Category Archives: Women’s History

Mom, Apple Pie & Birth Control

Old-Birth-Control-Devices-245x300This post first appeared on Authors by Moonlight on March 23, 2012. It has been slightly edited.

As a writer of historical romances, I guess you could say I have a professional interest in birth control methods of the past. Basically, humans have been trying to prevent pregnancy, with varying levels of success, ever since we figured out what causes it. People think of the Comstock Laws and don’t realize that contraception has been part of American life since the beginning.

Colonial women grasped the implications of controlling their reproduction early. Before obstetrical medicine developed, 1 out of 10 pregnancies ended with the mother’s death, according to centuries of parish records in both Europe and America. Add to this the number of deaths from complications, infections from dirty hands exploring the birth canal, and general lack of basic hygiene, and maternal mortality approaches 25 out of every 100.

One less mouth to feed meant more resources were available for a family‘s existing children, and eased the husband’s economic burden. Women could not compel their husbands to use abstinence (and probably didn’t like it much themselves) or withdrawal. Breast-feeding provided some protection, but lacked dependability. Vaginal sponges and condoms don‘t seem to have been common. That left plants in cottage gardens that could be used to induce abortions. There are North American plants with similar qualities, and I would be very surprised if Native American women did not know how to use those.

During the nineteenth century, Americans continued to search for ways to manage the size of their families:

1839: Charles Knowlton publishes the first pamphlet in America describing various methods of contraception, aimed at married couples. He advocated douching after sex as the best method. A hundred years before the FDA, no one realized that douching has a 90% fail rate and can lead to painful pelvic inflammations. The same year, Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber, enabling the manufacture of rubber condoms in the 1840s. Compared to the porous condoms made of animal skin or intestines since the 16th century, the 50% fail rate of these ‘capotes’ and ‘cundrums’ is hailed as a miracle by married couples.

February 1840: Queen Victoria, a figure of fascination for many Americans, marries Prince Albert and discovers sex, which she privately describes to her doctor as “fun in bed”.

November 1840: Queen Victoria gives birth to her first child. She does NOT consider this fun and discusses birth control with her doctor. He suggests she and Albert use the rhythm method. At the time, doctors believed that a woman’s ‘safe’ days were midway through the woman’s menstrual cycle. You know, the days when she is actually most fertile. To her dismay, the Queen went on to have eight more children. She never lost her passion for Albert, although she shared a dread and loathing of pregnancy with women on both sides of the Atlantic.

1842: German physician W. P. J. Mensinga invents the diaphragm. Copies are soon available in the U.S.

1860s: Newspapers from New York to Charleston to Cleveland carry adds for ‘capotes’, douching syringes, penis caps, ‘wife protectors’ (rubber cervical caps or diaphragms), sponges and ‘female solutions’. Quality was dubious, making them undependable and in some cases dangerous. They become connected with the sex trade and promiscuity in the minds of many who might otherwise have taken advantage of them.

1873: The Comstock Laws, a series of anti-commerce laws are passed, which define contraception as ‘obscene’ for the first time. The U.S. becomes the only country in the Western world to criminalize family planning. Dr. Edward B. Foote advocates the benefits of ‘fertility limitation’ for married couples, citing improved health for mothers and infants as well as relief of the husband’s economic burden. (Sound familiar?) In spite of the Comstock Laws, he distributes birth control devices and information about them.

1876: Dr. Foote is tried for breaking the Comstock Laws and sentenced to a fine of $3,000, equivalent to $67,000 to $73,000 today. When he asks for help paying it, 300 people come forward to offer support.

1879: Connecticut passes the stiffest anti-contraceptive law in the country: Even married couples cannot legally obtain from a doctor birth control to protect the wife’s health. For both health and economic reasons, It is regularly flouted for nearly 100 years.

1888: Dr. W. R. D. Blackwood writes “Is it proper, is it human, is it desirable that the lot of a married female should be a continual round of impregnation, delivery and lactation?…I do not hesitate for an instant to say NO! And I look with more than suspicion on those who, assuming superior virtue, condemn any and all attempts to control conception.”

1892-1920: Gynecologist Clelia Mosher asks her married patients to fill out questionnaires on their sexual practices and beliefs. Only 45 did so over the years, but their comments are interesting. 41 of the women used birth control, including douches, condoms, and ‘womb veils’, all illegal. One woman used a rubber ring around the cervix, which was apparently painful, but not as bad an another child. Many of the 41 considered reproduction a secondary reason for martial sex.

