee at the time, developed a series of 40 questions and sent them to 1,290 members. Of those women, 705 submitted responses. The results of the study showed that 78 percent were in good health and 5 percent in fair health and that, not surprisingly, education did not adversely affect women’s health. The final report, Health Statistics of Female College Graduates, was published in conjunction with the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor.

The original 1885 cover for the report.

The original 1885 cover for the report. AAUW Archives.

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.

May 12–18, we are celebrating National Women’s Health Week to raise awareness of women’s health issues. The Department of Health and Human Services, who sponsors the week, reminds us that “we all have a role to play in women’s health.” Indeed, this reminder rings as true today as it did in 1885; significant barriers still persist and prevent women from achieving optimal health. This story reminds us of the ridiculous prejudices about women’s health that have existed throughout history and the courageous actions people take to disprove them.

By:   |   May 13, 2013

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