Sex Education for Women Circa 1802

In this early 19th century version of “the video” females of all ages, from a grandmother to a child who must stand on her tiptoes to view the exhibition, come to learn from the wax-work pregnant woman, her womb and fetus exposed by cut-away flesh beneath a glass box.

“O famous wax-work!” states the satirical poem below, “Where our fair ones come, Like female Neros made to see a womb, To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation, And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.”

The figurines entwined in erotic embraces on the side table serve as further instruction for the curious ladies who, much to the chagrin of those remembering “politer times”, are eagerly “Exploring in the sight of all the world, The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.”

The Poem:

In days of Yore, when modesty reign’d here,
Virgins were bashful, Matrons were severe;
None knew then what it was to chat with Men,
Or in smart Billets-doux to use the pen.
Sermons and Psalm-Books much employ’d their time,
Nor, save the latter, read they ought in Rhime.
If e’er they wrote, ’twas when some choice Receipt 
Was found to cure a Cough, or toss up Meat;
Such th’ Assiduous House-wife sought with Care,
And in her Books preserv’d as Treasure rare.
Each Woman then, the Glory of her Spouse,
Look’d to his Wealth, and constant kept his House.
Decent her Garb; her Language true and plain;
She heightened ev’ry Joy, and softened ev’ry Pain.
In our politer times, the Female Race
An easier mode of Living [by] far embrace.
No more such arduous Methods Women try,
But with the Men in thirst of Pleasure vie:
Like them, they Ride, they Walk, nay Rake and Drink,
And seldom say their Prayers, or deign to Think.
Thus rub thro’ Life, forgetful of its End;
By none Befriended, and to none a Friend;
Wild without Wit, from Spleen — not Judgment — grave;
Despising Faith, but to her Lusts a Slave.
Each courtly Wanton wanders thro’ her Time,
And feels Declension ere she reach her Prime.
But of all Follies, sure the last and worst
Is that with which our learned Age is curs’d.
This bawdy Itch of knowing secret Things,
And tracing human Nature to its Springs;
Exploring in the sight of all the world
The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.
O famous wax-work! Where our fair ones come,
Like female Neros made to see a womb,
To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation,
And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.
That Rake, in time to come, when he convenes,
What copious Drury sends, and Wild-street gleans,
He may have Bawds in Bibs, and Midwives in their teens.
What Vices Greek and Roman Dames defil’d,
How they on Slaves and Fencers often smil’d,
Rode, Drink, and Danced, we’re by old Sat’rists told;
But of no Thais of our modern Mold —
Who ere for Wedlock ripe is wild to see
What must its Joys, and what its Pains must be;
How in the Womb the Foetus is reclin’d;
What Passage thence by Nature is design’d;
With ev’ry other Circumstance beside,
That may inform her ere she be a Bride,
And make her wiser than the Dame who bore
This prying Wench, — or Grandmother before,
Who liv’d when Innocence sway’d here of Yore.
O might the shocking Scene so strike the Mind,
As that true Sense from this strange sight they’d find:
Learn to believe themselves but frail, tho’ fair;
And make their Souls what they deserve — their Care;
Live to those Ends for which their Lives were given,
To bless Mankind, and make this World a Heaven.
The Wax-work then — should be deem’d worthy Fame,
Not be, as now, all its Spectators’ Shame.

6 thoughts on “Sex Education for Women Circa 1802

  1. “This bawdy Itch of knowing secret Things.”

    If that doesn’t sum up the world’s relationship with the internet, I don’t know what would?

    Wow! That poem is a wonderful snapshot of the period.
    And sadly, still relevant to some. It gives voice to that panic certain men experience, genuinely threatened by any force contained within female curiosity and attendant agency. The mysteries of female-hood-ness-ity have had men baffled and insecure, or simply hostile to sharing equal status since Moses’ wrote the story of Adam and Eve. If they can’t be understood easily, how can they be trusted with the things men can’t be trusted with? (I can see a bearded Taliban scholar nodding, looking about for support).

    It also stresses a less sinister thought – one which is debated today, namely the roles played by individuals in relation to intrinsic strengths, but labeled under gender. The rather extensive role of mother and wife as understood by men of that age is outlined in the first stanza of the poem. It echo’s a line by Jane Austen I recall from ‘Persuasion’:

    “…indeed, Mary, I cannot wonder at your husband. Nursing does not belong to a man, it is not his province. A sick child is always the mother’s property, her own feelings generally make it so.”

    While I wouldn’t argue with Miss Austen on the general statement, we know today that gender isn’t always as black and white it appears to be, or certainly as understood by the writer of this poem – women are very neatly divided into madonnas or whores. But there is something to individual predisposition based gender identification.

    This post is certainly food for thought.

    1. I propose “female-hood-ness-ity” should be added to the lexicon. It evokes much of the baffled and insecure. Plus, it gave me a nice little laugh.

      You’ve certainly chewed on the food here, and I haven’t much to add beyond that I appreciate the perspective on gender theory and mention of Austen — interesting given that she began writing a few years before this sexual satire was published and was herself gifted at satirizing society. I can’t help but imagine what she would’ve thought of the work.

  2. I came across a Reader’s Digest from 1965 and as is my usual habit with that magazine, I read all their “jokes” first. Well, I’d only read one category of jokes when I decided to, just for laughs, highlight with a yellow pen all the “jokes” derogatory -and just plain insulting- to women. Most of the jokes ended up highlighted. I became sickened by the whole thing about half-way thru the magazine. THEIR ARTICLES WERE EVEN WORSE. (Dumb shows like Mad Men don’t even come close to how awful it must have been.

    The above “poem”, sneering and mocking women who just wanted to know how their bodys worked, reminds me of the Reader’s Digest jokes about dumb “co-eds” and sex-mad “stewardesses”, bumbling “nurses” who existed in Men’s imagination in 1965. Like racial bigotry, sexism is carefully (or throughly) taught.

    1. @KWillow A limitation of possessing prejudice is that it not so much defines superiority but highlights self-perceived inferiority based on fear. I think there’s a way to find misogynism empowering in inverse relation, though I suspect some feminists might want to wallop me over the head for that statement. I understand where you’re coming from; “dumb” and “sex-mad” seem the default categorization for women, especially in history. These sorts of poems fascinate me because they illustrate what constitutes the threat that is woman. Or as @Peter offered regarding the minds of misogynists: “If they [women] can’t be understood easily, how can they be trusted with the things men can’t be trusted with?”

      Maybe some men just need hugs and to be told that everything will be OKAY.

  3. Ha, this reads (well, more or less, of course) like it might have been written yesterday.

    And, as Peter said, what a summation of our relationship with the internet.

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