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13. Female Pills

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

“Female Pills” that claimed to help with menstruation, indigestion, pain relief, hysteria, depression and sallow skin have been sold in Britain and the United States since the eighteenth century.[1] Dr John Hooper’s Female Pills, patented in 1743, was one such product that was still being advertised and consumed well into the twentieth century.

Yet, beyond its function of alleviating supposedly female ailments, the pills were also used as form of implicit birth control for averting unwelcome pregnancy.[2] Such patented medicines were also popular across colonial India where birth control methods and marriage manuals for ensuring healthy babies grew from the 1920s and 1930s.[3] In one Urdu-language manual entitled Tabib al-Nisa or Tabib for Women (1934), aimed at women, Dr John Hooper’s Female Pills feature alongside Towle’s Pennyroyal and Steel Pills and Jefferson Dodd’s Female Pills.[4] Their names were printed in English and transliterated into Urdu along with detailed descriptions of how to procure them, ingredients, intake recommendations and their benefits.

Tabib al-Nisa did not explicitly state that these pills were to be used for the purposes of abortion, but the growing use of sex and health manuals and contraception suggests that this is likely. Whether they actually worked was another story; the fact that they were still being procured in the twentieth century demonstrates the popularity of such pills for all things “female” and indicates both local and global anxieties around the precarity and fragility of women’s health.

References:

[1] THE COMPOSITION OF CERTAIN SECRET REMEDIES VIII.—“FEMALE MEDICINES.” Br Med Journal. (1907), 2: 1653.

[2] Brown P.S. “Female pills and the reputation of iron as an abortifacient.” Med Hist. (1977), 21:3: 300.

[3] Hodges, Sarah. Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India, 1920-1940. Aldershot: Ashgate, (2008), 108.

[4] Tabib Al-Nisa (1934), British Library.

Image: Dr John Hooper’s Female Pills, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, reproduced via a free-use public domain license.

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