top of page

A Whisper to Women

I have collected #antique medical equipment and #books for quite some time; however, I haven't had opportunity to actually sit down and read any of them which has always sort of nagged at me. Tonight I picked up, A Whisper to Women, by Julia A Shelhamer, and could wait to share with you a few interesting finds. I can't quite remember where I found this little book, although I think it may have been in Carmel at an antique store, although maybe a Half Price Book Store in Castleton, but I purchased it for $3. Amazon seems to be selling later editions for a great deal more than that, so looks like I did well for myself. I think it was published in the late 1920s.



Chapter One: How to Acquire a Pleasing Personality


I have to admit, I was anticipating an antiquated, #oppressive devaluing of women and certainly there is quite a bit, so maybe that was a little to blame for my procrastination, but there is also a bit in which I find rather delightful within this little text. "I don't care what a man says; indeed, I never listen to his words. What I want to hear is the sound of his voice, its intonation, its pitch. You can conceal your real character for a time by your actions. But in your voice God has written your true character infallibly. It never has betrayed me." As expected, there is advice to practice this controlled pitch by responding to an angry husband without meeting the "wire-edge" of one's spirit and of course the direction not to lead the dinner conversation because your husband "will appreciate you more if you are quiet, for he is tired of talk and wants perfect solitude."


Interestingly, the author talks about "In this day of hustle, bustle and scurry, less attention is being paid to manners than every before. It is a case of 'get out of my way.' At the slightest provocation people lose their self-control and give utterance to some hasty remark." Much priority is given to being calm, polite, and gentle-spirited. The woman is to teach her children how to behave at the dinner table as "many marriages have been made miserable by spoiled children." They too need not talk at the dinner table. If one's husband comes home from work and is in a fault-finding mood, it would behoove us wives to thank him for his suggestions. "This is an interesting game and a hard one," but ultimately, it is for our better good. "Now after a few days of this self-control and smiling, to your amazement you will discover that there is a peculiar beauty about you that you did not know you possessed."


Chapter Two: How to Secure a Husband


The author does acknowledge that not all women are meant to marry. Some may not accomplish their purpose if they were to align with a partner, but if you do not have a higher calling and have not met your man, you should focus on correcting all your faults. One may be that you are too sensitive or jealous, but I love this little gem, "A girl should never marry a man, however, who before marriage gives her any cause for jealousy, for it will likely be worse after marriage. It will take more than religion to make you happy in a home where you have reason to be jealous. Better remain single." Amen! If you wonder if you can trust your man, well, you already know the answer. One should never have to ask and certainly shouldn't have to test it through investigation.


"Do not be too independent. It is the nature of man to protect a weak woman... This is why some business women do not succeed in marrying." Well, I guess my worry that I have no room in my home to squeeze in a man's belongings if I were to ever marry again is completely fruitless!


Chapter Three: The Kind of Women Men Admire


Guess what is most important!? Beauty. "Facial beauty is only skin deep. A beautiful form, a graceful figure, graceful movements, and a kind heart are the strongest charms in the perfection of female beauty." Interestingly, the author also adds, "While men admire beauty, yet they dislike anything false, hence artificial means to them seem like falsehoods which lead to dislike and distrust. Artificial beauty is but an imitation and a counterfeit, and fails to satisfy."


Men prefer a woman of reserve, modesty and purity; however, she must also be intelligent in spite of being deprived of an education. Men want a partner in their thoughts and ideals. "The girls they truly love though, do not smoke." And finally, all men, even bad men, want a good woman.


Chapter Four: When Natural Beauty is Lacking


One can make themself more attractive with an earnest and sincere desire to be a real Christian. As well, a woman who is distinctly feminine can overcome a homely face. "Anything that is bold, loud, or coarse in voice or manner is not appreciated by men." A woman who will do anything she is asked, sing, serve, pray, testify, and perform personal work, even when she knows she can't do it as well as others becomes more attractive. She must not give any attention to her homeliness however, pretending as if she is "unconscious of her misfortune," remaining cheerful and grateful. We are not responsible for our features, but we are for our character.


Chapter Five: How to Manage a Husband


"Real husbands do not need managing, but there are some homes where love and heaven do not rule and some homes where things would not go right if there were not a diplomat in the family in the person of a wife." Here is where the real alarm for me comes in this reading and remember, this was published in the late 1920s when the foreword within the book states, "This is in a peculiar sense a woman's age. Woman has come to her own in all departments of life." A woman, if denied money for a garment, should remain gentle and as meek as a lamb when her husband treats her with anger and threatens her with cruel disrespect, "which (often) being interpreted as choking or a beating." After he leaves the house, all he will remember is her sweet, patient face and in his guilt, he will purchase the garment she requested and present it as a peace offering. "Of course she hugs and kisses him and forgives it all - but it is just her way of managing her husband and he does not know it."


