In 1901, physician William Henry Walling published the article, Some of the Uses of Electricity in Gynecology, in the January issue of the American Gynecological and Obstetrical Journal. Walling was a practicing gynecologist who studied electro-therapeutics, or the use of electricity in medicine for the treatment of disease, which was an emerging topic during the late 1800s. Walling stated that proper administration of electrical current to a woman’s vagina, uterus, bladder, or rectum could be therapeutic for gynecological diseases. He provides scientific explanations for some of his claims, but not for all. The article provides readers of the twenty-first century with context and historical examples of electrotherapy in women’s health, of what physicians understood about female reproductive anatomy, and of the standard of care in gynecology during the turn of the twentieth century.
During the late 1800s through the early 1900s, physicians administered pelvic massages involving clitoral stimulation by early electronic vibrators as treatments for what was called female hysteria. Until the early 1900s, physicians used female hysteria as a diagnosis for women who reported a wide range of complaints and symptoms unexplainable by any other diagnosis at the time. According to historian Rachel Maines, physicians provided pelvic massages for thousands of years to female patients without it being considered erotic or sexually stimulating. After the Western Industrial Revolution, physicians began using electric machines in medicine, including the medical vibrator, which researchers theorize was used to more efficiently bring women to a hysterical paroxysm, the former medical term for a female orgasm. Until the 1920s, physicians used vibrating massagers as medical devices for treating hysteria at a time when doctors diagnosed women with hysteria as a sweeping diagnosis.
By demonstrating the struggle for sound standard of care for non-medical reproductive health care providers during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this project emphasizes what the standards of reproductive health care for abortion and contraception might be like if the organizations that made them so readily available, like Planned Parenthood, were defunded or criminalized in our modern setting.
In 1904, physician William Henry Walling published Sexology, a family medicine reference book. In his book, Walling proposed that his guidance would help people who were married or single and young or old, as well as anyone who wanted to conform to, what he claims are, gender expectations. Sexology discusses issues such as masturbation, abortion, pregnancy, labor, and marriage. Despite Walling’s limited scientific explanations and evidence for his medical claims, the Puritan Publishing Company printed and distributed the book, which received many positive reviews and endorsements from other physicians, college presidents, politicians, and religious leaders. However, in the twenty-first century, people may consider many of Walling’s claims to be sexist and oppressive toward women. Sexology provides readers with examples of historical medical misconceptions of male and female anatomy and provides context for the logic of reproductive medicine at the turn of the twentieth century.
Carol Downer was a reproductive health and abortion rights activist in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the US and other countries. During the late 1960s, many women reported knowing little about female anatomy and receiving little information from their physicians. Downer advocated for women’s reproductive anatomy education and encouraged women to not rely on the intervention of a medical doctor for all reproductive issues. Downer demonstrated how to perform a vaginal self-examination to many women and taught women around the world how to provide safer in-home abortions when abortions were illegal. Downer helped start clinics throughout California which provided some of the first legal abortions in the US. With her reproductive health activism, Downer spread reproductive health self-help tactics throughout the US and the world, thereby improving women’s access to health information.
Evelyn Lorraine Rothman advocated for women’s reproductive rights and invented at-home kits for women’s health concerns in the late twentieth century in Los Angeles, California. Rothman provided women in the Los Angeles area with the means to perform self-examinations, pregnancy tests, and abortions on their own without assistance from a medical professional. Along with Carol Downer, Rothman cofounded the Federation of Feminist Health Centers in Los Angeles, California, and spent her career educating women on reproductive health. She also invented the Del-Em Kit, a menstrual extraction device that allowed women to perform very early abortions on their own and at home. Rothman’s activism educated women on female anatomy, provided an at-home option for early abortion before abortion became legal, and promoted women’s reproductive rights in the 1970s.
Jane Elizabeth Hodgson was a physician who advocated for abortion rights in the twentieth century in the United States. In November of 1970, Hodgson became the first physician in the U.S. to be convicted of performing an illegal abortion in a hospital. Hodgson deliberately performed the abortion to challenge the Minnesota State Statute 617.18, which prohibited non-therapeutic abortions. Following the legalization of abortion in the US Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade (1973), Hodgson focused on promoting accessible abortion, obstetric, and gynecological care throughout Minnesota. Her name also appears in the Supreme Court case Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990), which challenged the constitutionality of a Minnesota statute that required physicians to notify both parents forty-eight hours prior to a minor being allowed to undergoing an abortion. Hodgson’s career was centered around challenging the legal system to protect and promote reproductive rights for women, including access to abortion.
Self-proclaimed female physician Ann Trow was a women’s reproductive health specialist as well as an abortion provider in New York City, New York during the mid 1800s. Though she had no formal medical training or background, Trow provided women with healthcare and abortions under the alias Madame Restell. Restell gained attention across the United States for her career as a professional abortionist during a time when abortions were highly regulated and punishable with imprisonment. Restell was tried numerous times for carrying out abortions. She never confessed to any crimes, but she was convicted on several occasions. Her services as a business woman, medicine producer, abortion provider, boarding house maintainer, and adoption facilitator provided women with solutions to unwanted pregnancies throughout her forty years of healthcare service and made her a subject of widespread controversy in the United States.
Lydia Estes Pinkham invented and sold Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a medicinal tonic used to treat menstrual discomfort and promote female reproductive health in general, in the US during the nineteenth century. Pinkham also founded Mrs. Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company, a business that sold natural remedies for women’s health issues. Throughout her life, Pinkham acted as an authority on female wellness, writing medical pamphlets about female anatomy and reproductive processes. In those pamphlets, Pinkham addressed female medical issues that physicians did not frequently discuss with their patients. Pinkham’s advertising techniques and her products helped women learn about their reproductive anatomy and processes and helped ease menstruation.
Harvey Karman was an abortionist, inventor, and activist for safe abortion techniques in the US during the twentieth century. Karman developed the Karman cannula, a flexible soft tube used for vacuum aspiration abortions. Karman traveled extensively throughout the US to educate healthcare providers on how to administer safe abortions. He also traveled to Bangladesh, India, China, and other developing nations to promote safe and simple abortion techniques that anyone could perform without previous medical training. As of 2017, Karman’s abortion technique and cannula continue to be widely used throughout the world for terminating early pregnancies. Karman challenged laws prohibiting abortion in the US prior to 1973 and worked to create methods for abortion that were safer, less expensive, and easier to administer than previous abortion techniques.