Episode 8: Bonkers Things Men Have Said About Women's Bodies, A History
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest Host: Deanna Day
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
In this episode, guest host Deanna Day, who first made her appearance on our Star Trek episode, joins in to discuss the bonkers, bizarre, and dangerous things men have believed about women and women's bodies. Listeners sent us examples from history and the present day, and we compiled their submissions into a chronological timeline to illustrate how women's bodies have been persistently pathologized.
Sex in Education: Or, A Fair Chance for Girls by Edward Hammond Clarke
Early Trains Were Thought to Make Women’s Uteruses Fly Out by Janet Burns
Military Women Can Hack It by Wired Staff
A Brief History of Menstruating in Space by Amy Shira Teitel
The Myth of the Falling Uterus by Erin Beresini
Once Prohibited, Women’s Ski Jumping Is Set to Take Flight by Jon Mooallem
Women Lobby For Ski Jumping Event by Brian Mann
Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by Deirdre Owens Cooper
Four Weird Ideas People Used to Have About Periods by Helen King
Transcribed by Kim Daley, Edited by Anna Reser
Possible Content Warnings: abortion, abortion myths
REBECCA: Welcome to Episode 8 of the Lady Science Podcast! This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science magazine:
Anna: I’m Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor in chief of Lady Science. I’m a writer, editor and PhD student, studying 20th century American culture and the history of the American space program in the 1960s.
Leila: I’m Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I’m a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the Internet. I’m currently a regular writer on women in the history of science at Smithsonianmag.com.
R: And I’m Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science’s managing editor. When I’m not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums and public history around the Internet, and managing research projects at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.
A: And today we’re joined for the whole episode by one of our favorite people, Deanna Day, who you will remember from her appearance on our Star Trek Episode! Hi Deanna! Can you remind the listeners who you are and what you do?
Deanna: Hi! Yeah! Thanks, I am so happy to be here! I am a historian and writer in Los Angeles. I also work at the Science History Institute where I am a Science History Fellow. And most of my work is about the cultural history of science technology, and medicine. And I am starting to write a lot about pop culture, which I really enjoy. Thanks for having me!
L: So, before we dive into the episode, I want to tell you all about our April Share-a-Thon, that is already underway on Twitter.
We are happy to have a community of engaged readers and listeners like you—and we need your help to make our community grow. All month, we’re asking you to share, retweet, quote-tweet, and tag our essays, blog posts, and podcast episodes on Twitter. We’re also asking you to engage with both new and old material—we have three years of work for readers to dive into on our blog and issue archive page!
As a thank-you, we will reward anybody who tweets about Lady Science material at least fifteen times during the month with one of our burning bra enamel pins! Again, you can retweet, quote-tweet, or write your own tweet—as long as you are connecting your circle of friends and colleagues to our material.
Later this year, we’ll also be holding a Pledge-a-Thon to get groups of readers and listeners to become monthly Lady Science patrons. And we’ll have more updates for you on the pledge-a-thon in next month’s episode, so stay tuned.
You all are the reason that Lady Science has been able to keep going for three years—and through the share-a-thon and pledge-a-thon, you can be the reason why we keep going.
And one last thing I want to say before we get going in the episode is that if you have not yet checked out the Female Pain Memoir series that we’ve been running on our website blog, ladyscience.com/blog, please do! Since the beginning of March, we have been publishing one memoir a week, each of which illustrates a different way that women’s pain is dismissed and undervalued by the medical system. So get thee to a reading device if you have not yet checked out the series, and if you want to get in on the Share-a-Thon before April is over, tweet about the series and share your thoughts with us, just don’t forget to tag our handle @ladyxscience when you do.
A: So today we’re going to switch up our usual format. We’re doing more of like a mailbag episode. We’ve been asking Lady Science readers for suggestions of bonkers things that men have earnestly believed about women’s bodies, uh, from Antiquity all the way to the present. So, we will put links to all of the sources in the show notes so you can check out some of these things for yourself. And just a preemptive thank you to everyone who sent stuff in!
And so, in planning out this episode, and going through all the submissions, we realized pretty early on that most of the strange myths about women’s bodies that we’ll cover today all sort of stem from one idea, uh, from the ancient world, this notion of “the wandering womb.”
Um, so Benjamin Andrew on twitter sent us this, they reference a Wired article called “Fantastically Wrong: The Theory of the Wandering Wombs that Drove Women to Madness.” *Laughter* Which is a pretty good headline.
The basic idea, which of course comes to us, like all good things, from the ancient Greeks, laughter, that was meant to be sarcastic, more laughter, I guess it didn’t transfer.