Chapter Six: How to Retain a Husband's Love


The author shares that men are trained to be so masculine that they bury their feelings, so women should assume they are as sensitive as they are. "A mistake wives sometimes make is to consider that husbands have no feelings and therefore any little suggestion is thrown at him ruthlessly, without any sense of delicacy or propriety." However, if a man who once talked to you while courting like, "Darling, will you please lift your little tootsie footsie?" but soon after marriage makes the same request as, "Lift your hoof," do not wish him dead. Continue to "be kind and win him over to Jesus by so doing. Never entertain a thought of leaving your husband except in a case where your life is in danger from his cruelty or disease."


Chapter Seven: Peach Blush Modesty


This chapter comes with a warning not to let men enter as it speaks of the harm of sharing one's body, like a harlot. "Women cease to have a grip upon men when she thus ceases to hold her dignity." It speaks of women who detest blushing and allow themselves to become masculine by taking long strides, having a swagger, smoking, crossing their legs, and cutting their hair like a man. If a man doesn't give you his seat on the bus, it's because you have become so masculine he can't respect you.


When men can see women's bare legs, covered only by chiffon hose or bloomers, or her skirt is too short or her neck too low, they turn their heads and crane their necks until the cords ache. These women lead men astray. "Man is weak and needs the help of woman to be good; but instead of getting her assistance, he is cursed and pushed down by her. She should protect and shield him from impure thoughts, but instead, she flings her charms unasked right before his eyes everywhere he goes; and throws temptation in his way as though determined to make him fall if she can. Much of this chapter speaks of women who flirt and stir men up so they have desires, and ultimately are forever ruined as there is no return.


Chapter Eight: That Other Man


This chapter speaks of the woman who chooses a man too quickly, and ultimately ends up with a displeasing man and then all the many ways she may be tempted. Satan may supply the sympathy she needs through another man who had no thought of sin and is being perfectly honorable, but this benign spirit and holy demeanor present such a pleasing contrast to the spirit of her unkind husband that if she is not on her guard, her heart will wander.


Chapter Nine: That Other Woman


Speaking to the wife, the author says, "It is the easiest thing in the world to justify self, bu the safest thing is to take all the blame upon one's self that is possible." Then she provides a significant list of potential ways the wife may have gone wrong to cause her man to stray. "Might I have been a better wife, would he have been a better husband?" and "We wish we could impress upon women the absolute necessity of keeping up their end of the work."


It is interesting to me to read the advice that if the husband strays, the wife should say nothing. Her "confidence in him will cut hi deeper than anything else" she can say. "Your kind, sweet, patient spirit will be a source of constant conviction to him." And to make all these even more unpalatable, if he does apologize, the wife should readily forgive. In fact, if more men were assured they would be "pardoned without any upbraiding word added," they would be more apt to apologize.


Among the advice lies stories of the author's friends and neighbors to reiterate the points she is teaching. It seems quite clear she is not only the Dear Abby of her time, but also the town gossip. One particular story tells of a woman who sought biblical counsel from her minister. Her husband was not saved so she was hungry for Christian fellowship. The awe and respect she had for her minister through his visits studying the Bible caught her in a snare, and she became his hopeless victim. All this time her husband was out of town, "and now an operation was necessary to cover the crime." Ultimately, it was the wife who provided her great support, knowing his ways and having been in this situation before. The woman spoke remarkably about the wife, and the author says, "At the present time the penitent woman hates as a demon her seducer, but worships as an angel that wife of his."


Chapter Ten: How I Escaped




This chapter offered the briefest, yet most beautifully written, tempestuous affair of mind much like Bridges of Madison County, yet without a single touch of indecency. I can't do it justice, but rest assured, this chapter is where the author's writing is most profound... although I am realizing this story is said to have been shared "from a neighbor." It may not be the author's words what-so-ever.


Chapter Eleven: The Jealous Wife


This chapter was honestly a bit intriguing with several prudent points. One that I found especially interesting was in reference to the husband's previous sweetheart. Essentially the author advises to pay her little mind and be kind to her if she is part of your social circle. If she takes every opportunity to draw your husband's attention, do not be so unwise as to pay any attention to it. If you take it seriously, and your husband was completely naive to it, then his interest may now become aroused and he may take her seriously too.


