This morning Mary Ann asked "What's up with the part [of the S.W. Mitchell's Quote of Quotes] that says 'over brain-work tends to contract [a woman's] pelvis.'" Mary Ann, luckily you challenged this continent's foremost expert in Mitchellana (Mitchellalia?) to answer a question about ol' S.W. and his roundaboutly sexist theory of anatomical development in educated women.
I say "roundaboutly" not because his ideas weren't retrograde—they certainly were—but because they were encompassed by his general theory that all Americans were unhealthily overworked. In Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked, Mitchell argued that the rise in nervous disorders among the educated classes could be directly attributed to the combination of a sedentary lifestyle, untreated "mental fatigue" and poor working conditions. He prescribed the infamous "rest cure" to as many men as women; his reputation suffers because one of the woman it failed to "cure" wrote such a forceful account of its failure.
Not to defend Mitchell, but even by Gilman's own account, the "rest cure" worked. In "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper," she wrote Mitchell "put [her] to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with [her]." Condemnations of Mitchell don't actually address the merits of his "rest cure" but his suggestion that Gilman "live as domestic a life as far as possible," "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never touch a pen, brush or pencil again." Those recommendations are consonant with Mitchell's treatment of patients with severe nervous disorders. They are not general recommendations for women who seek intellectual stimulation, as three waves of feminist scholarship on Gilman have held.
Women suffer, however, from "physiological limitations" which should limit such stimulation. In "When College Is Hurtful to a Girl," Mitchell argues that
women at college work harder than men; out of their eagerness arise disregard of physiological limitations, the tendency to shirk play and exercise for study, the cutting short of meal leisure, and the robbing of sleep to add to the hours of the day.
Men don't have this problem because they are "foolish," "profligate" and love to "waste time." Their weakness of character makes them better suited for intellectual labor because they're averse to it. Because "the man yearns for exercise" he is less likely than his female compatriot to push himself past his "physiological limitations." I balk at that notion as much as the next denizen of the 21st Century. However, to return to Mary's question about why "over brain-work tends to contract a woman's pelvis," the reason for this isn't biological so much as social:
Women have to adhere to a strict (and constricting) standard of dress. Too many hours spent in feminine attire at a desk curve the spine and narrow the pelvis. Mitchell, ever the man of his moment, never advocated a change in female dress. Instead he recommended fewer hours before a desk engaging in a practice known to cause nervous distress. All of which is only to say:
Contra his reputation among literary scholars, Mitchell wasn't that kind of sexist. He firmly believed in heteronormative relations and that women should consider themselves mothers above all else; but he was no biological essentialist. One thing which irks me about much of the advocacy criticism I read is that, while correct in a general sense, all the specifics miss the mark.
Was Mitchell a sexist? Certainly. Was he a sexist in the way contemporary critics define 19th Century sexism? Certainly not. That hasn't prevented contemporary critics from shoehorning him in there anyway. As an historicist I'm not satisfied with presentist indictments followed by high-handed dismissals. It's not enough to know that he was sexist.
One should strive to know exactly what kind of sexist he was.