Is that the womb, the uterus, moves about freely inside the body, and that causes, as I’m sure you can imagine, all kinds of horrible perturbations. The Greeks thought of it as “an animal within the animal,” because it had its own motion, its own predilections, sort of independent of the woman herself. And the wandering womb was the source of many illnesses and conditions that obviously could only befall women. And the womb sort of, roaming about, banging around inside of you, running into your spleen, whatever, that causes all kinds of ailments.
L: I kind of picture like, a ghost, like a guest inside just like, hopping into different organs and going “Boo!”
A: I mean that is way cooler, like a ghost, a ghost womb.
R: A wandering ghost womb. I like it.
A: Just haunting the inside of your body.
D: Or like a little homunculus, just like running around, wreaking havoc laughter
R: Yep. Yep.
A: I just imagined it like um, like a mandrake from Harry Potter, like that what it looks like to me. It’s just like, shrieking and punching your organs, that’s what your uterus does.
L: Well that’s what mine does once a month.
R: I was gonna say, you beat me to that joke.
R: So, obviously, there were ways to combat this wily wandering womb that screamed and scared all of your organs. One of them involved coaxing the womb back into its proper place by wafting certain smells at it. And, the ancient physician Aretaeus, I think is how you pronounce his name, wrote about the womb in this way and said the womb, “... delights also in fragrant smells and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to foetid smells, and flees from them.” So I assume, I guess the womb is like that rest of us, likes things that smell good and doesn’t like things that don’t smell good. But the best way to keep the womb in place, you will not be surprised, and this will be a theme that will come up a few times today, is that, uh, if you got pregnant and remained pregnant as much as possible by having regular sex, uh, then your womb would be okay, I guess if it had a baby in it, it would stay in one place.
L: Well cause it would anchor it down!
R: There you go! It’s Heavy! Yeah! Sure!
A: So it can’t just wander about!
A: I mean it makes sense.
R: Right, I mean if you are already-
A: In this context it makes sense.
D: This piece of the story always reminds me of the way that, the way that physicians have talked about women’s bodies as factories and women’s bodies are literally reproductive factories that produce babies, and that is their primary function, so this like, idea that if a woman is growing a child that she is fulfilling her productive capacity, and if she isn’t things are all gonna go to hell because she isn’t doing what she is supposed to do. It is like, this weird metaphorical justification for forcing women to just be pregnant all the time.
A: And that the, the not pregnant body is pathologized, like, condition of not being pregnant is actually what makes you ill. And so, you should strive to be pregnant as much as possible so you hat you don’t suffer any of the symptoms of not being pregnant. Not that, you know, doesn’t account for any of the symptoms of being pregnant, which is this whole other thing that, you know, we don’t talk about but.
L: Yeah, and another thing that this idea does that you know, the cure for wandering womb is sex with the result of being pregnant and reproduction that those two things for women, having sex and reproduction, are linked and that if a woman is having sex to not get pregnant is also pathologized and also deviancy. And those are things that a little later we are going to talk about birth control and those ideas are still present in conversations about birth control. And what women have the right to do with their bodies and what they don’t have the right to do. So this isn’t like, some sort of sex positive laughter prescription for the wandering womb.
A: I mean it is sex positive for like, the dude, the husbands.
D: And I know that I was thinking about this, I definitely was told by a teacher in high school that women’s bodies were not made to menstruate every month. Like, it was a natural thing for a woman’s body to be pregnant a lot, and you were not pregnant and you menstruated more than you were supposed to, then you would get sick. Laughter and I don’t, I’m just like, laughter
A: I like this idea that you have this, a certain set number of menstruating slots that you laughter like once use them all you better get pregnant or you’re gonna get sick. Laughter
L: So, the wandering womb is basically the foundational myth on which most of the stuff we’ll discuss today is built and it is seen as a fundamental weakness of the female anatomy, and it ensures that most illnesses that women experience can be attributed to just the construction of their bodies, rather than external forces. As modern psychology has developed, we see how the womb becomes the seat of psychological impairment, not just physical impairment. So we can talk a little bit here about hysteria. Cause, the hysteria, you know, comes straight from the idea of the wandering womb.
A: So the word hysteria is derived for the Greek word for the uterus, which I can’t remember exactly the construction of it, because I am a modernist and I don’t know anything about Greek.
D: But this sort of refers to the idea that like, which is also super Greek, that the male body is the normal body, and the male body is the non pathological body, and that the female body is the one that is exceptional, and it is the exceptional womb that causes all, all the trouble.
