Confessions of Pregnancy: Telling Mom and Dad

Our parent’s acceptance, love and pride are some of the most basic things we strive for in life. Some do so with intention, while others navigate these needs subconsciously. There is an understanding that these people have created us, cared for us, and provided for us, which makes us responsible to be the best reflection of them as we can. Even if the realities of how we were cared for deviate substantially from expectations, the cultural standards of familyhood continues to indebt children to the honor of their parent’s gift of life. This desire to make our parents proud, to love and accept us, therefore makes admitting such a failure to do so incredibly painful.

Vintage Family Portrait from CreativeCommons

Vintage family portrait, licensed by CreativeCommons

For young women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant, the meaning of her experience from the moment she discovered her pregnancy, was forged in the relationships with those around her and the ways in which they reacted to what was happening. Their reactions provoked feelings of stress, guilt, trauma and shame in the expectant mother and left her feeling increasingly trapped by a difficult situation. Wishing only to make her parents proud, desiring to escape her humiliation, the young women were nevertheless forced to confront her parents and reveal her transgression. This moment was often one of the most difficult and painful of these women’s pregnancy, and would forever shift their relationship with their parents.

Some studies have suggested that guilt was greatest in those women who came from homes in which there was a strong sense of the family’s social standing, however this didn’t necessarily correlate with the family’s actual economic or social class. Indeed, families from a broad spectrum of backgrounds perceived themselves to exist within the social strata in such a way that a pregnancy out of wedlock would taint their standing by the scandal of their daughters’ pregnancy. It was in this atmosphere where pregnancy equaled immorality, irrespective of social ranking, in which the women turned to their parents.

4186-13545 Coal miner

All economic classes found shame around illegitimacy

Some who were away from home wrote letters or phoned, others sat down with one or both of their parents to explain their situation. The parents’ reactions were shocked, hurt, angered, disappointed and sometimes abusive. A few accused their daughter of being a slut or whore, slapped her, said they always knew she would disappoint them. Others addressed the situation in an efficient and detached manner, saying little but expressing the hurt in the ways they turned away or withdrew their affections. Many were told they would have to go away from the family home and community when they began to show, banished for their detectable transgressions. For those that remained until the time of their confinement in a mother and baby home, they were frequently made to stay indoors, hide in their bedrooms if guests came to call, to wear voluminous woolen ‘Duffle’ coats and Woolworths wedding rings if they left the house. Their mistake was made clear and the shame they brought upon their parents explicit.

 Phone booth

Calling home

One young woman terrified of telling her parents attempted to overdose on Quinine, instead becoming violently ill, and in the end having to confess her true condition when her mother threatened to call the doctor. Another stood face to face with her mother in the doctor’s office as her condition was revealed, her mother’s face crumbling into shock and sadness. Some parents asked whether the girl could marry the father in question, but for a variety of reasons such marriages weren’t possible either by choice or circumstances. A particular young lady pregnant by her school boyfriend, wanted to run away to Scotland to marry him as it was otherwise forbidden in England to marry without parental consent if you were under 21. Yet, her parents put an end to this and instead arranged for her to enter a mother and baby home. In all cases my participants told their mothers, some of their fathers were told at the same time or at a later date, while exceptionally some fathers were never told at all. One lovely man wrote back to his daughter and said, “Welcome home” though it was understood she was not going to be keeping the baby. Responses were consistently shrouded in shame and secrecy, the need to hide the pregnancy and birth was made explicit, and arrangements were made for the young women to go away and only return after the birth. Never to speak of the ‘incident’ again, either in the immediate or in the distant future. Some were told that no man would want to marry them now, thus cinching their new status as stigmatized and no longer qualified for full social acceptance.

Telling their parents was one hurdle the women shared in going through their pregnancies, the next was their banishment to Mother and Baby Homes throughout the country so as to hide their ‘shame’ and give up their children for adoption, before she could return to take up her place in the home once more.

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The Shock of Pregnancy for the Unwed

I think for any unmarried teenage girl finding out you are pregnant is an unwelcome shock, perhaps there are exceptions but given attitudes around illegitimacy, women’s sexuality and the difficulties of single parenthood I imagine the majority wish they could simply undo what had been done. I have been debating whether to share my own encounter with teenage pregnancy, worried over whether it would taint the academic nature of my work, would reflect poorly as an experience that happened in a very different time from those mothers whom I have been studying, or perhaps will just offend those that do not agree with the choice I made. In the end I have decided to go ahead and share this, with perhaps a fair dose of hesitation. I feel that all the women interviewed for my project have been so open with their own stories, far far more traumatic than my own, and I have been so honored to bear witness to these stories, that it is somehow feels false to not be willing to share my own.

