Posted by: Liv Pitcher | November 8, 2021

Lackluster Care Toward Women’s Health 

Victorian advertisements were nearly always targeted at women, as highlighted in Lori Anne Loeb’s work, Consuming Women: Advertising and Victorian Women. While this author does highlight a multitude of ploys in order to entice women to open their wallets, she does not highlight many of the lethal side effects of some of the more malicious, newfangled contraptions. For example, Pears soap still sits proudly on pharmacy shelves, however there is a noticeable lack of advertisements for vibrant, green wallpaper, the kind of shade that can only be achieved with arsenic. Product safety regulations were not the only issue, as middle-class homes were essentially fully modernized death traps. Gas lamps prone to explosion, bathtubs that could boil you alive, and arsenic in make-up were just a few of the hidden murderers. Centuries later, ignorance towards women’s health is still all too common in society where their lives are systematically risked by governments and private companies alike. 

Image from: https://mollybrown.org/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder-how-victorians-used-common-poisons-to-become-drop-dead-gorgeous/ 

The documentary “Hidden Killers in the Victorian Home” is part of a running BBC documentary series headlined by Dr. Suzanne Lipscomb. The majority of examples I am about to use only came to my attention due to her diligent research. I have done additional investigating, but it would feel incorrect not to acknowledge the influential role she has played in forming my intellectual landscape regarding this issue. She highlights that with the invention of celluloid, the result of an early attempt at manufacturing plastic, came unforeseen side effects. This new material, both cheap and sturdy, can be molded and dyed to resemble more expensive materials, such as ivory and tortoiseshell. Yet, it has another quality that was far less useful, it is unfathomably flammable. Women who wore celluloid hair combs and stood too close to heat sources, such as gas lamps, would often die of the burns inflicted by their accessories spontaneously combusting (Little). Perhaps even more threatening were the chemicals released into the home by the inevitable deterioration of celluloid, which were also prone to catching flame. While men were not immune to being harmed by this phenomenon, women were at far greater risk due to the amount of time spent in the home and the number of feminine accessories made from celluloid. 

There were other dangers to which women were particularly vulnerable, but these were built into the structure of the home. Stairs are still a danger today, but the Victorians were able to craft them to be even more perilous. The main staircase of the house was relatively safe, the stairs having banisters, being evenly spaced, and not too far apart. However, the same care was not given to the servants’ stairs. It is difficult to make a mode of transportation more deadly than a staircase that is uneven, bumpy, poorly lit, and incredibly steep. When added with the fact that female servants would often be traversing these deathtraps carrying trays and navigating layers of heavy clothing, they were even more prone to falling than their male counterparts. This common practice displays not just a lackluster care for the safety of women, but also for the working class, a pervasive theme in both Victorian and modern culture. 

Stairs at Craigdarroch Castle (from their official Facebook page) 

Currently, women still face threats from persistent systemic factors. It is disturbingly common for those products marketed toward women to be later revealed as toxic. Some feminine care products, normally advertised in a manner that cater to female stereotypes, can be harmful to women’s health. By portraying the female reproductive system as naturally “unclean,” a market has been created based on artificial demand. Scented menstrual products, while not dangerous, can frequently irritate the sensitive tissues with which they come into contact. Douching has a similar backstory and is actually dangerous, potentially affecting the chemical balance with “pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, cervical cancer, low birth weight, preterm birth, HIV transmission, sexually transmitted diseases, ectopic pregnancy, recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis, and infertility” (NCBI). Those in Black and Latine communities are especially at risk, as they have been shown to use such products at a higher rate than white consumers due to communal norms around personal hygiene. Despite this, such products are incredibly accessible, with 31% of 15-19 year olds regularly douching (NCBI). However, like many epidemics involving the female reproductive system, it remains largely unaddressed. 

A similar problem has recently entered the public consciousness. Ask most women, and they will be able to tell you a harrowing story of when their medical concerns were not taken seriously. This ranges from minor incidents, such as ignoring when a patient is going to faint, to much more serious issues that can result in permanent, physical damage. Research on the subject of women being gaslit by medical professionals has shown a variety of general factors contribute to this phenomenon. For example, women are far less vocal about their pain than men due to societal norms surrounding the latter not wanting to be a burden. Women are frequently told that the pain is simply of their own imagining. While this is generally an incorrect assumption, it should not matter if the pain is caused due to mental struggles, it is still real suffering. This difficulty extends from just doctors’ offices to medical research. Heart disease is the lead killer of women in America, yet despite how the symptoms manifest differently in men and women, women comprise only one third of clinical trial participants, with one third of studies even differing their results by sex (Westervelt). 

It is easy to scoff at the Victorians for their deadly inventions and under regulated consumer products, but how much have we really changed? Considering that the Victorian era was seeing the evolution of new contraptions and fields of study, they actually could have endangered far more individuals. The government at the time was surprisingly quick to issue consumer protection regulations, such as the Arsenic Act of 1851, which restricted the sale and use of the element. Meanwhile, in the modern age, though certain hygiene practices have been known to be dangerous for at least thirty years, they are still encouraged by advertisements. The feminine form is still seen as something that must fundamentally be fixed and altered to fit society’s requirements, no matter the financial or human cost. At least the Victorians had the decency to regulate the market to protect their citizens, a scenario which is unlikely to happen in the modern era.

Aral, S O et al. “Vaginal douching among women of reproductive age in the United States: 1988.” American Journal of Public Health vol. 82,2 (1992): 210-4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1739149/ 

Lipscomb, Suzanne. “Hidden Killers in the Victorian Home.” BBC. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fru5Q-6p9lk 

Little, Becky. “Killer Clothing Was All the Rage In the 19th Century.” National Geographic. 2016. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/dress-hat-fashion-clothing-mercury-arsenic-poison-history 

Sales of Arsenic Regulation Act of 1851. , c. 31. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1851/13/section/IV/enacted

Westervelt, Amy. “The medical research gender gap: how excluding women from clinical trials is hurting our health.” The Guardian. 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/apr/30/fda-clinical-trials-gender-gap-epa-nih-institute-of-medicine-cardiovascular-disease 


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