A: And I think, you guys can correct me if I am wrong, cause I just said I am a modernist and I don’t know anything about the Greeks, but hysteria in like, Greek, like, in like, Hippocratic medicine, and I think even in like, later ancient medicine, like, Galen and stuff, hysteria is like a physical condition, it is like, your womb is bouncing into your spleen and like, causing all these physical ailments, I believe it becomes closer to what we associate like, the colloquial hysteria hysterics, just being like, crazy. “crazy” that sort of evolves like, with, psychological thinking, right, from a physical to a like a more psychological.
D: Yeah, and I think it also co develops with like theories of hormones, and the idea that women have hormonal cycles and men don’t, which is not true, but is a really powerful idea that persists. Um, and kind of grows up with this idea that, oh well it’s these crazy hormones that are making women hysterical! It becomes like, the same, the same idea but with an updated undercarriage of scientific justification.
A: Sure, instead of humors.
L: Right, and hysteria became a way to dismiss women’s physiological pain and physiological systems, so this is something that Abby Norman talked about in her book, Ask Me About My Uterus that the pain series I was talking about earlier, is on our blog, her book inspired doing this series, but one of the things she talks about in her book is the, a lot a lot of the historical roots of hysteria and how hysteria became a way to dismiss women’s actual physiological and physical pain. They obviously couldn’t be hurting that bad, so it must be emotions, it must be psychological, it must be mental, and that’s how one of the ways that physical ailments and psychological ailments became linked.
A: And so you can’t, you can’t trust women’s own account of their pain because they are prone to hysteria, which means like, exaggerating things, right? That’s? Okay.
L: Yeah. So, I mean, there are a lot of different ways hysteria entered into some sort of physical diagnosis or, you know.
A: So you’re telling me that this hysteria concept is not, uh, not really all that ontologically stable? Laughter and it doesn’t seem to refer to the same thing twice ever, and that it covers all aspects of what could, you know, what’s wrong with women, and it’s just this catchall term that doesn’t actually mean anything? Is that what you’re saying?
A: Just checking.
L: Yeah, there is one point where like, Abby talks a lot about how with her personal encounters with doctors, that they have been like, oh well you aren’t really in pain, you are just anxious. Or, and she’s like, I am anxious because I am sick! I am anxious cause I am in pain!
R: It’s the other way around!
R: Also matters, I feel like, that even in like modern colloquial use of the word hysteria or hysterical, even, yeah, and non-medical contexts, it still is like very female coded, which, I feel like a lot of people are finally catching on to, at least in the feminist writing universe. Plenty of people still don’t understand it, but it is interesting how, yeah, the one, while it doesn’t seem to mean any one thing in particular, it always has to do with women, and women doing things that men don’t want them to do. And everything else is optional.
L: Or expressing just like, any sort of anger or displeasure or anything that isn’t typically a feminine quality, you know, suddenly a woman is in hysterics. Like, the four of us are hysterical right now. This is out of control.
A: It is a really useful idea if you are sort of committed to not taking care of women, too, right? That like, if you can ascribe anything that’s wrong to something like hysteria that’s tied to, like, female anatomy, you can just say like, well this is how you can expect your life to be because you have these particular parts, and there is nothing we as doctors can do about that, like, that’s just how it is. So it’s really convenient kind of device that allows you to just not have to like, not have to figure what’s, you know, what’s causing an illness, or, you know, do any real diagnostic work because your like, well you’re a women so this is what, this is just how it’s gonna be because you are full of hysteria.
R: So this idea as we’ve all I think mentioned, basically comes down to this ancient idea that women’s bodies are fundamentally flawed. So, men’s bodies are the like, ideal, and women’s bodies are broken or weaker or more prone to illness than male bodies, could potential fall apart at any moment, who knows! So jumping forward from the Greeks and Romans a little bit, let’s just talk about how we’ve already been talking about how these ideas have persisted and one of the ways they have persisted, and one of the ways they have persisted in going into sort of the early modern period, comes from a piece that Helen King sent us, that’s about a disease that people in the early modern period thought that you could only get if you were a virgin. So now we are talking about virginity and how that is also problematic I guess for ladies. And you guessed it, that disease could be very easily cured if you had sex. So one of the interesting things about Helen’s piece is that it mentions that the disease could recur if women had sex but they didn’t have children. And that was called greensickness, and again, you see that the idea here that if a woman doesn’t have children, if she isn’t pregnant, and even if she is having sex, but if it doesn’t produce children, there is something wrong with her.