Pregnancy Test

Home pregnancy test

My tale is not unusual. I was a teenager in the early 1990s, and at one point had a brief and fairly casual relationship with a particular young man a few years older than myself. One day I didn’t feel well, my roommate suggested I take a pregnancy test, which I thought was a joke, there was no way I was pregnant. I used birth control. She wouldn’t let it go so I finally gave in and purchased a test, doing it only to make her drop the issue. When the test returned positive I was beyond shocked. I had had absolutely no awareness of it, and it seemed completely surreal. I grew up decades after the stories of those I’m collecting, and in a very open and loving home, yet I was somehow very prudish and would never talk to my mother about sex. To discover I was pregnant was mortifying, and even though my mother and sister both had children out of wedlock I was terrified that my mother would find out about me. (Anyone who knows my mother might laugh at this, she was a very free-love hippie type. But I was not and feared somehow disappointing her.) I had no hesitation in deciding to terminate the pregnancy. From an absolutely pragmatic sense I knew I was too young, had no resources, and did not want to ruin my life or that of another human being by trying to raise them without the skills or means necessary to do so. I contacted the father, which was strained and difficult as we had already broken off, and I told him he had to take me to the clinic. The day of the termination was one of the worst I can remember, I was awake the entire night before stressing over what was to come. I was angry and upset by the father’s ability to go out drinking then sleep comfortably through the night. We had a long tense drive, where neither of us spoke for a few hours. The entire experience was surreal, like watching your body go through the motions while you float somewhere above it. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he and I finally spoke to each other. Following the procedure I was woozy and sick, felt guilty for making him wait while I recovered, and kept apologizing. He returned me to my home and I don’t think we’ve had a single interaction since that day.  The days and weeks that followed carried a unique level of distress as I fell into a depression and contemplated suicide. Thankfully with the support of my friends and qualified counselors I recovered fairly quickly. I have never once regretted that decision, I have always known it was the right thing to do. And yet, every year my mind will roll back the clock and contemplate how old that daughter would be (for some reason I always imagined the fetus was a girl). And as my own biological clock ticks, as I ponder whether or not to have children as my years tick by, that being often comes to mind. I hope you will not judge me for my choice, and even if it is one you disagree with I hope you will continue to read and consider the stories of these women who had to make another choice in far more difficult conditions. My reason for sharing my own story is twofold, first it seems incomplete to talk about the subject without confessing one of my own connections. Two, it marks the extraordinarily difficult position these women were put into. I was a child of the 80s and 90s, I had an open and loving mother, I had a sister who had already had children outside of marriage, and I had access to abortion. And yet I still suffered the trauma of that loss, of depression and attempted suicide. The women of this study were raised in an era when unmarried motherhood was truly reviled, had parents who refused to discuss such intimate matters as sex and pregnancy, had no access to abortion (though whether they would have chosen this option I could not say), and were forced without having too much choice in the matter to hide their pregnancies, to carry and bear a child they had to give up for adoption.

acutest_1978_popup

Advertisement for the earliest home pregnancy tests, Mademoiselle, December 1978.

 

That is the climate I want you to understand when reading about the moment they discovered they were pregnant. There were no home pregnancy tests in the 1960s, these did not appear until 1978. A few experienced horrendous morning sickness, which they had to go to great lengths to hide as they shared bedrooms and bathrooms with family, waking extra early to be sick before the rest of the family woke. Or being sick in their bedrooms and having to hide it so no one would find out. For the majority it was the absence of their period that clued them in to the pregnancy. Some understood what this meant almost immediately, while others existed in a detached state of denial which kept them from truly believing the meaning of that absence. The women’s mothers were commonly the ones who purchased the sanitary napkins each month, and when the girls failed to show the mothers became aware of what was happening. Many prayed it would go away if they just ignored it.

mornidine

1959 Advertisement for Mornidine for morning sickness, Canadian Medical Association Journal

Eventually they each were made to face the difficult reality of their situation, this often occurred in the doctor’s office. Either on their own or with their mothers the women were taken to their family doctor who confirmed their pregnancy. The news, even if they had already known it, was devastating. One recalls falling into a surreal state, like being underwater. The world moving past her and she was trapped in a dream. The doctors generally didn’t want to know anything, perhaps living in a small community they wished to avoid being involved in anyway. One said to the young woman, ‘Don’t tell me anything. I don’t want to know. I’ll give you the name of a social worker and she’ll sort you out.’ Another told the terrified mother-to-be, ‘Have some gin and a hot bath. Try falling down the stairs a few times.’ While a third said, ‘All I can do is give you a douche can and hope that works.’ The women did not explicitly ask for abortifacients, but their shock and the cultural understanding that unmarried pregnancy was unthinkable prompted their doctors to provide such advice.