Chapter Twelve: How to Perpetuate the Honeymoon


The most important way to maintain the honeymoon phase, professes the author, is to be ready to apologize for any little thing that may cause offense. "There are two parties responsible for a felicitous honeymoon, the husband and the wife. If one fails, the other cannot make up the deficiency." The author outlines how each should contribute to this endeavor.


Apparently psychology in the 1920's professed that women were more cheerful than men so it is the wife's duty to fill the home with sunshine and cheer, and to show their love in their own feminine way. If a man comes home from work distressed and rude, she is to take all his criticisms and distemper with strife and assuring she doesn't speak too much to avoid irritating him. This will allow him to take a breath finally and realize his home is a haven and his wife is an angel. She must never nag or find fault in her husband. She must be his helper and sometimes this means she must sacrifice.


The aspect of this chapter directed towards the husband speaks of the grave responsibilities he assumes when he takes a woman from her parental home and the risks she takes in committing to him. He essentially monopolizes her happiness, creating a future for her either strewn with flowers or with thorns. The author makes the claim that she has the right to govern and direct domestically in the home. It is her province. She warns though not to make the wife a legalized slave. Have regard for her feelings. Take her on vacation and offer reprieve from endless work.


Chapter Thirteen: The Value of Confession


Be humble. Apologize.


Chapter Fourteen: Why Some Women Age Young


Don't marry too young. It will age you. Wait until you are 25 or 26 until you know what kind of man you want to marry. Take time to be gay before you have babies or you'll be miserable and wish you were dead. The second factor is worry. "I once asked a colored woman why her race did not show age as do the white people. Her answer was that she thought it was because her people did not worry, ye they have a great deal more to worry about than we." I share no more of this narration because the text does include the n-word.


The third point of advice was to not overwork. "Employ all the labor saving devices you can in your home," even hiring out work if necessary. "Teach your children to work." Easily the longest discussion in the book is here: invest in your mother. Spoil her completely. Taking care of her will extend your youth. And, of course, spending time each morning gathering manna.

Chapter Fifteen: The Unwelcome Baby


This chapter speaks to the woman who finds herself pregnant and she is less than happy about her circumstances. The author makes clear a number of other circumstances which the woman could face in effort to cause her to be grateful for this child, including the fact that if she had lived in earlier times, an inability to become pregnant would have allowed her husband to leave her.


"I know a woman who, rather than be mother of a large family, has frequent "operations." She speaks of the cost of her "freedom," explaining that it requires years for her to fully recover from "such an illness" and she risks being weakened for life. "An abortion brings on old age more quickly than do a number of child-births... My dear sisters, would you like to be admitted through the gate of heaven some day by a little one who would recognize you as her mother and her murderer?"


Chapter Sixteen: Birth Control


The answer given to if it is wrong for a woman to try and regulate the size of their family is that the only two things conceded as wrong are abortions and birth control. The first because it is murder and the second because it leads to poor health. The author then offers letters from women who are old and invalided at the age of thirty-five from too many children, or have so many children back-to-back that they are in ill-health and considering suicide. One mother married at 17 and by the age of 24 she has five children and they are so poor she has to work her entire pregnancy picking cotton. When her child is born it lays in a little wagon as she works, crying itself to sleep. She worries that she will work until she falls over dead "like countless thousands have done, leaving a bunch of puny children here to suffer."


"I am the mother of nineteen children, baby twenty months old. I am forty-three years old, and I had rather die than give birth to another child. The doctor does not give me any information." The mother estimates that anywhere from on hundred thousand to two million abortions are brought about each year in the United States. In 1913, 15,000 women died from conditions caused by child-birth. 7,000 of these succumbed to child-bed fever."


Countering these stories are women confided to bed for twenty years or who have had so many babies they can't even walk, but they are grateful and apologetic about on-going pregnancies. The author speaks of churches who will not accept families unless the woman promises to bear children. "Dr. Katharine C Bushnell MD writes, 'Our hearts are wrung with pity for the over-burdened wife of the workingman, and for the parents who face desperate poverty and a flock of children at the same time. But birth control will never abolish such evils; only the Spirit-inspired teaching of positive purity, through self-control, will meet the need.'"


Another shared, "If it's the Lord's will for you to nearly kill yourself having and caring for babies, why don't He send food and clothes along with 'em? Maybe more of 'em would live then." Another mother had thirteen babies in fifteen years, and with her thirteenth birth she died. "Death was kinder to her than life had ever been. Death gave her the long, long rest which she desired." Interestingly, a woman asks why men are so careful when breeding horses, cows, and even plants, limiting the number that the finest may be had, yet be less careful about the production of human beings.