D: Which is the, what that makes me think of is I have definitely had both doctors and friends say things like, “oh well, my migraines got cured when I had a baby.” Or, “My acne got cured when I had a baby!” And it’s like, uh is that advice for me for how to cure my migraines and my acne? Because one, that doesn’t really seem medically sound, and also then I am gonna have to have a baby!
L: But your skin’s gonna look great!
A: All of the money you were spending on clay masks you can now spend on diapers I guess! You are gonna need those!
L: Yeah, and there is a myth that actual doctors who have gone through medical school that have doctor in front of their names, have pushed the myth that have-becoming pregnant will cure your endometriosis
A: That is a really bad one,
A: That is dangerous.
A: It is really dangerous to be pregnant-
L: That is really dangerous. It could be really dangerous to be pregnant with endometriosis, you could have miscarriages, also sex is really painful for people with endometriosis, so, you are not only like, you know, kind of pushing this idea of a dangerous now pregnancy, but also like, going through a really awful pain to have a baby. It, yeah.
D: I have definitely, as someone with endometriosis, have heard that. And I’ve just been like, I am here because the problem is I’m in pain, what you are saying I should do is a lot of way more painful things? I don’t know if I trust this advice. But yeah, no, they say it will restart, or like, reboot your reproductive system. Which is like, so bananas, I don’t even know how to begin to address the problem.
L: Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?
D: Biological equivalent of unplugging it and plugging it back in!
L: I actually don’t know what to say to that, so we can...
A: I was just going to bring up, I don’t know if I have ever seen like a depiction of specifically greensickness in popular culture, but the like, newly married like, royal woman or noble woman who can’t get pregnant and suffers all sorts of social strictures, and whose life is basically completely ruled by this you know, men need for her to like, produce an heir immediately. It just makes me think about that too. Not only is there like, all of this social pressure to have babies in various time periods, but I am thinking of like, the early modern period in particular if you’re talking about you know more Patrician women. But like, now also you are just going to be ill, like, until you do, so. And also I am sure that really makes people feel like having sex, too, is like, being sick all the time.
R: And it’s sort of one of those things where it’s like, no they’re, their anxious because of all of the social pressure to get pregnant. They’re not anxious because they’re not pregnant. They’re anxious because everyone keeps asking them why they’re not pregnant!
A: Yeah, and there’s like, there’s like a, like a chambermaid like looking at your sheets all the time, just like, there’s a lot of stuff going on.
L: So a lot of the examples we’ve looked at so far have been ancient/early modern examples that can be easy to dismiss as just like, bonkers old timey nonsense. It’s not just the pre-modern, early modern ancient period people that were doing this. So let’s jump a little bit further into the 19th century, and move a little bit closer to our time.
A: Edward Hammond Clarke’s Sex in Education: Or, A Fair Chance for Girls, which is a treatise on education, written by a physician, in 1873 which argues that men and women cannot undergo the same kind of schooling because schooling designed for men would literally injure women because of their incredibly complex anatomy. That’s the basic, you know, gist of the argument. And this was sent to us by Deborah Levine. Thank you for sending this in!
So, according from Clark here, he says that, “The fact that women have often equaled and sometimes excelled men in physical labor, intellectual effort, and lofty heroism, is sufficient proof that women have muscle, mind, and soul, as well as man; but it is no proof that they have had, or should have, the same kind of training; nor is it any proof that they are destined for the same career as men.”
I like this quote because it is, so in this, in this moment in time there’s, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of unruly women out on the streets fighting for their rights and stuff, so you get this sense that Clark is like, "Ok look, I would never, I am an enlightened man, I would never say that men and women aren’t equal, what I’m saying is that they have to be separate."
L: Well, and I like the, in the title, “or a fair chance for girls.” So he’s like even framing this in such a way as like, that this is, this is for the ladies!
D: I just want the best for them! And this is just nature! This is just science!
A: And he talks a lot about this like, it’s just science. His whole justification for this is, I’m a physician and I can tell you because I know that women have, I believe he calls it, the complexity of their organization, is the euphemism that he uses most often. *Laughter* That because they have such complex anatomy, they just can’t be educated in the same way as men, because it will hurt their, their extra bits.
R: That womb might bang into their brain and dislodge something.
L: And its complex because you never know where that thing is gonna pop up.
A: It’s like a gopher!
A: So, because women have such complex anatomy, like, sure, they are totally like, they could go to a boy’s school, intellectually, they could do that. Women have the ability to do that. But if she did, she would be subjected to numerous health problems like “neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria,”–our old friend–”and other derangements of the nervous system,” if she follows the same method boys are trained in. And this is in part because when girls are in school is when they are in their adolescent stage, yes, okay, their in there sort of adolescent stage when all their complex anatomy is developing and becoming complex so if they are schooled as rigorously as boys then their ovaries wont switch on, is basically what he says.