The women were devastated with the discovery. For there were many young men and women having sex before marriage, but it was only the unlucky that found themselves pregnant. Their pregnancy marking them for their supposed moral transgressions, and setting them on a path of heartache and loss. A moment, which for married women was one of joy and celebration, became instead a time of shame and guilt. They understood intrinsically the social climate in which they lived, they knew the mark this transgression placed upon them, and they feared what was to come. For some this weight of shame and guilt was too much and they attempted to induce a miscarriage, or at the more extreme end even attempted suicide. Fear of their parents finding out was tantamount to their desperate measures, and underscores the social conditions these women existed in.

Keep reading as this journey carries the women to the unavoidable confrontation with their parents, to admit they were with child, and to enter an entirely new world which was dictated by their pregnancy out of wedlock.

 

Additional reading for the curious

History of the Pregnancy Test http://history.nih.gov/exhibits/thinblueline/timeline.html

Growing Stigma around Unmarried Motherhood

Having a child out of wedlock was not always looked upon so poorly, it is only as social, moral, and economic attitudes changed that women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant became stigmatized. To understand how the mid-1960s came to become the peak period for adoption in the UK (as well as other countries), and the stigma that drove this apex of adoption, we must first understand a bit of the history affecting attitudes towards illegitimacy. It is my intent of this blog to be as approachable and ‘un-academic’ in my writing as possible, so if I fail in that charge today please bear with me and continue reading this post as well as my future writings on the subject. It is hard to give an historical overview of most anything without becoming a tad pedantic.

To begin, we must look to a time when illegitimacy was not necessarily stigmatized, and for that we can thank agrarian communities which predated the industrialized, capitalist economies which thrive today. Medieval Britain, according to Pinchbeck (1954) did not view illegitimacy as a problem, as the children were absorbed into the mother’s own community and contributed to the labor necessary to support the community. The only disadvantage to the illegitimate child (which, fair enough, could be considerable in some situations) was their inability to inherit. However, with the growing practice of primogeniture, where only the eldest child inherits, this disadvantage was shared with any child who was not a first born.

Birth in the Middle Ages

Birth in the Middle Ages

It was industrialism, the growth of capitalism, and the ethics of sixteenth-century Puritanism that changed this. Illegitimate children who may once have been an asset in a labour-based economy would grow to become a liability if they could not find paid employment in the factories of later years. Rearing children became an expense, rather than a benefit to the family’s upkeep. This reduced the desire to care for children not of one’s own family, and caused an overall reduction in family size. Unmarried women who could not provide for their children fell upon the parish and the Poor Law for aid, and became a serious offence against the community.  The Poor Law Act of 1576 aptly captures attitudes towards illegitimacy of the day:

Concerning bastards begotten and born out of lawful matrimony (an offence against God’s and Man’s laws) the said bastards being now left to be kept at he charge of the parish where they were born, to be the great burden of the same parish and in defrauding of the relief of the impotent and aged true poor of the same Parish, and to the evil example and the encouragement of the lewd life, it is ordered and enacted.”

A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen c.1729 Hogarth

William Hogarth. A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen. c.1729.

It was believed that the Poor Law had to be harsh and humiliating otherwise the poor would abandon their children. In conjunction with the economic burden, a moral stigma grew as “sexual intercourse outside marriage was morally wrong, therefore any child conceived by an unmarried woman was viewed as the wages of sin.”

Illustration by Emma Brownlow from Foundling Hospital 1865

Illustration by Emma Brownlow King, from ‘John Brownlow, History and Objects of the Foundling Hospital’, 3rd edition, 1865

Over the next two hundred years the plight of the unmarried mother grew even more strained, as laws became harsher she was condemned morally and spiritually, and punished socially and materially. Due to the harshness of the Bastardy Clauses of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act there grew a great increase in infanticide, which was punishable by death according to the Act of 1832, to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children [Statute 21, James I, Chapter 27]. Women, without access to any real effective birth control methods (for more on that see my post on Birth Control), who found themselves pregnant were then damned by any choice they then made.

News image of dead infant found
Increasing rate of infanticide as depicted in this news clipping.