1913: On October 16, Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, both nurses, open America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. They see 488 women in the ten days before they are shut down. At their trial, the judge rejects the idea that “a woman has the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”

1920s: Spermicidal gels and suppositories (some foaming — how festive!) are sold over the counter as ‘feminine hygiene products’ to get around laws forbidding the sale and use of contraceptives. Adding spermicides reduced the failure rate of diaphragms to 20%, the most reliable birth control until the Pill. Although more effective, this method as it is messy and pretty much kills spontaneity.

1936: In the face of the Depression, 70% of Americans favor birth control in a national survey. An upswing in abortion as a method of birth control also occurs during the decade. One doctor in Chicago reported after his arrest that the majority of his patients were married women aborting third pregnancies or higher. He didn’t say whether they had tried contraceptive measures that failed.

1945: Alabama becomes the first state to establish a tax-supported family planning program. Several southern states follow suit. Poor families shrink and illegitimate births drop across the region.

1950: Katherine McCormick, one of the wealthiest widows in America, finances the research that would lead the first Pill.

1955: The Margulies spiral, the first American made IUD, is invented. Its long tail intrudes into the vagina, causing “pain and trauma” to partners. Unsurprisingly, it never catches on.

1960: Enovid, the first pill, goes on sale. It causes headaches and weight gain, but users flock to their doctors demanding prescriptions anyway. It becomes the best-selling drug in U.S. history to that time, thanks to its dependability and ease of use.

1965: The first American-made IUDs prove popular long-term permanent birth control solutions. The modern IUD was invented in Germany in 1920, but could not be legally imported.

1965: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the 1879 Connecticut ban on all contraceptive use and confirms that a “right to marital privacy” exists in the spirit of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In 1972, the Supreme Court extends the right to privacy in deciding to use contraceptives to unmarried people.

1971: The Dalkon Shield hits the market. Eventually two million women will use this IUD. Undisclosed problems include severe pain and a tendency to cause uterine infections. 18 known deaths are eventually associated with it, along with hysterectomies, infections, birth defects and miscarriages (not always a problem with other IUDs.)

1988: High dose pills are taken off the market.

2002: Contraceptive patches are introduced. Changed once a week, they have fewer side effects than pills, but are more expensive.

For more reading:
A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom

Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, Andrea Tone

A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman

The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser

The universal flouting of the Comstock Laws amazed and amused me! What do you think is the most surprising thing about the history of birth control in the U.S.?

Also, here is a fun slideshow on WebMD on some of the things people have used in the past to prevent pregancy. Think fish bladder condoms and crocodile poop.

Favorite References: A History of the Wife

HistOfWifeBorrowed from my local library.

I almost laughed out loud at the title! Yalom does a solid job giving readers an overview of wifehood. She focuses more heavily on Western marriage traditions, and later in the book on marriage in England and in America. This made sense to me, as American law developed from English common law, but I don’t know if people searching for world-wide views of marriage would find it helpful.

One of the best chapters in the book deals with the history contraception and abortion in America before, during and after Congress passed the Comstock laws (which outlawed any use of contraceptive devices, sales of the same or even mailing information about birth control). If I could rate individual chapters, I’d give that one 5 stars.

I would recommend this book for anyone wanting an overview of marriage in Westen Europe. While she doesn’t get into detailed notes about every religious and civil law that controlled, and controls, life for married women — that would take an entire library — Yalom takes a huge area of study and breaks it down for the reader, showing the development of marriage as women changed from chattels to individuals to heads of households. <br/><br/>The only reason I did not rate the book higher is that the author’s voice tends to a somewhat dry presentation of facts, which makes some sections tough going. The information presented is well worth the effort, and as a writer of historical romance, this would make a welcome addition to my reference library.

A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom, Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (February 5, 2002)

An American Queen of Hearts

As readers of historical romance can tell you, beneath the buttoned-up corsets and coats of the Victorian era beat some very passionate hearts. Valentine’s Day as we know it originated in 19th century England. Before then, it was a date to commemorate feelings for loved ones, but it was not widespread or particularly elaborate. Printers in England developed cards varying from sentimental to bawdy in honor of Valentine’s Day, which quickly caught on with the public.  The idea of sending cards to loved ones spread to America mid-century, thanks to a teenage girl with a shrewd head for business.

Esther Howland was born in Wooster, Massachusetts in 1828.  The daughter of a prosperous bookseller, little is known of her life until 1847, when an associate of her father’s sent her a Valentine’s card from England.  The folded bit of paper intrigued her, less for its sentimental value than as a source of income for the family business.

