The Not-So-Golden Life of the Gilded Age Wife

Although Gilded Age women in the upper and lower classes had many differences, they had one similarity:

Women were viewed as second best to men, and were expected to be content with this role in society.

America’s Gilded Age lasted from approximately 1870 – 1900 (from the election of Ulysses S. Grant to Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency). Mark Twain coined term the “Gilded Age.” Gilded means something that’s covered thinly with gold leaf or gold paint. The period was glittering on the surface, but corrupt underneath. As Charles Dickens said, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The Americans who achieved great wealth flaunted it! In contrast, the average annual income in 1890 was $380 (approx $9,000 in current U.S. dollars), well below the poverty line. Additionally, in the late 1860s, only 1/4 of NYC had access to sewer lines. Most New Yorkers still used outhouses.  In one case, 41 families shared a single outdoor outhouse!

Men, for the most part, were clueless, and believed a woman’s body controlled her mind. Consequently, men spent an absurd amount of time worrying about the “obstruction of a woman’s menstrual flow,” because the blood would then be forced to her brain and lead to a psychological breakdown. She would become a “flooding woman,” possibly with a “wandering womb.”  If there wasn’t a baby in your uterus or “the male member” in your vagina, your womb was prone to just wander around your body. This is what they actually believed! Then, in the mid 1800s, male doctors discovered women had “been menstruating “incorrectly.” They warned that menstruation begun too early in life was detrimental and that “she who develops early fades early with a feeble middle life.”

Gilded Age vs. 2021

We’ve certainly moved forward, but as a culture, we’re still not entirely comfortable with these “taboo” topics. One merely has to look to the euphemistically titled “feminine hygiene products” aisle in a modern day supermarket: Carefree, Summer’s Eve, Always, Stayfree, Vagisil, Barely There, Odor Blocking Feminine Wash. The term “feminine hygiene” implies there is something inherently dirty and shameful about menstruation and women’s bodies.

Join us to learn about what life was really like for Gilded Age women. Topics include: ovariotomies, sedation of menopausal women, free-bleeding, tapeworm larvae, meat masks, mourning, and hidden mother photos.

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