Unmentionable

Until I read Unmentionable, I never knew how much I wanted to know about my sisters who lived in that distant time before central air, indoor plumbing, and tampons.

I think one of the reasons I couldn’t put this book down was due to its rather horrifying content. Lead-based lipstick? Unwashed, ammonia-spritzed hair? And exactly how many forks do I need to remember for dinner?  (Or luncheon? Or supper? Maybe it’s just time for tea…)

These are just some of the more mundane topics covered in Unmentionable, because Oneill doesn’t shy away from diving into the hairy (so. much. hair.) depths of womanhood. She dedicates entire chapters to the rather nasty bits. Yes, those nasty bits; I’m talking about the specifics of washing your blood-soaked, jelly rags, my dear.

(Photo by Jonathan Kirn/Corbis via Getty Images)

Haven’t we all had those questions though? As a modern woman, I love the amenities and advancements that allow me to take a Midol instead of being subjected to the diagnosis of hysteria, but I’ve often wondered how the women of ages passed handled outhouses in the dead of winter. Now I no longer wonder: Oneill splashes cold, sobering water on the romance of the Victorian era.

And thank goodness it’s Oneill doing the dirty work. Her voice is playful, mocking the glamorous fascination so many have for “the old days.” Her conversational tone guides the reader with wit and humor through some of the most absurd of feminine history. Her style shines the most when dealing with difficult and ugly subjects such as wedding night rape and perverse Puritanical laws. Her finesse with balancing grace and dark jest keeps these section palatable while showing us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

You should read this book if: you’ve ever been curious about womanhood before sports bras and – well – pants,  if you want to snort into your pillow at the description of what happens to women who dare pleasure themselves in that ungodly way, and you should definitely read this book if you’ve ever dressed up in layered skirts and a lace-up corset pretending to be a “lady,” while drinking wine from a plastic mug and relieving yourself in the air-conditioned restrooms of a Ren Faire…

Okay that last one is me, but I’ll have you know that I make one real, fine lady

…as long as I stay in the 21st century.

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