I must digress here. Southward A. Howland, her father,  must have been a remarkable man for his era. Not only had he sent his daughter to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now known as Mount Holyoke College), but when Esther suggested that she design a line of new merchandise for his store, he supported the idea. At a time when most men insisted their wives and daughters stay within the domestic sphere, he encouraged Esther to live up to her potential.

However, back to Esther herself.  After convincing her father to import paper lace and other materials to make the cards, her brother took up the task of selling them, armed with a few samples she had created.

She hoped for $200 in sales. He came back with $5,000 worth. This was more than she had bargained for, and she recruited friends to help her. Although Henry Ford would not conceive of the assembly line for decades, Esther divided up the process of making each card and assigned one person to each task: Cutting out and sorting pictures, cutting out backgrounds of different colored paper from a template, embellishing the backgrounds with paper lace, adding floral decorations and verses. The process eventually took over an entire floor of the family house, but a tradition was born.

Eventually, Esther’s sideline outgrew the house. Her New England Valentine Company would gross over $100,000 a year — in Victorian dollars. In modern dollars this is the equivalent of between 1.5 and 2 million dollars.  She took advantage of her income to indulge in facials and fashionable clothes, but she also paid her predominantly female workforce a decent wage. Ironically, the Queen of Valentines never married. The reasons are unclear. She was considered a handsome woman, but she may have been reluctant to give up a business she loved, as would have been expected of her at the time. She may have simply never fallen in love.

In 1881, she did sell the company to a competitor and devote herself to her father, whose health had deteriorated. She died in 1904, having brought pleasure to thousands through her cards.

Cabined, Cribbed, Confined: Girlhood in the Gilded Age

One of the biggest challenges of placing Her Scottish Groom in the Victorian era was the development of the heroine, Diantha. I had her basic characteristics from the start.  Quiet and shy by nature, she prefers to avoid outright conflict in favor of tact.  As the book opens, her attempts to assert herself have been firmly squelched by her social-climbing parents. Like many real-life couples in the late nineteenth century, they want only to mold their child into the ideal female of the time: passive, subservient and sadly, ignorant. I’m kind of proud of her growth as she takes responsibility for her new position as an aristocrat’s wife, and for her own happiness.

Like many females of that age, Diantha learned to keep her opinions and true nature hidden as she grew up.  Ironically, wealth could limit a girl’s opportunities for education.  For females on both sides of the Atlantic, society considered good breeding and a good education antithetical to each other.  In reading modern biographies of women in the Gilded Age, along with essays and articles from that time, what struck me again and again was the emphasis on restricting women physically, mentally and even emotionally.  Writers from straight fiction to mystery to romance successfully overcome this challenge by creating heroines with unusual backgrounds or unconventional personalities.  But from reading parts of nineteenth century diaries and letters, I have learned that even women who conformed to social pressure harbored strong opinions and great passion beneath a docile surface.  That is where Diantha came from.

In both America and England, girls were raised with the ideal of a ‘perfect lady’, too fragile for any activity more strenuous that horseback riding or dancing.  The thousands of women who spent hours laboring as servants, in factories or mines and on farms and ranches were not, of course, real ladies. (Insert eyeroll here.) An upper-class girl’s education depended on the whims of her parents. Some encouraged serious study, but too many families subscribed to the belief that the rigors of a masculine education would undermine a girl’s health.  Diantha studied mathematics with her brothers, but only because it pleased her father to permit it. Some young ladies attended finishing school, which provided no more than lessons in deportment and a smattering of music and languages. Even finding reading material on one’s own could be problematic. Men could and did forbid their wives and daughters to read newspapers and some books.  Like Diantha, women read the forbidden material anyway, in secret.

One of the more tragic consequences of keeping young women in a state of almost total ignorance was their lack of knowledge about even the basic mechanics of sex.  At most, proper courtship allowed a kiss on the hand and some meaningful glances under the eye of a chaperone.   (I suspect there was a great deal of improper courting going on, however.) Some women faced a lifetime of marital rape at the hands of a thoughtless or indifferent husband. At best those restrictions led to some miserable wedding nights, and not just for the bride.  In the first chapter of Her Scottish Groom, the lack of spirit he has observed in his fiancee so far has filled the hero with misgivings.  Like many men confronted with the prospect of marriage with a poorly educated teenager, he assumes he will only find physical and emotional satisfaction with a mistress.

One of my favorite things about this book is Diantha’s learning curve.  As she gains confidence in her abilities, she becomes braver, more assertive and even sexier — until she’s faced not only with her greatest fear, but with her husband’s impenetrable heart.