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Wine & Gyn Episode 21: Colonial Women's Health

This episode aired on 4th of July week and we wanted to celebrate the freedom of our country by understanding and appreciating the life of women when we declared our independence over 200 years ago. Come on back to the 1700s with us while we jump into women’s health in colonial America.

We ring in the episode with a little bit of scandal. You’ll be surprised to hear of the love interest of George Washington, which was not sweet Martha Washington. You’ll be curious to hear of the true story of Alexander Hamilton and his love affair mixed with unfortunate political problems. You’ll be shocked to hear of the family Thomas Jefferson started with one of his slaves. Sheesh founding fathers, we thought you had more to offer!!

In general, colonial life was hard, tons of work, full of death and illness and a bit bleak. Women especially had very different social expectations than we do now. They couldn’t vote, they didn’t work outside the home, they handled nearly every household chore including the care and keeping of several children, and they were essentially property to their husbands. Most marriages were arranged, most families were big- and very little was recorded by women themselves at that time because most of them did not read or write.

The health of colonial women was pretty average. It was the young, elderly and sickly that faired the worst. Adult women’s biggest health hardship was childbirth. Most birth was a community event, where women were attended in labor by their neighbors and family. If a town or village was lucky, they would have a midwife who was available as a lay person with a lot of birth experience to help with birth and any complications that may arise. The riskiest aspect of birth for women was postpartum infection, as the germ theory and proper hygiene and sanitization was not discovered or understood yet.

Doctors were not well trained yet, and many of them that were practicing at this time were not available in more rural areas. If you were able to afford a doctor in your town, you’d be likely to end up with a man who may suggest things as unhelpful as chocolate shaved on a wound to stop bleeding or a milk bath for someone’s legs with malaria. One doctor taught some apprentice students of his that conditions such as asthma and poor appetite were caused by low character. Not helpful at all.

Most women were skilled in herbal medicine and knew and used the herbs that grew natively or in their garden. Most colonial ladies were quite skilled and successful with home remedies, as they wholly relied on them in most cases. Fundamental Christianity was very popular at this time and natural healing arts were sometimes misunderstood as witchcraft. You likely have heard of the Salem witch trials, unfortunately some of that was stirred up over legitimate herbal medicine.

We aren’t exactly sure how women managed their periods because there isn’t much literature on it. Historians assume that women were bleeding freely into their undergarments and the wealthier women may have had access to perfumes to cover some of the smell. We are calling them the original free-bleeders.

Sex practices of colonial times are certainly interesting. We have a practice called boarding where an couple in courtship is sent to bed together to see if they are compatible but the board is supposed to keep them from any inappropriate actions. Something similar happens with a practice called binding, which is a large sack the couple is placed in with stitching all up the middle so they can not touch each other skin to skin. It is a wonder how one civil record reports 1/3 of women were already pregnant on their wedding day. Otherwise we learn that sex laws were based off the biblical law in Leviticus which basically sentences everyone to death who commits adultery, lust, homosexuality etc. Yikes.

The colonial women made the best of what they had and we admire them for that. It was not an easy life full of hardly any freedoms for them, as we ironically celebrate freedom on this week each year. Kelly & Tiffany both agreed that they would sorely miss modern conveniences when thinking of living at those times. What element of this period and lifestyle do you most identify with?

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