Confidential Chats with Girls
by William Lee Howard, M.D.
Edward J Clode, 1911
I recently was given, as part of a inheritance of many miscellaneous books, a copy of Confidential Chats with Girls, which has my grandmother's (maiden) name inscribed on the endplate. It appears she read it, underlined certain passages, and felt it was important enough to keep. It is very, very, very dated, but an interesting read.
William Lee Howard authored a number of books dealing with sexual relations, including Facts for the Married and Sex Problems in Worry and Work. Confidential Chats with Girls and the corresponding Confidential Chats with Boys was his attempt to bring his wisdom to a younger crowd. He was American and writing for an American audience, so before we get to any real content, we have a chapter-long disclaimer elaborating on the theme of godliness:
"...before we can have full reverence for God and obey His laws, we must understand and know them, what they mean to us, how we are punished and warned from disobeying these laws and the fearful results following the abuse of our bodies and minds through ignorance of what our bodies require and God demands."
But then he gets to the important matter of explaining periods; at this time in history, this is indeed a delicate matter, and often guided more by ideology than facts. He makes no bones about the fact that "the womb is a very tender organ, delicate, not fully fastened to the ligaments from which it hangs, and any rough play strain, or carelessness at the time of menstruation may ruin you for life." This does not appear to be a veiled reference to abstinence; he strongly believes that girls should not be required to go to school when menstruating, if they do go to school they should not be required to do anything more than sit and read, and to do anything so daring as exercise will surely result in a scarred womb and lack of menstrual flow, which is one of the many causes of female hysteria, depression and "gradual mental failing".
A lot of this sounds like pure male hysteria, but the flip side is a prolonged rant that the readers of this book surely cannot "bring the present generation out of their mucilaginous prudery", and therefor it is up to them to educate themselves and their future daughters in the importance of talking openly about periods and how to handle them. Which is a good side to fight on; I am uncertain if he actually believes that exercise causes infertility, or if he's doing a bit of scaremongering. Regardless, he does give a general idea of what to expect from your period, what constitutes a problem that should send you to a doctor, and even includes plain language descriptions of conditions such as imperforate hymen, but then dilutes his usefulness with claims that cold feet, reading cheap romances, and too much exercise is bad for "your monthlies". Basketball is apparently becoming quite popular among young ladies at this time, and he is quite unhappy about this.
Then we get into... everything else. Preventing acne, how to dress, why you should never drink soda, and details on how often to change your underwear. Given the time period, most of this is good common sense information; avoid popular tonics and snake-oil, bathe daily, avoid dyed fabrics next to your skin, sleep in well-ventilated rooms, get lots of sunlight, don't bite the tips of your gloves to help remove them (because germs). This alternates with some interesting and stereotypical social commentary:
"Don't dress in a loud or gaudy manner unless you wish to attract the men of loud and loose principles. The personal appearance of a girl makes a great difference in the manner in which she will be received. To dress in good taste and with every appearance of neatness and modesty, is essential for the girl who seeks employment or respectful attention. Good taste in dressing simply means that a man can say that the girl was well dressed, but to save his life he could not tell just what she has on for clothes or hat. The dressing of the feet is, perhaps, the first thing a refined and cultivated man looks at. To be well and sensibly shod is always a mark of good birth and cultivation."
This is, by the way, the single most marked passage in my copy of the book; apparently this struck my grandmother as particularly noteworthy. And yes, she marked up books. That trait did not breed true, thankfully. Overall, this was an interesting read, even if you do not own your grandmother's copy. It is an interesting inside view of a world where you could not trust the dyes in your clothes, a respectable doctor could off-handily and confidently suggest that every young woman take a lithia tablet (lithium citrate) every morning, in which consumption and scarlet fever were going concerns, and in which talking about periods was a radical idea.