A: Clark says “There have been instances, and I have seen such,” ...uh, sure you have... “of females in whom the special mechanism we are speaking of remained germinal--undeveloped. It seemed to have been aborted. They graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile.”
A: It’s very dramatic. Like, this is definitely the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman.
L: Yeah, and you know, I also doubt that he is ever quote “I have seen such circumstances.” No, I doubt he has actually ever seen a woman’s body.
D: Well what I love about this quote is the like, like the breathlessness of like, “oh, a woman can be educated, but then she will sacrifice her fertility.” As if no woman alive would ever think that this was a trade worth making? Like whether or not like it is totally bogus that this would ever happen, but the fact that he seems to think like, no woman would ever choose to be educated if it meant that she couldn’t have children.
R: Yeah, it’s like he doesn’t even need to lay that out or make an argument for that, because that is a foregone conclusion, obviously. He just has to make the argument about why education would cause that.
L: So this understanding of the uterus as a central vulnerability for the female body manifests itself in other ways in the 19th century and reflect some of the changes in the world of the Victorians that they experienced at the hands of new technology. Aja Tolman sent us a great piece about how it was believed by some in the 19th century that the high speed of train travel had the potential to dislodge a women’s uterus, which was not designed to travel at such high speeds. Like other forms of transport, notable the much more ubiquitous bicycle, these myths about the weakness of women’s bodies were a way to curb their mobility and their participation in public life.
And in the article that she sent, it’s in Mental Floss, also discusses there how there was this uproar about women driving cars as well. It wasn’t just the speed issue of a woman’s uterus traveling at a high speed in a car as high speed as you can have in the 19th century, but also that women shouldn’t be driving because they’re prone to bouts of hysteria, they would go hysterical behind the wheel and cause car accidents.
R: So many things!
L: So this is basically, all of these things are revolving around new technologies and so what these things essentially do is disenfranchise women from participating in “modern life.”
D: Yeah, it’s a way of like, medicalizing the fears of having women in public spaces, like, when people, when men wrote about the danger of having women on bicycles, like, they were also, would say things like, but a woman on a bicycle would be so distracting for male drivers, or, like, women on trains will be like, invitations to bad behavior, but like, all of these like weird fears about having women in public space becomes medicalized and then put on women and on their bodies and like, it makes them responsible for the like, for having to be removed from public life. Oh well, it’s your fault because your body just can’t handle it, and not like, men are ridiculous and don’t know how to act.
R: Yeah. And, and like it, it matters that all of this, this technology like, yeah, women are, and wealthy women, and more white women, are spending time in public space and taking up space in public space more and more often. And there are places for women to go to department stores, and women can get like, something like white collar jobs and go on, go out and like all the suffragettes are talking about how they should ride bicycles and all of these things are terrifying to men. And so yeah, you were saying Deanna, they have to come up with all of these medicalized reasons why women shouldn’t be using the technology that helps with them occupying all of these public spaces.
A: Yeah, I mean, you could be a liberated woman and you could vote, and you could take the train to a different part of the country, but your uterus will literally fall out, so you know, we can’t be held responsible if that happens, so it is probably better if you just stay inside.
A: You don’t want to subject other train go-ers to that kind of gore, do you?
R: But yes, these are the Victorians, and as we all know, the historians were crazy. So, that means we don’t have to worry about like the 20th century, right? We are gonna get out of the Victorians, we are going to get out of like, the Edwardian period and everyone is going to figure things out, right? No. Of course not. Of course not! We’re gonna move straight through the 20th and even a little bit into the 21st century cause these things never die.
R: So. In the United States, women have always served in the military in the US in various capacities, especially as nurses but also as different kinds, in different kinds of combat and logistics roles. But as a society, we are still pretty uncomfortable with the idea of women as soldiers.
R: On this topic, Helen Gourlay sent us a 2006 article that was called “Military Women Can Hack It.” It detailed some old ideas about women’s bodies that have been used to make public policy decisions about women in the military that have been debunked by recent scientific studies. So for example, it talks about the idea that a, that certain kinds of high-impact exercise are more dangerous for women than for men because it could harm their reproductive system, again, the womb might get dislodged? So, things like that are what these studies were debunking. And the article notes that science has shown “that human physiology is more consistent than would be suggested by social embellishments and exaggerations."
