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

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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