Dear friends and readers,
A short follow up to my blog on John Riddle’s History of Contraception and Abortion in the West: I’ve had so many comments that I am moved to write a sort of PS on important aspects of the topic I omitted.
A book I reviewed sometime ago is an eye-opener for a longer very long history of attacking pregnant women simply as potential baby-killers: Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900 by Josephine McDonagh. From earliest times we come across the common accusation at the time of women as killing their babies — this connects to modern hostility to women having the right to have an abortion. The way the law and customs worked, especially against unmarried women, was to assume the woman killed a stillborn child if it had shown any sign of life upon birth. It was the culture’s way of blaming women for their own getting rid of unwanted babies and controlling them at the same time. The woman was supposed to conceal her pregnancy; if she did not, she was suspect. The cultural “leaders” in a given area actually thought they had the right to explore an unmarried woman’s body who they suspected was pregnant.
McDonagh covers a number of women novelists and writers of the 1890s who tried to expose the fallacies. I remember best a a section on Dickens’s The Chimes (tellingly a ghost Xmas story) where there is just such a cruel accusation on an impoverished unmarried young woman whose baby was stillborn (mostly because she starved during the pregnancy). A biography of Dickens by Fred Kaplan foreshortens this to say that Dickens persuaded himself he had made a change – in fact he hadn’t, he hadn’t even changed the sensibility of people as no one discussed for real what the center of the story was.
As I read the book I kept thinking of all the novels and stories I’d read where a dead baby was central and I just didn’t think about the text that way, from Scott’s Heart of Mid-Lothinan (Jeanie takes a long walk) to Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children where a sister-in-law either has a baby who is stillborn or is accused of murdering it or has an abortion. As recently as 1970 a girl was accused of murdering a baby because she concealed her pregnancy: Josephine McDonagh, “Infanticide and the Nation: the case of Caroline Beale,” New Formations, 32 (1997):11-21.
A historical perspective which takes into account the inadequacy of contraceptives until late in the 19th century and then their unavailability until people like Margaret Sanger began to defy the law and disseminate the Dutch cap takes you outside the box perhaps? makes you see the hostility to women and how the cultures themselves wanted to control the numbers of children who survived unless they had legitimate fathers. Only fathers could have children.
This image does not lie behind the Republican push to stop the dissemination of contraception and outlaw abortion — it’s a war picture, and could be a woman today home from the market to find her house and child destroyed by a drone
I also today read an opening moving review-essays in the September 14, 2012 (p. 1) in Time Literary Supplement — and to me startling review — by Peter Thonemann of two rare texts of journals intimes of women from antiquity. They are known as The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. A new edition by Thomas Heffernan has been published and a book of essays edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano.
I was one of those who thought of Christian martyrs as virgins, but if not unmarried women or not surrounded by children. I did not imagine them as they must have been and Perpetua and Felicity were: women perpetually pregnant, giving birth in pain, often very bad and often leading to death, subject creatures. Perpetua and Felicity’s passions tell of how their recent and newborn babies were taken from them harshly, how they grieved, their bad dreams
over dead children and siblings, how one was laughed at while giving birth. Thonemann says the church has been embarrassed by these two rare journals and much that is presented ever since represses all actualities. It’s just so poignant it brought tears to my eyes to realize this in the few sentences the reviewer provided. I think of all these salacious virgin martrys in Dryden’s plays as acted by Nell Gwynn (to please the mostly male aristocratic rakish crowd).
Then Thonemann describe their torture and then humiliating deaths in the Roman arenas.
Finally, I should originally have brought in Angela Carter’s essay in her Shaking a Leg (collected journalism), very witty, giving the reader a history of women’s childbirth and experience or reproduction across the whole volume, also of women’s breasts as obsessed over by men and then our culture (used to nail women down, both to babies and inside corsets and modern equivalents, wonder bras), food fetishes (organic food supermarkets), how “fat is ugly” — in short, masochism for the women finding safety (company?) in servitude.
From the sardonic tragedies of history (as mirrored in texts), to cruel laws of history refusing to allow reality to be seen, to witty farce, I conclude with a woman’s poem on the occasional joy of a lucky childbirth (which I did omit):
I looked and saw,
collared in my own dark fur,
your face, blurry with vernix and strange,
like a drawing by the Master
pen and ink over wet chalk
and pricked for transfer.
Out you slid, cabled and wet,
delivered. time of birth given;
yet what I keep is that first look
at your pause half-born, sheathed
from the neck down, crowned
in unfamiliar regions of light and air,
your lungs beginning to draw
as you verged on our world
and waited, prescient, rare.
– Fiona Benson