R: Guys, this article is from 2006, it is from the 21st century. Scientists still need to clarify these things. And I think this is what we’ve really been driving at you know, throughout this episode, when women’s bodies are concerned, we don’t really care about what science or medicine thinks cause a good story about how women just can’t hack it is more interesting.
A: Yeah, I think we just, especially with, so especially in the United States, and especially in the twentieth century, Americans have a very complex relationship to their military. And, a very fraught relationship to the idea of women being in the military in the 20th century. Still we have this. There are so many, like social and cultural forces that condition the way we can think about women serving in the military because of what you do in the military and because of it being like, I guess such a physical, or at least, it is often perceived as being like a very physical endeavor. I think it’s just a site where all of our sort of anxieties about the differences between bodies really sort of float to the surface and in the United States the ability to serve in the military is connected to, to citizenship in a really important way. So when we talk about like, whether or not women can hack it in the military we are also sort of having a conversation about like, whether or not women are people? In the same way that men are because they can serve in the military? It is something I have been thinking about a lot with like the, I can’t believe I have to say this, I can’t believe it’s happening, the transgender, the undead transgender military ban that keeps coming up and getting shot down by the Joint Chiefs and then coming up again. Like, that idea that citizenship and who can, who can hack it in the military is really important and it’s a problem for women but also for basically anyone who isn’t straight dudes.
L: Yeah, and it signals like, who gets to participate in our military, are those who, you know, get to participate in patriotism, um, and who gets the honor of being a patriot and who gets the honor of being a hero, and those things can easily bleed into nationalism, and I think we need to be careful about that, but at the same time you were saying Anna that being able to participate at all confers privileges and it confers certain types of values on people. And when we limit who gets to step into those roles, we limit who we see as a hero, who we see as counting.
D: And it is also about economic opportunity, too. Entering the military is a career path for a lot of people who don’t have the option to go to college or who are looking for a path to economic success. And to foreclose that possibility because of weird sexist ideas about what they’re capable of, yeah, that’s just terrible.
A: Okay, so, one of my favorite examples from the 20th century is the space program, of course. And, so because women were not really seriously considered as astronaut candidates until the late 1970s, there was not that much research about women within the discipline of aerospace medicine. So, whatever they found out about what men could tolerate in terms of going to space, there was hardly any information about women. So when women did join the astronaut corps, there was a lot of kerfuffle about figuring out what was going to happen if we put a lady body in space because they didn’t have any data on this.
A: So Amy Foster has a really great book called Integrating Women Into the Astronaut Corps and she talks about in particular, one of the things I like that she talks about is how for the flight surgeons, menstruation was just like, it was a problem that had to be solved and it was very pressing. You get the impression reading a lot of these oral histories that she did with women astronauts that it was not pressing for them, mostly because they were grown adult women who had been successfully menstruating for a few decades at this point. Laughter Like, it did not seem like an issue to them, but for the male flight surgeons, it was an issue. So, I like this quote Astronaut Rhea Seddon is talking to Amy Foster and giving her this history for how all of this went down when she became an astronaut, “[Astronaut Rhea] Seddon recalled, ‘We got together with all the flight surgeons and they said, ok no one knows, but menstrual flow may go retrograde and come out your tubes and into your abdomen, and you may have an acute abdomen in space, and what would we do?” So just let that sink in. I don’t know what tubes he’s talking about? Because no one had ever had a period in space, like, whatever, they’re flight surgeons, they’re engineers, you know, they are gonna you know, think this through. They’re like, we’re just gonna have to try it, and I guess if you have an acute abdomen in space that’s what happens. We’ll send you some Motrin, I don’t know what the plan was really. So, but they, flight surgeons had the engineers pack ONE HUNDRED tampons or pads, depending on their preference, for women astronauts for a two week mission, like top, like maximum two weeks. I think it’s like a week, and another week if they miss their re-entry window. So.
L: And that would even be too much if you menstruated the full two weeks. You still wouldn’t make it through that whole round.
A: So this is a quote from another article in Popular Science about the like history of menstruating in space. The engineers asked Sally Ride, they said, “Is 100 the right number?” they asked her. “No. That would not be the right number,” she replied.
L: And I hope she said it super deadpan.
A: Nope, that is incorrect.
R: And didn’t offer any additional information, just like, made them in the very least ask.
A: 100 tampons. Oh man.
D: Have you ever met a human woman?
L: No, again, I don’t think so!
A: Well, that was a thing in the book, Amy Foster describes how women astronauts were bamboozled by these engineers who had to get out, who had to use a model of like, the female body, to design a urine capture device, like, they didn’t, they hadn’t, they had no idea what was you know, down there. And the women astronauts were like, are you guys, you are all married, to women, what are you doing?
