In an observation that foreshadows 20th century feminist theory, Jacobi noted that men’s bodies were treated as if their reproductive health and sexual expression were, within wide parameters, neutral to the point of being “unsexed.” By contrast, women’s reproductive systems were treated as if in every case they were complicated, fragile, finicky, and liable to deteriorate at any moment. In other words, women were marked by their biology. Women had a biological sex that must be monitored and coddled. Men, by contrast, were practically without biological sex. Men were generically human, in need of no special consideration. Men simply…were.
In 1873, during Jacobi’s first year as a professor at the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, Harvard physician Edward H. Clarke published a book that set off a transatlantic debate about women’s abilities to handle advanced education. In Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, Clarke argued that subjecting women to higher education—especially in programs where women would be educated alongside men—would place such an undue burden on women’s physiology that they would become gravely ill, even to the point of lifelong sterility.
Jacobi’s response to this argument was to make the study of menstruation one of her first major research projects as a professor. Jacobi’s goal was clear and explicit: to disprove the idea that menstruation was a debilitating condition for women.
Not only was this research goal radical in its own right, but so too were the tools that Jacobi used to achieve it: quantitative data collection and statistical analysis.