In a brief aside to these harsh attitudes there is one organization I would like to mention. In the early eighteenth century there was a man, Captain Thomas Coram, who was shocked to discover the number of infant children left to die as a result of attitudes around unmarried motherhood. Unable to turn his back on this problem Coram began a petition to open an institution, the Foundling Hospital, that would allow women to give up their children without retribution, to be fostered and then later trained for employment. With much effort Coram at last was successful and the Foundling Hospital was opened in 1739. The demand was so great it was immediately filled and children became part of a lottery to see who would be allowed in. In need of funding to expand their services, the Hospital eventually secured the necessary funds under the direction that they must then accept any child in need. It became so and the Hospital operated a facility serving up to 400 children at any given time straight through to the early twentieth century when it restructured its services. Its charitable history in support of children in need continues as the Coram Foundation (www.coram.org.uk). To learn more I’d recommend a visit to the Foundling Museum (www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk).

Foundling children Londons Abandoned Children

London’s ‘abandoned children’ at The Foundling Hospital

So, aside from plugging the estimable Foundling Museum, this tells us that because women had few resources, no access to birth control, severe stigma, and harsh penalties if they fell pregnant out of wedlock that women and their children were suffering. Their suffering may have been partially eased by Coram’s institution, however adoption was still looked down upon as it was thought tantamount to giving poor ‘lewd’ women a license to indulge their sexual passions with impunity.

It was the Victorians which began to consider other reasons for illegitimacy beyond the mothers’ corrupt morals, most notable the harsh conditions under which many of the poor lived thus bringing the sexes in close proximity. It was perhaps factors other than the spiritual condition of the unmarried mother, however the middle classes of Victorian Britain still looked down upon the lower classes who seemed unable or unwilling to control their errant sexual desires.

Poor Woman and child

Poor mother

It was the First World War which shifted attitudes towards adoption, though notably attitudes towards unmarried mothers were still heavily stigmatized. It was estimated that in the early twentieth century at any one time there were 80,000 children in residential care under the provisions of the Poor Law. It was the First World War and need to provide orphaned children with a decent home which tipped the balance in favour of legalizing adoption, leading to the Adoption Act of 1926 which severed a birth mothers legal rights to her child and allowed the child to be brought up by another set of parents. This addressed only the circumstances for the illegitimate, now adopted, child and did nothing to change the way pregnancy outside of marriage was viewed. Furthermore, adoptions were conducted under a strong cloak of secrecy thus contributing to the notion of shame for the woman who bore and lost her child to adoption.

Orphans of WWI

Orphans of the First World War

The twentieth century continued to regard illegitimacy as a social problem, however ethics began to be replaced with scientific explanations. So, while these women were no longer guilty of a moral lapse (though many of the women in my project still spoke of severe shaming and the need for penitence during the 1960s), they were still regarded as deviant and as psychiatric cases in need of treatment. By the 1940s and 1950s “elaborate psychological models” existed to explain why some unmarried women had babies, frequently attributed to emotional issues with her parents. In 1961 it was stated that “when an adolescent girl in our society becomes pregnant outside of wedlock this is indicative that something has gone wrong in the relationship between the girl and her parents.”(Rall, p.3) No wonder young women were terrified of telling their parents, and of the shame inherent when their community discovered their pregnancy, when ‘science’ was suggesting they were psychologically defective and their parents failed in their parental duties. In extreme cases women who became pregnant outside of marriage were even confined to psychological institutions as parts of the scientific community perceived them as feeble minded, emotionally disturbed, or mentally disordered.

1960s Couple Kissing in Hyde Park copyright Bettmann Corbis

1960s and the Sexual Revolution

Which brings us to the 1960s, the period of my study, when “tolerance and the promotion of sexual freedom on the one hand coupled with intolerance and the stigmatization of illegitimacy on the other created a recipe for producing more children born outside marriage without making it any easier for unmarried mothers to care for them.” It was a time of increased sexual activity amongst the young, while the shame of unmarried motherhood remained strong, which led to Britain’s peak year for adoption in 1968 with a total of 16,164 adoptions in England and Wales that year alone.

Baby 1000 adopted 9 Nov 1962

Increased adoptions in 1960s

Attitudes towards illegitimacy and support structures for how to address it are deeply rooted in social conditioning.  It is the cultural context in which the unmarried mother finds herself and the attitudes towards having children outside marriage which most contribute to whether or not she keeps her child. There are many non-Western societies which have completely different cultural contexts for illegitimacy. In African, Caribbean, Indian, Polynesian and Eskimo communities they appear to practice kinship fostering and outright adoption to a much greater extent than in white Western societies, encouraging a communal responsibility for the next generation. If adoption is to exist in a society where possession, ownership and materialism reign supreme than it will become something exclusive of any communal support.

