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Ashley Morton – “Women’s Health Demands Protective Cleanliness”: Examining Health and Illness in Early 20th Century Tucson

Note: This post refers to an event that took place on Feb 16, 2015.

Advertisement card for ProtexU “Lazy Dazy” vaginal ointment (© American Medical Association [1928], All rights reserved/Courtesey of AMA Archives)
Advertisement card for ProtexU “Lazy Dazy” vaginal ointment (© American Medical Association [1928], All rights reserved/Courtesey of AMA Archives)

What was it to be ill in the past for women?  How did women historically respond to illness or the risk of an illness?

Historical archaeologists often find an array of objects related to medical treatment; doctor proscribed or self administered. Recovered from two late 19th and early 20th century downtown Tucson neighborhoods/archaeological sites (the Joint Courts Complex Archaeological Project and the Plaza Centro, Historic Block 91 Project) examining such material culture as douching paraphernalia presents a unique insight into women’s lived experiences of health and illness. Drawing upon historical medical scholarship and print media, women’s choices to douche were shaped by the interaction between social and medical discourse.

While douching is widely understood to have been a popular contraceptive before the advent of the birth control pill, under-discussed is its role in women’s daily lives as a multi-purpose therapeutic.   Douching was part of a tradition of self-help in America reacting to not only harsh allopathic treatments but people’s desire to have choice in their treatment. Occurring simultaneously was the understanding by many orthodox and irregular doctors its utility in treating a variety of pelvic ailments under the miasmic notion of disease (i.e. imbalance and over-accumulation of toxic bodily waste) as well as limiting conception. As germ theory took hold, douching found a place in orthodox gynecology as a means for antiseptic patient preparation prior to pelvic examination and treatments from keeping wounds clean related to childbirth and pelvic disorders like endometritis. By the turn of the 20th century, a growing commercialized self-help tradition expanding into a modern health consumer culture targeted women as a group at risk. Douching advertisements at this time followed the concern that personal hygiene was paramount to reducing bacteriological disease thereby offering women autonomy in “protective cleanliness.” As we will see, women like those in Progressive Era to the Interwar Period Tucson were participating in a wider narrative in managing their bodies from birth control, infection, inflammation, and menstrual disorders to general hygiene.