Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Alice Bunker Stockham, Dress Reform, and "Karezza"

Alice Bunker Stockham (died 3 December 1912)

I first came across the name of Alice Bunker Stockham in connection with the Rational Dress Movement--a nineteenth-entury reform movement that I knew nothing about. (Which shouldn't be surprising, since, in my academic life, I was [I guess I still am] a medievalist--the nineteenth century is usually way too modern for my taste.)

Alice Bunker Stockham
Anyway, the movement to reform women's dress--to free women from the unhealthy and constrictive clothing in which they were imprisoned--began in the United States and in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, arising at the same time as and in connection with the suffrage movement.

It also involved many of the same women, including, in the United States, Sarah Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, for example.

The aims of the reformers were to free women from the dictates of fashion (which didn't--and doesn't--seem to have been successful, at least if you spend any time at all looking at the women in music videos, on the red carpet, or, for that matter, in college classrooms), but especially from the devastating physical effects of corsets and "tight lacing." 

Throughout history, western women have engaged in various ways of shaping their torsos through corsets and lacing--at the turn of the sixteenth century, in the lessons she writes for her daughter, Anne of France is already warning Suzanne about the dangers of tight-lacing, which, she says, is not only ridiculous but will damage her health! And lest you think we are way past that today, check out all the five-star Amazon reviews for this "double steel boned," heavy-duty "waist-training" corset--with its "20 spiral steel bones," "4 rigid steel bars," and "strong corset cord lacing back."

Perhaps the most well-known name associated with the efforts to reform women's clothing is that of Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), who in 1849 introduced her trouser-like "bloomers" in order to free women from the excessive weight of their crinolines--the combined weight of a woman's skirt and petticoats meant that pounds, perhaps as many as thirteen pounds, were hanging off of a woman's waist. The development of the caged crinoline in mid-century did serve to reduce that weight (in 1857, Bloomer adopted it in favor of the garments she had devised), but that did not end the efforts to reform women's clothing. 

Despite the ridicule and hostility directed at those who had worn bloomers, a National Dress Reform Association was organized in the United States in 1856, advocating various modified, more freeing and "hygienic" dress styles for women. (Though even these reformed styles meant women were still wearing several pounds' worth of undergarments.) The group ultimately disbanded, since the idea of trousers seemed to present an insurmountable object.

But the reform movement reignited in the 1870s, principally in reaction to the introduction of the bustle, adding an iron cage and looped fabric in yet another distortion of the natural female body. In London, the Rational Dress Society was formed in 1881, promoted by Florence Pomeroy, viscountess Harberton, and the New Zealand feminist Eliza Mary King. Its stated goals:
The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming. . . . [It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to birth, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.
(For a report on King's visit to Canada and the United States in 1884, reported in the New York Times, click here--the story is found on page 5, along with other important news like "Hot Days in Saratoga," "Chicago's Summer Races," and "A Priest's Study Robbed").

Now to Alice Bunker. Born in Ohio in 1833, she was certainly an advocate for dress reform--as I said, it was in the context of the nineteenth-century dress reform movement that I first ran across her name. But, wow! Reading just a bit about her, reforming women's clothing is the least of her many efforts on behalf of women.

Alice Bunker enrolled in and graduated from Olivet College in Michigan, founded in 1844 by Congregationalists and dedicated to promoting education to students regardless of sex, race, or financial means. (It was, at first, denied accreditation because of its support of the cause of abolition.)

Bunker then attended Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati, where she earned her M.D. in 1854, the fifth woman in the United States to become a doctor. ("Eclectic medicine" was a recognized branch of American medicine that promoted botanical remedies and physical therapy.) She married G. H. Stockman in 1857, then received more training at the Chicago Homeopathic Medical College, which opened in 1876. 