Chapter Seventeen: Making Childbirth Easy


The secret to easy childbirth is "back to nature in diet and outdoor life." Strength and agility are imperative. A rigid diet to prepare for childbirth included the best milk obtainable, fresh vegetables, particularly spinach, lettuce, raw cabbage, tomatoes, and onions, fruits, cereals, and coarse grain breads. Then increasing exercise and hours in the open, swimming daily, summer and winter, and walking miles in each twenty-four hours. Skipping rope and handball were encouraged. If possible, always exercise outdoors, or in a room with the windows open. Take a bath and a rub-down when your exercises are concluded. While doing these exercises, they carried on their household chores, but avoided carrying heavy loads or reaching above their heads.


Physicians recommended talking long walks in the open air, eating green vegetables, whole wheat bread, and no pork of any kind. Doctors who thought women should lose some weight around their middle during pregnancy limited women to two or three quarts of milk each day with the cream removed, and about two eggs a day. No meat. Sugar and white flour was strictly avoided, and bread and cereals greatly reduced, but bran used sufficiently to prevent constipation. Restricting food otherwise depended on the amount of fat along her waistline. If done properly the mother will lose this fat while the baby grows and her waist will only increase in the later few weeks of pregnancy. Another physician recommended drinking a glass of water every hour of the day.


Chapter Eighteen: When the Doctor Fails


"God often plunges people into suffering for their own good." Go to God. Confess. Consider apologies you owe to others so you can be forgiven. Confess your faults. Pray. Pray. Pray. The author shares, "We know a person who is an invalid, and who seems to think that God does not want to heal. Perhaps He does not, but I firmly believe that some humble apologies to various friends would give the faith that would completely heal in this case."


Chapter Nineteen: Why Those Tears!


"There are some reasons apparent why God takes our little ones. The first is for their own good. It is the only way he can get some to heaven." The author states this may be for our own good too, "to make us more gentle, forgiving, and tender-hearted; to take away the bitter words, the harsh tones, the backbiting tendencies and all that is not angelic in our nature." The author admits to praying, when she sees a parent scolding their child harshly or slapping them around, "Lord, if it be Thy will, please take one of these babies to heaven, so that parent will be saved from anger and mellowed in spirit."


Chapter Twenty: How to Grow Young at Sixty


Repeatedly the author tells stories from those who saying walking daily, not driving their cars to work, is what changed their lives around. "It is not so much the accumulated years that count, as the way one feels and the fit condition of one's body." Stretches. Deep breathing. Fresh air. Diet. One person even shares being a vegetarian changed her health, but not until she learned to exercise properly.


Chapter Twenty-One: Famous Beauties


"The elegant appearance of humanity has been so materially marred by sin in our ancestors that really handsome men and beautiful women are comparatively few," says the author. Of all the chapters, this one is the most lengthy with the greatest of detail. She lists Marie Antoinette, Cleopatra, various queens, writers, actors, and even a few princes who seemed happy and distinguished, but for a number of reasons that she gleefully shares they died bitter, angry, and often times even in rage. She reminds us that beauty is about more than one's beautiful face.


Chapter Twenty-Two: Reducing for Health and Beauty


Again diet and exercise are prioritized. A few pages are dedicated to a variety of stretches, but it is admitted that one need not diet if they simply become active and reduce their overall food intake. A diet list is provided for breakfast, lunch and dinner if the reader insists in following a diet. "A man is bound to love a woman who masters herself."


Chapter Twenty-Three: Confidential Questions and Answers


After the previous chapters, most of these questions and answers aren't at all noteworthy except for this little gem. "I am so tired and nervous. I fear I am losing my mind. Nobody seems to understand me and I almost wonder at times if my family love me. Little duties seem like mountains and I am tempted to be cross and irritable at things I once laughed at, and easily ignored. What is the matter with me?"


The author answers, "You are nearing a nervous breakdown and must have rest. Nothing else will restore your youth and vitality. It may be you are tempted to feel that others will think you lazy if you care for your health. Let them think as they will. Better stop now than wait until you are in the insane asylum or a sanitarium. If possible take a warm bath each evening and retire early. Be sure to take a nap every afternoon. If need be, muzzle the door bell and the telephone, lock the door and go to slep. Let go of yourself and forget all the cares of home. Refuse to think or worry. Never let anything keep you from your daily rest... If possible, take a vacation from home; if not, take special precaution to insist on your daily nap, and each day cast all your cares on Him who careth for you, for it is often worry more than work that preys upon the nervous system."


Please Share Your Thoughts in the Comments!


Certainly I had a number as I read through the text but tried to share them sparingly as I am eager to hear what each of you think. There are many #feminist issues to dive into but I think what surprised me more was how much is exactly the same today.






20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All