Unmarried motherhood in any form, whether a woman raises her child or forfeits for adoption, comes with many challenges and the attitudes that govern her experience have changed drastically over the past few centuries. After 1968 there has been an increasing acceptance of the unmarried mother and her child, which some attribute to a correlation between improved living conditions and a reduction in the social stigma associated with birth outside marriage. The availability of birth control to unmarried women in 1968 in Britain, the development of support  systems for single parents such as Gingerbread (www.gingerbread.org.uk) which began as a support group for single mothers in 1970s and has grown to become a support and advocacy group for single parent families, all of these things have helped in shifting the attitudes towards childbirth outside of marriage.

Rose baby

The author (c.1977) the perfectly happy bastard child of a single mom

The lesson in all of this, as we chart illegitimacy from medieval times through to the twenty first century, is that being an unmarried mother is a problem only to the extent that society has defined it as a problem and it is only through shifting our attitudes that we can change the way women and children are perceived and cared for in our communities.

Further reading for the curious:

Howe, David, Phillida Sawbridge, and Diana Hinings. Half a Million Women: Mothers who lose their children by adoption.   (1992, Penguin Books)

Pinchbeck, I. (1954) ‘Sexual attitudes to problems of illegitimacy’, British Journal of Sociology, no. 5 (which includes quotes of the Poor Law Act referenced above)

Gill, Derek. (1977) Illegitimacy, Sexuality and the Status of Women. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rall, Mary E. (1961) Casework with Parents of Adolescent Unmarried Mothers and Potential Unmarried Mothers. New York: child Welfare League of America.

Benet, Mary Kathleen (1976) The Character of Adoption. London: Jonathan Cape. (For references to non-Western cultures which include adoptive children in their communities)

London Lives, 1690-1800: Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis http://www.londonlives.org/static/EP.jsp

Organizations mentioned:

The Foundling Museum: www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk

Coram: www.coram.org.uk

Gingerbread: www.gingerbread.org.uk

Unwanted Pregnancies and the Alternatives

Invariably, the women who participated in this study were surprised by their pregnancies and dismayed at what this meant for them. The fathers could largely avoid any of the responsibility or stigma associated with unmarried parenthood, yet the women were physically marked by their premarital infidelities and plunged into a painful situation where they had to consider what would happen to them, their babies, and the relationships with those close to them. Many of their parents responded with anger, hurt, shame, or disappointment. Women lost friends and boyfriends, jobs and schooling opportunities, all because they were unlucky enough to fall pregnant. It is therefore unsurprising that along with a healthy dose of denial many considered ‘alternatives’ to escape pregnancy. Perhaps more surprising is how many people offered up these helpful suggestions, including their doctors.

Gin bath

Most frequent suggestion: Gin and a Hot Bath (admittedly, Hendricks was unlikely to be the available gin option)

The most common advice for getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy was gin and a hot bath. Many unmarried pregnant women who knew little of contraceptives knew about the old ‘gin and a hot bath’ remedy. Though many were unclear on how much gin to take, whether or not a hot bath was also required, and whether the gin itself should also be hot.  One doctor’s medical advice after confirming a woman’s pregnancy was, “have some gin and a hot bath, perhaps try falling down the stairs a few times.” Falling down the stairs was also mentioned by others. One woman knew that quinine could bring about a miscarriage and unable to buy it in its pure form consumed ample amounts of it that was sold as a flu remedy. She failed to miscarry, instead becoming dreadfully ill thus forcing her to tell her parents she was pregnant. The one thing she was trying to avoid by taking the quinine in the first place.

Quinine Ad

Quinine found in cold remedies

Some were offered douche cans by their doctors, or acquired them on their own, but the douching failed to bring about miscarriage. Others mentioned knitting needles and crochet hooks, though they did not attempt these methods. Abortifacient suggestions were quietly passed between desperate women, which beyond those mentioned above also included pennyroyal, salts, slippery elm bark, leeches, deliberate injury (such as falling down stairs), caustic soap and syringe. A woman from Kate Fisher’s research in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 recounts “My one friend used to take gin with, um something, and they used to put it in the oven and when it used to go down they used to drink it. It was like a sedative to make you go to the toilet and – to get rid of it that way. Then there was slippery elm and the leech. The leech you’d put inside you and then it would attack the womb, and open the womb up, and of course you’d lose the baby then. I know one of my aunties done it.”