In her Chicago medical practice, Stockham focused on gynecology and obstetrics. Her 1884 Tokology, a Book for Every Woman (the title, tokology, from the Greek word for "obstetrics) was a practical book for women that recommended a high-fiber diet and exercise for pregnant women, that recommended pregnant women abstain from sex (such "continence" is good for their health), and that denounced women's corsets. 

Stockham acknowledged women's natural sexuality and denounced the sexual double standard:
When woman only is taught that virtue is the brightest jewel in her crown, when the popular verdict is that womanliness and modesty are synonymous for repression, when she lives in fear of maternity and believes restraint on her part prevents vitality of life germs, when, too, erroneous habit pervert every function, how can we tell what is natural for her?
Then, on the other hand, when man is taught that virtue is not synonymous with manliness, when the passions are stimulated by unnatural habits of living, by impure conversation, thoughts, books and practices, can we say this strength of passion is purely natural and healthy?
Stockham was also an advocate of masturbation as healthy for both men and women.

Stockham distributed her privately printed book to poor women and to prostitutes in order to promote their well-being and, if possible, to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Each copy of her book came with a certificate that entitled a woman to a free gynecological exam at Stockham's clinic. Stockham's book was translated into French, Finnish, German, and Russian (with a preface by Leo Tolstoy).

Her book also included lots of practical advice for women, including recipes, patterns for baby clothing, and lists of items necessary for childbirth, including an "abundant supply" of soft rags, "large and clean," as well as "two yards of rubber cloth for protecting the bed, a fountain syringe, a hot water bottle, safety pins, antiseptic, absorbent cotton, glycerine, arnica, ammonia, carbolic and castile soap, calenduline, olive oil and cosmoline."

In 1896, she published Karezza: Ethics of Marriage (the title, karezza, from the Italian word for carezza, "caress"), in which she laid out "a theory of conjugal life, in which there is a love communion between husband and wife from which results a mastery of the physical": "Karezza signifies 'to express affection in both words and action,' and while it fittingly denotes the union that is the outcome of deepest human affection, love's consummation, it is used technically throughout this work to designate a controlled sexual union." It is not a mater of self-control, but of mutual control. Karezza did not necessarily result in orgasm ("Unless procreation is desired, let the final propagative orgasm be entirely avoided"); rather, the goal was sexual desire and pleasure.

Stockham developed her ideas after a trip to India and her own study of Tantric sex. The goals of karezza, as she devised her plan, were to help women control their reproduction without mechanical methods of birth control, to promote women's equality (women were not to be reduced to passive objects who had to submit to their husbands' sexual desires), and to result in marital pleasure and fidelity.

In 1905, when Stockham was seventy-two years old, she was arrested on obscenity charges by Anthony Comstock, the U.S. Postal Inspector.* Under the Comstock Law, passed in 1873, 
whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States . . . shall sell . . . or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or offer to publish in any manner, or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes, an obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section . . . can be purchased or obtained, or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof in any court of the United States... he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.
Under this law, Comstock pursued all those who, like Stockham, distributed any kind of material about reproductive health--even anatomy books could be kept from distribution by mail.

Although she was defended by no less an advocate that Clarence Darrow, Stockham was convicted and fined, her books were banned, and the publishing house she had established was forced to close. 
Although Stockham did not promote the use of contraceptives, her theory of karezza was condemned in a series of letters and attacks by the Catholic church, culminating in the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office's 30 June 1952 monitum, or "solemn warning," published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which condemned what it called "a reserved embrace."

The Sacred Congregation forbade the faithful to practice and priests and spiritual directors even to suggest that "a reserved embrace" was acceptable. Karezza was condemned because promoted “hedonism outside of a true marriage act." 

For an account of women's clothing and the efforts to "reform" it, the topic that drew me to Alice Bunker Stockham in the first place, I recommend Patricia Cunningham's Reforming Women's Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art.

*Update, 30 July 2023: For Grace Haley's informative piece on the Comstock Act and the way it is being deployed by forced-birth activists and politicians today, here is a link to the essay, published at Jessica Valenti's Abortion, Every Day.

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