Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Monday, April 02, 2012

B is for Baby . . .

Only since 1962 have American women had access to the birth control pill. This Timeline gives a neat overview of the pill's discovery and the rapidity of its adoption.

But what did 19th Century women do to prevent pregnancy? At that time, married women had an average of 6 children (35% had over 8 children), and working class women were expected to work until they had children (1). Abstinence, delayed marriages, withdrawal, abortion, and infanticide were "birth control" options.

Interestingly, the witch hunts of the middle ages can be linked to the actions of landowners and the Church to prevent population loss following the plagues. Those 'witches' were often midwives with knowledge of herbs that could prevent pregnancy or induce abortions. These women were also accused of infanticide; their deaths led to a loss of knowledge of herbal 'remedies' (2).  But my focus is still the 19th Century. Case histories are few for the women at the Cascades Factory in Van Diemen's Land. But one convict woman was sentenced to 12 months for killing her infant within 10 minutes of birth (3). Infanticide has been called the most common form of birth control (4).

Some scholars talk of a culture of abstinence among the upper classes with delayed marriages and lower frequency of sex after marriage (5). Apparently some upper class marriages, dubbed "companionate marriages," were more for companionship than sex, with little formal recognition of a woman's ability to enjoy sex (5).  It looks like condoms were used by upper class men primarily with prostitutes as protection from STDs. But syphilis (called the pox or 'great pox') was a very real risk, common among sailors and prostitutes. Doctors of this time were just beginning to recognize that syphlitic husbands could transmit the disease to their wives (6). Fabricius, writing in Syphilis in Shakespeare's England, (an interesting book for interlibrary loan), suggests much like AIDS, that the threat of syphilis brought about significant change in people's actions and morals -- and increased chastity before marriage, monogomy, and  faithfulness. The biography of John Bateman, one of the first men to compensate aboriginals for their land, shows the effects of syphilis on both his aspirations and his family. He had nasal syphilis which ate away part of his face and he was unable to walk. Once these lesions appeared, his wife, Eliza, left him (7).

So what does all this information mean for Years of Stone? For now, that 19th Century attitudes about marriage, sex, and having babies vary widely by class. And that we are lucky indeed when a new baby is welcomed by loving parents, then or now.

(1) Spartacus
(2) Wikipedia
(3) Convict Lives: Women at Cascades Female Factory
(4) Cambridge Urban History of Britain
(5) Criminalization of abortion
(6) A Treatise on syphilis
(7) Australian Dictionary of Biography