Folding Feminine Syringe

Feminine Syringe for Douching

One desperate young woman in my study tried gin and a hot bath, douching, repeatedly jumping off the high dive, and finally took herself to a back alley abortionist she had heard of. Arriving at his shabby door she discovered he was out, but she was invited to come in and wait for him. After sitting in the grungy residence for about an hour she decided it wasn’t a good idea, made her apologies and left. England has a mixed history with access to abortion, where it was legal for the most part to induce a miscarriage up until ‘quickening’ (i.e. when movement is felt at 16-20 weeks, once believed to be the point when the soul was entering the fetus). However the 1861 Offences Against the Person act made all abortions illegal, and while those guidelines varied over the next century, it wasn’t until 1967 that abortions were again made legal in England. This change is largely due to the number of maternal deaths occurring from illegal and self induced abortions in the interwar and postwar periods. As a result legal abortion was not an option for the majority of the women in this study, instead they relied upon wives tales and rumors to help them escape the mantle of shame cloaking them as soon as their pregnancies were discovered.

Lysol advertisement Zonite ad 2 Douche powder ad 1969

 Lysol, Koromex and Zonite all advertised as germicides to be used when douching for ‘Feminine Hygiene’

 

Keep following the journey of these unmarried mothers as I recount their stories of telling their parents in my next update.

 

Further reading for the curious:

http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/index.php/media-and-resource-centre/abortion-law/275

Fisher, Kate.  Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Szreter, Simon and Fisher, Kate. Sex Before the Sexual Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Szreter, Simon. Fertility and Contraception during the Demographic Transition: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 34, No. 2. Pp. 141-154

Birth Control and the Sexual Revolution

Today, we take our ability to mitigate pregnancies through contraception as a given. A visit to the clinic can offer us pills, patches, IUDs, condoms in every imaginable shape, color and flavor. I was a child of the 80s and carry a distinct memory of going to a health clinic with my mum and brother for something commonplace like a cold or flu. In the waiting room there was a big bowl of condoms, which my brother and I secretly filled our pockets with. Afterwards, as we frolicked in a park in the sunshine we blew them up like big balloons and fell into fits of giggles as we bopped them in the air, making up games that required us to keep them afloat. My mum may have been mortified, but I doubt it. She was a pretty free spirit, and we really didn’t have a clear idea what they were for other than something adults did. By 6th grade I clearly understood their purpose, especially in science class as our teacher led us through the process of pinching the tips as we slowly unrolled them over bananas. Yes, I’m the generation that blushed as we unrolled condoms over bananas in science class as if it was a totally normal thing to do.

My, how things have changed! Birth control has actually existed for quite some time, but the accessibility to it is what is so new. Condoms have been around for ages, becoming prevalent in the 16th century in response to syphilis. Originally fashioned from sheep gut, fish bladder or linen they were used with ointments and medicinal solutions. It was the change in rubber processing in the mid-nineteenth century which revolutionized condoms into slowly evolving to those we know today.

condom-animal  condom packaging c1930-1950 Case Western Reserve University website
Animal membrane condom    |     Condom packaging, c. 1930-1950

Aside from condoms, there grew a wide variety of contraceptive options available with mixed reliability including douches, spermicides, cervical caps, diaphragms and sponges.  Most of these were acquired through a visit to your local doctor. Thus lies the challenge to many sexually active men and women, the requirement of talking about this very private activity with an outsider. Women remarked that “It took a lot of courage to even ask the doctor how to limit births. And the doctor was as embarrassed as I was. So I wasn’t satisfied with what he told me, but I didn’t have the nerve to go to another doctor.” (Fisher, p.45) Not only was this a difficult topic for women to have with their doctor, this interchange was restricted to married women. Birth control, or colloquially ‘preventative checks’, ‘artificial checks’ or ‘Malthusianisms’ were widely understood as something relegated to the married, as the unmarried were presumably not sexually active. (Fisher, p. 49) In the early 20th century it was commonplace that men were responsible for managing the family’s reproduction, as the topic was considered something within the masculine sphere and not quite appropriate for women to discuss.

Contraception 1900-1950 from case.edu  

Birth control methods, c. 1900-1950

Revolutionaries such as Margaret Sanger (American birth control advocate, 1879-1966) and Marie Stopes (author, Married Love, 1918) certainly made enormous strides in reproductive history, but as they were entering the scene in the early 20th century they didn’t have an immediate impact on everyday sexual practices between couples. Particularly as the majority of married couples seemed to rely on withdrawal or the rhythm method once it was understood in the 1930s to control the number of pregnancies they had.

