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Idiocy, As The Effect Of Social Evils, And As The Creative Cause of Physiological Education

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: January 1870
Publication: The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Diseases of the Nervous System
Source: Available at selected libraries

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-1- Moral and physical evils are so intimately connected, one with the other, that they look like two names for the same thing. For instance, the eating of an animal substance, culminating in anthropophagy, is everywhere punished by lepra, as the slave-trade germinates in slavers' bottoms the pustula of the small-pox, and so forth.


This is no place to repeat old surmises, that experience has yet neither accepted nor rejected; but for new facts acquired by recent experience. Persons engaged in the treatment of idiots are nearly unanimous upon the fact that the victims of idiocy grow more numerous. If so, the causes of this infirmity must be on the increase; and what are those now at work?


Referring idiocy, in the main, to the conditions of uterine life, what recent circumstances have occurred that could have further impaired the woman as a breeder of embryo and foetus? Her intellectual culture, social and physical gratifications, have fully kept pace with those of her partner. Her relations to the latter are, if any thing, more equal and independent than formerly. He, certainly, is less overbearing, less rude and brutal (according to social station), than he was in the good old time. She has more right to her own, and to what he makes, and yet woman is not satisfied. Then, what is the matter? The gist of the matter seems to be: "Better," said Enfantin and J. S. Mill, "if women would tell it themselves;" that, with, more subjects of gratification of mind and body to-day than in the past centuries, women are uneasy, unhappy, because they do not feel themselves adequate to their task. Their education -- a jumble of that which has made all the male inutilities we have known -- has not taught them an iota of womanhood. Their hygiene and habits have disqualified them for motherly functions; city and house narrownesses do not offer more room for a new-comer than their slender pelves; their tastes run toward niceties incompatible with married life; fecundation is the result of maladroitness; its product, unwelcome, ill-fed, ill-treated before as after birth, conceived in apprehension, remains a nervous ruin, or disappears in a storm of some sort. At this spectacle we can sorrow, but not wonder. Can we expect woman to know what she has not learned, or to resent feelings whose warmth never descended into herself? How, besides, can she conceive and nurture, with a living enthusiasm, a child she has no strength to carry, no room to grow, no substance to feed, no idea how it is to be handled, cared for, etc.? The heaviest task when it is not the dearest, she shifts it off; coming out from the struggle with a sad countenance and emaciations foreboding early degeneracy of her vital organism. To be frank, we physicians, teachers, and parents, are more culpable than herself.


On the opposite side, referring to the many women overfaithful to their vow to help their mates any way, any how, we should say that their task, their whole task, as mothers and wives -- heavier than many hard laboring men could stand -- has of late been greatly aggravated by their being made participators in anxieties external to the, home. Too few husbands spare their young wives in this; and many women -- be it genuine eagerness or natural inconsideration -- rush to an often impossible rescue of the sinking fortunes of the family, and too often, thereby, prepare their own destruction. It is of no use to enter into particulars; when a pregnant woman has, besides the trials of gestation, and during that exalted state of all functions, to endure the multiple trials commanded by an heroic or silly sense of duty, the chances are many that her infant will bear the stigma of the struggle. And what is the fatality that, to-day more than ever, pushes men to undertake more than they can do; and, as a sequel, women to make ultimate sacrifices?. . .In nearly every case it is the rent -- the rent, growing by day, by night, in work, in sleep, in sickness, in death. Increasing every year, the rock of Sisyphus was a pebble compared to it. The renter knows no remission, no alleviation, no day of the Lord. He is the lord, and more, the landlord. Under his sway Christ had not a stone to rest His head. The foetus has no place to grow in peace. Woe to the pregnant woman and her fruit caught under that crushing millstone!


The ancients were wiser. By the regulations of the Bible, the young Israelite couples were allowed to live one happy year free from labor and necessities. This was economy, since it cost less than the lifelong support of infirm children, born of ill-developed and care-worn young women, who themselves hardly ever recover from the simultaneous drain on their constitution of pregnancy, over-work, and moral distress.


On the contrary, no wonder that, from the martyrs of the flat and depressing dramas silently enacted to-day for a miserable livelihood, are born children, not only idiotic and epileptic, but insane. This is a remarkable instance of interpolation of a new link in the chain of adaptation. When pregnant women were simply exposed to home brutalities and privations, their idiotic children were of the simplest types. When the mother had, besides, the mental activity that education and society develop, the idiocy of her child was of a more complex character. But as soon as women assumed the anxieties pertaining to both sexes, they gave birth to children whose like had hardly been met with thirty years ago: insane before their brain could have been deranged by their own exertion; insane, likely, by a reflex action of the nervous exhaustion of their mother.

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