One of the cultural sources I turned to in trying to 'reconstruct the consciousness' of Bertha Pappenheim was The Girl's Own Paper, a magazine first published in 1880, the year in which Bertha's story began. Reading it brings one to the inescapable conclusion that the past is indeed a foreign country. I feel that I could more easily understand a present-day Zulu or Maori than any young 19th-century woman whose mind was formed by the principles governing those moralising texts.
Feminism was still only a speck on a distant horizon, at least as far the GOP was concerned. An article titled The Girls of Today, written by 'One of Them', while advocating a degree of working activity for women, concluded: '…. there is plenty of work to do, not only for our fathers and brothers but for us girls also. Out of this work we will select that which we can do best, whether it be nursing, teaching, book-keeping, mending, lamp-cleaning, dressmaking, or anything else. At the same time we will endeavour to hold fast by those attributes of modesty, gentleness and patience which belong to good women, and while we enrich the home with our earnings, we will try to be its sunlight and its ornament.' As for a career in journalism, anyone considering it was advised that the job might require her to be out and about late at night, which would not be seemly, and that she would need 'a bold mien' to work with male reporters 'on whose province she is encroaching'. As a final word of warning GOP cautioned that 'it is not an occupation that tends to the development of feminine graces.' On a more positive note, the newly invented typewriter was promoted as a solution to the problem of finding employment for ladies, it being 'peculiarly fitted for their nimble fingers'.
Beauty, just as much as health, was considered to be a matter of mens sana in corpore sano. 'Health can make the plainest girl pleasant to behold, if her mind be pure and innocent,' exhorted Medicus in 1884. Readers were encouraged to believe that a good head of hair could be obtained by cultivating 'a calm and unruffled frame of mind'. A daily bath, 'as cold as can be borne', and exercise were judged ideal beauty aids. Powder and 'paint' were anathema, a sign of loose morals.
Overall the texts were saturated with religiosity. An article titled What Shall We Do With Our Sundays? was accompanied by a poem by Yeats suggesting that the answer was church attendance: 'She prays for father, mother dear, To Him with thunder shod. She prays for every falling tear, In the holy church of God. 'Middle-class girls were encouraged to procure copies of 'the Holy Gospels' and other 'nice little books' and to leave them in appropriate places, such as under the seat cushion in a hired vehicle, where they could be found by 'the lower orders'. Acting was disapproved of. 'Once on the stage, those wishing to leave it and live religious lives find much prejudice from prospective employers.' The writer wasn't thinking of women wanting to enter a convent, but simply leading a life that wasn't immoral.
Replies to readers' letters were tart and bracing. A reader with academic aspirations was advised: 'The subjects to be avoided, save in an elementary manner, are mathematics, and possibly science - certainly, however, the former.' A young woman enquiring about a career as a governess in 1884 was told: 'You seem to think that we keep a registry office. You are not sufficiently educated to take a place as nursery governess. You cannot write; and do not express yourself properly.' But this was nothing to the scolding doled out to a correspondent from Canada: 'This is the last notice that we shall take of your silly letters. Learn your lessons, read your Bible, and make and mend your own clothes and waste no more time in writing such rubbish.'
It's difficult to believe that only 130 years separates this kind of thing from the tweets of Paris Brown, the seventeen-year-old who has just had to resign from her police job after it was discovered that she had posted homophobic and racist rants and boasted about her binge drinking, drug taking and sex life on Twitter. But then, much as I said at the beginning, I might find it easier to understand a Zulu or a Maori than Paris Brown.
*Porter, Roy, ‘The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from Below’, Theory and Society, 14 (March, 1985), 175-198