Rhythmeter for rhythm method from case.edu

The ‘Rythmeter” to help couples track cycles for safe sex, c.1930

The contraceptive pill did not arrive in England until the 1960s and wasn’t available to unmarried women until  1968, its impact evident in the decreased numbers of illegitimate births and adoptions following that year. (Clark, p.56)

Early Enovid birth control pill bottle c.1960 from case.edu birth control pills from case.edu

Enovid, birth control pill available in England, c. 1968   |   Birth Control Pills later

However, even if young men could acquire condoms through local chemists, the majority of women participating in my study remarked that there “wasn’t really birth control in those days.”  They knew of ‘johnnies’  or ‘French Letters,’ euphemisms for condoms, but for the most part had never seen one. The majority relied on their beau’s knowledge of the withdrawal method. Their parents did not discuss sex with them, there was no sex education in the schools, and contraception wasn’t even included in midwifery texts until the 1960s. Their parents were equipped with antiquated terms such as “taking the kettle off before it boils” (withdrawal) or “driving a car without petrol” (non-coital forms of lovemaking). While the sexual revolution may have been drawing young men and women closer before marriage, it was failing to provide them with much more information than the generations before.  Girls ignorance around sex implied “moral purity, innocence and respectability” but did little to protect them from the very real dangers of unprotected sex.

 

Further reading for the curious:

Fisher, Kate. 2006. “Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960” Oxford University Press

Clark, Gillian. 2008 “The Role of Mother and Baby Homes in the Adoption of Children Born Outside Marriage in Twentiety-Century England and Wales.” Family & Community History, Vol. II/I,Mmay 2008.

Case Western Reserve University. Virtue, Vice and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America. http://www.case.edu/affil/skuyhistcontraception/index.html

*All photos courtesy of Case Western Reserve University

Courtship and Dating – Sixties Style!

Dating, courtship, going out, going steady – whatever you called it it was a different concept in the 1960s than the internet laden landscape of the 21st century. For the young women of the mid-century courtship and dating was a group affair. Getting to know the opposite sex frequently meant a gaggle of guys and girls hanging out at the ice rink, going to concerts or the cinema, having fun at someone’s house or mingling during an organized  activity.

Soda Fountain1960 Soda Fountain Group Hangout

The women who participated in my project started ‘dating’ anywhere from 12 to 18 They met their beaus at schools and youth clubs, in jazz clubs, at work, at the bowling alley or  just through friends. Dating meant hanging out with a boy, having him walk you home, and perhaps a kiss good night. But just as you or I might recount tremendously different dating experiences, so too did the women in this study. They recall themselves as being far more mature than today’s teens with greater levels of responsibility and fewer parental checks, while others believed themselves far more naive than teens today. Their naivety they often attributed to how little they knew about the opposite sex, expectations around courtship, and most notably their limited knowledge about sex and contraception. These were the young women experiencing the shifting norms of courtship from a strict nuclear 1950s to the era of free love.

Bowling

Experiencing that shift meant parents still expected a polite young man who would ring them for their permission and arrive with a corsage in hand. While pop culture was actually filling cave-like clubs with cigarette smoke, riotous guitar riffs and ever shorter mini skirts. Teens, just entering the world of sex and dating, were confronted with radical new social norms they were not entirely prepared for.

Nightclub1960s Nightclub

Consider this helpful educational video on what to expect when going out to dinner with your date. If teens were struggling with the etiquette of how to order their food or whether they could apply powder at the dinner table, the notion of being prepared for what happens when they are cornered in the back seat of a car or empty bedroom after a house party is completely beyond the scope of helpful educational videos or the guidance of a kindly aunt.

1960s Teen Dinner Date Educational Video

Whether going steady with their school sweetheart, dating an older fella from work, or juggling a string of suitors; each of these women came up short when their romantic endeavors resulted in unplanned pregnancies in an era with little support for single mothers and a heavy dose of shame. Told little or nothing about sex by parents raised with Victorian ideals, these women may have enjoyed the process of getting to know their beaus, but discovered pregnancy was a long and lonely path. Stay tuned as I continue to explore methods of contraception available and the difficult journeys of the ensuing pregnancies.