D: You probably have kids who are in need of their own urine capture devices, correct?
L: So, another more contemporary example, and this comes from our current century, was suggested by Lady Science editor Sam Muka, and this comes from the world of sports. Until 2014, women were barred from Olympic ski jumping, in part because of the persistent myth of the “falling uterus.” The International Ski Confederation president Gian-Franco Kasper said in 2005 that the ski jumping was inappropriate for women: “Don't forget, it's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Then he doubled down on this again in 2010 when he told ESPN that the uterus could burst upon landing a jump.
L: So, women were finally allowed to form their own ski jumping Olympic teams after 15 prominent women jumpers filed a lawsuit against the Games. And that was only, I believe, in this last Games. So, I mean, that was like, you know, the last couple years.
D: Can I just say that I love the expression “from a medical point of view.” As if it’s like a trump card, like, well, just, from a medical point of view, this is obviously impossible, nobody can argue with that!
R: Its up there with, “It’s just science.”
L: In this case, like, even further removed from, cause at least Clark, like, was a Doctor, right? Right.
L: This guy’s the president of the International Ski Confederation
A: AKA, not a doctor.
A: Well and I, like, the idea of like, the wandering or the womb being dislodged, or, is, like, not graphic enough to, for this dude to make his point, so not only is it gonna fall, I am assuming out, or it’s going to explode upon landing a ski jump, which is very graphic, and I’m not sure what he thinks a uterus is made of, I’m imagining, I guess a pink water balloon maybe? That’s what he’s got in mind here?
R: I feel like throughout history, men, are basically imagining the uterus as a balloon, it’s floating around, it’s like, moving, its like, kind of maybe gelatinous in the way that a water balloon in that i’ts weird and squishy and it bangs into things
A: But it’s got a spooky ghost face sharpied on it.
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
L: Well and you can like, tug it back down when its time to get pregnant with the strange, or wafting pleasant smells.
R: Like they are all imagining basically the same thing. Which is wild and incorrect and strange.
L: Almost like it’s a systemic problem.
A: Well, wait a second. I don’t know. I think we are going to need more evidence.
R: We need some science in here.
L: Uh, when you brought, when you mentioned wafting again, I feel like we didn’t really cover wafting of the smells to the uterus quite as much as I wanted to, but it also reminded me of that whole sort of recent controversy about GOOP and the like, vagina mist that she was selling.
D: Uh huh
A: So, you know, when we say these things never die, we’re serious. Like, Gwyneth Paltrow wants you to waft like, essential oils into your vagina to promote your reproductive health, so, I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
R: Okay guys. So, it’s really easy for us to sit here and laugh about this, and, of course part of the reason we are doing that because sometimes it is better to laugh and mock things than to cry about the patriarchy, which, I think we have all spent many hours of our lives doing, in different ways. But setting aside goofiness, we of course know that all of these assumptions about women’s bodies have a profound effect on both our healthcare system as we have discussed and on our politics. Obviously we just look at any debate about abortion, you are going to find tons of people who are spouting off some pretty terrible myths about women’s bodies and how they work.
R: One myth that you hear a lot is that getting an abortion is bad for your mental health. So, we hear a lot of stories of course in pop culture and in the news about women regretting abortions, or, at the very least, have a traumatic experience. So I feel like, the general assumption of the world is that an abortion is a traumatic experience and even on a certain level, even a lot of pro-choice people kind of I think assume that it’s going to be this like, really bad em- negative emotional experience even if it is okay to do that. Studies have shown, thought, that there is no evidence of mental health harms from abortion.
R: One recent study from 2016 looked at 1,000 women under 18 who got pregnant that showed no significant psychiatric difference between those who got abortions and those who didn’t when they checked in 7 years later. And this study is discussed in further detail on a podcast called “Science Versus,” they did an entire episode about various abortion myths. So, that’s not the only myth out there about like, why abortion could be bad for you.
R: In states in the US, doctors are required to tell women that getting abortions might increase their risk of breast cancer, or might lead to infertility. There’s no scientific evidence to support either of those things, or most of the other things doctors are required by politicians to say before women get abortions. But I do think the mental health myth is especially pervasive just kind of culturally because it is related to these historical myths that we’ve been talking about today. So many of these one way or another saying that women might go crazy if they make the “wrong” reproductive choices. And this idea of linking poor mental health and abortions is really doing the same thing.
