For Girls; A Special Physiology; Being a Supplement to the Study of General Physiology

Author Erma R. Shepherd
Author Name Variants Mrs. E. R. Shepherd
Publication New York: Fowler & Wells, 1882.
Link to Text
Genres Textbook
Keywords Child Rearing, Education, Health, Women’s Work & Culture
Contributing State Iowa
Research Notes  
Digital Source Notes  

Read More

Kailyn McCord
University of New Orleans, December 2015

            For Girls: A Special Physiology was published in 1882. It was donated to the Women’s Department by the state of Iowa. For Girls is broken into several chapters concerning female physiology, including puberty, menstruation, dress code, “general organ function,” and sex. Although the book presents itself as scientific, the subjects covered in its pages range from the biological to the sociological to spiritual questions relating to God’s intentions and the essential nature of woman.
            For Girls promotes many arcane beliefs regarding women’s physiology. Shepherd details the causes and consequences of uterine prolapse (the slipping of the uterus into different positions), asserting that everything from running to walking with wet shoes might cause prolapse. A prolapsed uterus can also cause many ailments, including backaches, headaches, depression, nervousness, consumption, heart disease, dyspepsia, constipation, sciatica, and cramps. Masturbation (“self-abuse”) and constipation (“foul, decaying, waste” that might return to the bloodstream) can also cause various maladies. By avoiding these triggers, For Girls asserts, a woman will remain in perfect, rosy health. The text pays repeated attention to styles of dress, particularly the practice of corsetry. Shepherd cites the wearing of corsets as a cause of uterine prolapse, sterility, and consumption. She offers alternative styles, complete with instructional illustrations and advice on patterning.
            There are moments of almost progressive sentiment in For Girls. Shepherd insists that young girls should be informed about female anatomy before they reach womanhood and that knowledge of their bodies is an essential education. She asserts that outdoor activity and exercise are key to a woman’s vitality. In her chapter “Love, Passion, and Marriage,” Shepherd offers a kind of anti-abuser logic that anticipates modern-day feminism, asserting that women should have firm boundaries and that men who do not respect those boundaries are of the worst moral character. It is unjust, Shepherd argues, that “seduced” woman carry all the blame for their seduction, and this blame reflects a problematic attitude from society as a whole: “It certainly is not fair to expect women to govern their own passions and men’s too, and then, when they fail to do so, heap the sins of both upon her head alone—she who belongs to the weaker sex (?)” (206).
            Alongside its antiquated Judeo-Christian arguments, For Girls also asserts, at times, ideals of equality. Like many novels in the bildungsroman genre, For Girls reads sometimes as a contradiction. It often values a young woman’s physiology, but shows signs of the burden of its conservative era, espousing what early feminism it can within the confines of nineteenth-century science.
            Mrs. E. R. Shepherd was a noted female author, penning titles including For Girls: A Special Physiology (1882), For Boys: A Special Physiology, and True Manhood. She is listed in her titles as a “Noted Author and Physiologist.” Her work was happily received by parents and teachers; one female teacher and lawyer in Washington wrote to the Phrenological Journal to say that For Girls “solved a problem over which many a teacher’s head and heart have ached.” Another female doctor from New York wrote, “It is a book that every mother and daughter ought to read…. Really it is the book for the age” (“For Girls”). An article in the Chicago Tribune includes her in a list of “Notable Women of Iowa” and notes that she was from Marengo, a small town on the banks of the Iowa River.

Works Cited

“For Girls.” Publisher’s Section in The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, vol. 27, no. 6, 1883, p. 2.
“Notable Women of Iowa.” Chicago Tribune, 8 Jul 1888, p. 14., /28663305.