The Limitations of an Historian

If there is one thing I’ve learned as an historian it is this: history is not some singular experience, some faded snapshot, or morality tale which we can reach our dusty paws back and draw out. History does not exist as a ‘thing,’ it is rather the many millions and billions of experiences of every individual that took place before this moment. There are large arcs in history which give us common markers to share: battles and wars, movements and leaders, WWII or The Beatles. But how each and every one of us experienced (or not) these individual moments from the past will be different. They may share similar markers, like watching the television reporting JFK being shot or reading about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on the cover of the daily newspaper. But what those moments meant, who those individuals or politics were to you, whether you were ironing your uniform for work or standing on the sidelines watching it happen. Or perhaps you were one of the “history makers,” individuals creating change. Pulling at the bricks of the Berlin Wall, riding that bus through Alabama, or sheltering the evacuated children of London during the war. Whatever you were doing, wherever you were, whoever you are, your history is a unique one. And that, dear readers, is the simple point I’ve taken far too long to make.

 Child Evacuees        Kennedy assassinated Guardian front page 23 Nov 1963        Berlin Wall tumbles

Moments in history – where were you? How did you experience these moments? 

As you read this blog in the coming days and weeks and months, as I hope you will, you may discover pieces of history that you experienced quite differently. To that I beg your kindness, for this very reason: much of my research is drawn from interviews with women sent to mother and baby homes in the 1960s in England. While many have shared qualities (the ubiquitous staircase!) there are also every possible kind of variation depending on the uniqueness of each woman with whom I spoke. The second reason I beg your kindness is this: I was not there. I did not live through the 1960s, I didn’t experience the evolution of courtship norms from a Victorian past clashing with the sexual revolution. I have studied, read, researched, interviewed. And what I am more clear about after all of this is not that I have some amazing insight into this decade I did not experience, but rather that no amount of research will ever allow me to truly understand what it was to be there. What I know is the 1960s were revolutionary, in big ways and small, and for many they were the best era to have ever lived through.

books research books research 2
A small sampling of the tools of my trade

I ask each of you, current readers and future followers, to give me the freedom to share with you my discoveries with these understandings. And, if you find a point very different from your own, or very similar, or just something that peaks your curiosity, by all means send me a message (oralherstorian@gmail.com) or leave me a comment below. I welcome your input, your insight, your questions or feedback. Just be kind…and keep following the journey as it unfolds.

Researching Homes for Unmarried Mothers

Standing on the doorstep of another home I’ve never before seen, meeting another woman I’ve never before met, I wait with anticipation for the stories to come. More than stories, HIStories, HERstories…the recounting of past loves, passions, sorrows, of a different era and a different way of communicating with our parents, our lovers, our friends. This gathering of stories is more than sheer curiosity, this is research for my MA Public History dissertation which explores the Mother and Baby Homes of 20th Century England and the women who spent time in them.

Falloden Nursing Home in Leeds Yorkshire from leodis.net

Falloden Nursing Home, Leeds, UK.

Mother and Baby Homes existed in England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, America…these residences for unmarried mothers were humanitarian, but experienced by the women in the homes as many different things. For some it was refuge, others imprisonment, an only hope or a last resort. They are remembered with fondness, with horror, with pain, with distance. They were run by voluntary organizations, local authorities, and a range of religious groups including  the Salvation Army, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and more. Most were large converted estates, some purpose built. They peaked in 1966 with 172 known homes sprinkled throughout England, and were said to serve between 11,000-12,000 of the nations 70,000 unmarried mothers each year. Most frequently the women who resided in these homes arrived around six-weeks before their due date and remained about six-weeks after. Leaving after their babies had been adopted, whether or not they personally desired such a permanent separation.

I am drawn by these stories for the raw emotion, the sense of another time, the choices offered or made during a difficult time. In my own family I’ve had siblings lost, both through adoption and divorce, which I sought out many years later to reunite with our tribe. I am the child of a single mother, and watched earnestly as she struggled to provide for myself and my siblings. I have friends who have spent time in a home for unwed mothers, giving up their children for adoption and being reunited decades letter. I am passionate about exploring the experiences of women faced with these difficult decisions, and curious about the institutions that sought to help in a way they believed to be appropriate given the social restrictions of the day. I am endlessly honored to bear witness to these very personal histories and am eternally grateful to the women willing to share their pasts with me.

Join me as I journey through these histories, and follow this blog to stay tuned as I prepare a website unveiling the fruits of my academic labours. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and please, share this blog with others you may know that have lost a child to adoption, are searching for or have been reunited with their birth family, have spent time in a mother and baby home, or are interested in the stories of these homes, the women and children who were in them.