Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Perfect Woman

While standing on a ladder to put Christmas decorations atop a bookcase, what to my wondering eyes should appear on the top shelf but a row of old books inherited from my grandfather Lee Cory. Among them was The Perfect Woman, copyright 1915.

Book Cover

I can only speculate as to why he bought this book. It may be that before his marriage, he was beginning the perpetually futile attempt of men to understand the female of the species. Perhaps he bought it with the intent that he could mold his wife into a perfect woman. My grandmother, whom I dearly loved, was small in stature and mild-mannered, but I can't imagine her as a Pygmalion to anybody. Whatever the reason for my grandfather's purchase, the book has survived for almost a century.

Title Page

Here is a picture of "Perfect Womanhood," whatever that may be.

Here is the ideal female figure: the Venus de Capitolina. The caption states that "the waist will be found to be two-fifths the height and nine inches less than the measure at the top of the hips." So a woman 5 foot 5 inches tall should have a 26 inch waist and 35 inch hips. There is no mention in that pre-implant era of what the ideal bust size should be.

Here's a fun and healthful family activity suggested by the author--Mom should dress up in a toga and pose as various statues while the children photograph her.

As noted on the title page, a major topic is "The Diseases Peculiar to Women," including hysteria: ". . .an affection peculiar to women of a nervous or nervous-sanguine temperament, with cheerful, lively and ardent dispositions. It takes its name from the Greek word meaning the womb..." and "the patient bursts into a fit of weeping, soon to be followed by convulsive laughter." Treatment included ignatia, macrotin, and pulsatilla. Exercise, deep breathing, and outdoor life were also recommended.

The author advocates baths of various kinds, including the unpleasant-looking nasal bath below, for a variety of maladies. In an era when medications were largely ineffective and somethimes harmful, this may have been a good idea.

The book doesn't confine itself to perfection of the woman. One of a woman's duties is to produce perfect children. And so we have "The Perfect Boy." It seems the bar was set much higher for women.


Zhoen said...

The Cult of True Womanhood.

David C. said...

Here's a link to the essay Zhoen posted. The (grammatically incorrect) conlusion is interesting: "The very perfection of True Womanhood, moreover, carried with it the seeds of its own destruction. For, if women were so very little less than the angels, she should surely take a more active part in running the world, especially since men were making such a hash of things..."
OK, white men really mucked things up, and had a vested interest in keeping women at home, raising the kids, doing the laundry, and posing as statues, but it's more complex than that. Consider, for example, that the author of "The Perfect Woman" was a woman who had earned MD and PhD degrees. She must have been capable of independent thought, yet she was complicit in promulgating the myth.


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