Society and Menstruation: A Lens to Look at Women Through, in 1904 and Today



In 1904, German obstetrician Enoch Heinrich Kisch penned a book about woman’s sexuality, in which he discussed, among other things, menarche, menstruation, and menopause.  Recognized internationally, the book was soon translated into English by an American doctor, M. Eden Paul, in 1910. At the time of writing this book, Kisch was a professor of the German Medical Faculty of the University of Prague, physician to the hospital and spa of Marienbad, and member of the Board of Health. He was an avid supporter of Balneotherapy, or healing by way of bathing, and he was partly responsible for establishing the Marienbad spa.

Kisch’s book, because it was so widely embraced, particularly by its American readers, provides a valuable representation to early nineteenth century understanding of women’s bodies. Its very first words read:

“The sexual life of woman – the appearance of the first indications of sexual activity, the development of that activity and its culmination in sexual maturity, the decline of that activity and its ultimate extinction in sexual death – the entire process of the most perfect work of natural creation  – has throughout all ages kindled the inspiration of poets, aroused the enthusiasm of artists, and supplied thinkers with inexhaustible material for reflection.”

This opener – for a medically instructive book, nonetheless – framed the importance of women’s bodies and sexuality in terms of male perception and obsession with it. Kisch explained that his entry into this field of work by stating that women’s reproductive organs and their various processes have “been a favorite subject for observation and experimentation.” Though unfortunate wording is perhaps at fault, the suggestion here feels mildly disturbing. Despite this book being written for a professional medical audience, a fair number of its seven hundred pages reveal – either explicitly or implicitly – social attitudes of the time. His organization shows pertinence to this subject, as it is organized by the three major events of the female life cycle: menarche, menacme, and menopause. The ensuing discussion will highlight aspects relevant and reflective of social understanding of female bodies in the early twentieth century, and compare it to the attitudes found and discussed in earlier posts.

Menarche, or the onset of menstruation, is a physiological transformation in which girls socially transform into women. Kisch defined menarche less in terms of general maturation and more in terms of sexual development. He asserted that earlier onset of menarche begat greater intensity and duration of a girl’s sexual activity. He also observed a correlation with socioeconomic status; upper-class girls tended to begin menstruation at an earlier age. Tying socioeconomic factors together with premenstrual sexuality, Kisch argued that factory girls, “who from an early youth are exposed to sexual stimulation,” expedite the onset of menarche by their sexual activity. This perception was still clung to nearly a century later among African Americans, who feared that if their young daughters were exposed to sexual touch, it would trigger menarche and a greater sexual drive. The general concern over girls being sheltered from sex is long-standing. Kisch astutely discerned that “sexual purity, which to the [male] youth is a romantic dream, is to the maiden a vital condition of existence.” Yet, he upheld the gendered expectation, demonstrating the ideas of gender generally accepted at the time. According to Kisch (and his contemporary cohorts), female sexuality was centrally important because of its role in “influencing the constitution of the family and controlling the good of the coming race.” Women’s sexual needs are definitely recognized by Kisch, but he argues that female sexual desires are “transformed in an ideal manner by means of the feeling of duty of the wife and mother… when this restraint fails… [it] has a far profounder influence in the case of the female than of the male, an influence not limited to her own personality, but dragging down the whole family into the abyss of consequences, into the depths of moral and physical destruction.” This seems like a strange fire-and-brimstone rant thrown into scientific explanation about organs, but the fact that it was embedded in other facts demonstrates the widespread acceptance of this notion. At the turn of the twentieth century, American society definitely subscribed to this traditional double-standard. Women’s historian Mary Odem explained in her article “Single Mothers, Delinquent Daughters, and the Juvenile Court in Early 20th Century Los Angeles”: girls whose sexual escapades had resulted in contracting venereal diseases were quarantined for absurd amounts of time, relative to the tolerant treatment that boys with STI’s received.

Though he adhered to traditional notions of woman’s sexuality, Kisch strongly criticized the practice of keeping girls ignorant about their bodies and noted the need to educate adolescent girls about menarche. In an astonishing anecdote given by Kisch, “a cultured lady” told him that she could control whether intercourse led to conception, purely by means of her mentality towards the event (passive reception would not lead to pregnancy.) This illuminates that girls (and women) had a scarcity of knowledge about their bodies. Unfortunately, this trend continued for another century. At the end of the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first century, a substantial number of post-menarcheal girls – black and white – reported that they did not know what was happening when they experienced their first menstrual flow (refer to earlier posts for more details on this.)

One of the major effects Kisch attached to menarche was the awakening of sexual impulse. While he supported physical education for growing girls, he was insistent that it not encourage sexual experimentation. He also cautioned that this sexual impulse may lead to masturbation “if the girl is a neuropyschopath by inheritance.” In the mid-twentieth century, Freudian thought would also attach neurosis to infertility, which was likewise characterized as a violation of proper femininity, according to historian Rickie Solinger in his article “Female and Fertile in the 1950s.” Kisch’s commentary reinforced mainstream belief and took efforts to marginalize of feminist positions, especially the ideas of liberated sexual activity. He attributed the concept of “free love” to women’s rights supporters, and warned that it would cause communities and the world to fall to chaos.

Menacme, as defined by Kisch, was the culmination of menstruation, sexuality, and womanhood. But Kisch suggested there was a trade-off in how women were valued in this stage; many exchanged the value of “feminine beauty” for the ultimate value of children. He took many words to state that feminine beauty deteriorates during menacme. He explained is a time marked by disfigurement brought on by pregnancy and venereal diseases; Kirsch even provided a specific inventory of the most common disfigurements: “breasts flabby and flattened, the belly prominent, the buttocks pendulous, the arms muscular.” However, he included, “a certain number of chosen women” understood how to preserve the sensuality of the archetypal female body, and “they constitute our most intense delight.” This section reflects the impossible ideals placed on women: tight, youthful physiques and children.

Kisch also introduced menopause with a discussion on how it changed the physical appearance of women – specifically from womanly to masculine. He pointed out that menopausal women often develop a “double chin.” After describing their faces in a critical tone, he ventured into their minds. He proclaimed that women with happy marriages and children can be satisfied in this stage, but childless menopausal women “must bury all their sexual aspirations, and see the remainder of their lives stretch before them without hopes for the future.” Because motherhood was such an integral part of “true womanhood,” many women probably did feel that hopeless. Elaine Tyler May’s “Nonmothers as Bad Mothers: Infertility and the ‘Maternal Instinct’” provided accounts from infertile women who, because motherhood and womanhood were so inseparably intertwined in American culture, felt that their existence was meaningless and they failed as women because they could not have children. Clearly, the sentiment has not evolved much.

Kirsh’s book allows for a revealing peek into the development of attitudes toward women’s bodies through the lens of menstrual stages, which are evidently the defining phases of femininity. His main objective was to define and described the phases of women’s lives: menarche, menacme, and menopause. However, his writing often strayed from science and provided subjective commentary about what these menstrual stages meant, which was influenced by and reflective of social attitudes in earlier twentieth centry America. Unfortunately, many of the beliefs Kisch expressed continued through the remainder of the century in American society, and even to today. Yet some aspects of the menstrual discussion have be opened, and slow and steady progress continues in 2016 to create a bigger space for menstruation in society.

Source: Kisch, E. Heinrich. The Sexual Life of Woman in Its Physiological, Pathological and Hygienic Aspects. English Translation by M. Eden Paul. New York: Reban Company, 1910.




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