L: Right, and i’ts not like, the same people who make those claims and try to scare women into having a child, is that these aren’t the people that are also like, advocating for better mental health care.
R: Oh, yeah, No, of course not.
L: Or you know, anything like that. So, there’s, they don’t actually care about your mental health. These are those forced-birth advocates that will use any tactic to make women carry a child to term. There was this last episode of last week tonight with John Oliver, he did a full segment on crisis pregnancy centers, and he looked at their like, play book that people will tell pregnant women who come in looking for abortion, and one of those things, like all of the things that you said Rebecca, but also this one is bonkers and terrifying. That if you get an abortion, later in life, you will find like, fingers, and other appendages like, in the heart, in your heart and in your lungs and yeah. So, relying on that myth that pro-lifers and forced-birth people push is that abortion is gruesome and the way that they do it is just by mutilating babies inside of you and then ripping them out, and these, when you make room for one myth, you make room for all the myths, especially with like these type of people that will pretty much say anything to force women to give birth.
D: And when you have a systemic attack on education, so that like, women and girls are, they don’t know how their bodies work and it just like, leaves this vacuum for terrible actors to, to fill with this kind of heinous disinformation, oh god that’s awful.
L: The woman that I studied for my master’s thesis, she was a German physician, and she left Germany to study medicine, got her degree, came back, and dedicated her career to writing popular medical texts for women and children, and one of her things is she’s writing these things specifically for women so they don’t have to go see male physicians, that male physicians brutalize women, they didn’t care about them, they preyed on specifically poor homeless women, and so her whole thing was teaching, like actually laying out female anatomy so that they knew if they did go see a male physician, if they were being taken- er, if they were being taken advantage of or lied to, and that they could subsequently take care of themselves if they had to. And like, when you have, like your same Deanna said, systemic attacks on education and this misinformation coming at you from all of these different sides, well, those 19th century women were on to something!
R: And like, it matters that even you know, the doctors that would never say things like, crisis pregnancy center, people do and probably are pro choice and like think that they’re of the good guys, still will have a little bit of like, Oh ladies bodies are complicated and weird, adds to all of this. And the fact that there are, yeah, there’s just general idea that we don’t know a lot about women’s bodies because they’re more complicated, too bad about that, we’ll just like guess how things work. That then leads to opportunity for people to fill the gaps in really terrible ways.
A: Yeah, and there’s, I mean, there’s also like, maybe this idea that, that women’s bodies are fundamentally unknowable in a way that props the door open for that kind of thing permanently. You know? And it’s just, its a thing that, I mean, it’s not just what your doctor says to you in the real world, I mean, its, it’s all over popular culture, it’s sort of like baked into our everyday experience, that like if you have like, if you have a uterus, your body is like fundamentally unknowable and unstable and like profoundly flawed in a way that you can never escape. I just, when I was just thinking about, I am trying. Man, I’m trying to lighten it up a little bit. I was thinking about, I don’t know if you guys are, I know Leila is, I don’t know if you guys are West Wing fans, when like anything that has to do with, with Andy getting pregnant or having babies, like, Toby just can’t, he can’t understand it, he can’t handle it, he’s just like, I think he says something to the effect of like, like, I don’t know how you live with these bodies.
R: Yeah, I think that is the line.
R: Yeah, And she’s like I don’t know you guys never seem to mind, and he like can’t deal with like the gel goo they put on her belly to do an ultrasound, he’s just like, super weirded out by all of it. It’s like this profound mystery that like, there’s no way he could ever understand and like, its harmless in that context because you know, it’s Toby and that’s part of his character, but, I think in a larger context, like, this is just something that we assume to be true about women’s bodies, that like, they’re just, whoa. Yeah, There’s a lot going on there. Who knows? That’s a lot.
L: And that's by design as well because modern medicine has made it so that we keep thinking women’s bodies are unknowable, it wasn’t until 1993 that women were federally mandated to be included in, in clinical trials. So, you know, a long with people of color as well, because they also were being left out of clinical trials. And so, that women’s bodies continue to seem mysterious, the medical establishment has made that possible still.
R: And that’s, and that’s why it, you know, matters that we sit here and mockingly roll out all of the, like, stupid things that the Greeks thought, or the early modern people thought, or the Victorians thought, because we haven’t escaped this shit. And knowing that it can, the ways in which it has kind of shifted form over like, millennia and continued to have like such a hold over our society is vitally important if we are, if we’re ever going to get over it.
L: Well I guess we can put a pin in this conversation today. Deanna thanks for hosting with us today. We hope that you’ll do it again. This was fun.
D: Thank you!
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