Birth Control and Childbirth in the 19th Century
Speaking of fathers, Dorothea Gibsons daughter-in-law says, "They do not become dissolved into parenthood the way we [women] do." Truer words may never have been spoken at least as far as the 19th Century was concerned.
Dissolved? Dorothea (Dodo) Gibson floundered under the toll of eight closely spaced children plus several miscarriages combined with the debilitating effects of near-continuous pregnancies. It seems safe to say the sum very nearly took her life. It certainly took her health and sanity even while her husband - tired of all the runny noses and hubbub - suggested indifferently that she "do something" about the situation. Certainly he was not alone in his time and gender to deem contraception as the sole responsibility of the woman. However, Dodo felt, as a genteel woman of certain class, that she had nowhere to turn for birth control advice.
Indeed, had she even found a confidante, she would have learnt there was scant little advice to be had. According to The History of Birth Control by Kathleen London of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, crudely performed and risky abortions and even, tragically, infanticide were both fairly widespread forms of birth control well into the 19th century. Alternative methods were either largely unreliable or life-threatening to the woman. Concoctions and devices utilizing such things as straw, honey, wool, sea sponge, vinegar, dung (yes, dung) and sodium carbonate were among the options available back in the day. The ubiquitous practices of coitus interruptus, the rhythm method and douching were also common. Sometime in the middle of the 19th century the condom was invented perhaps too late for our dear Dodo. Although, British playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw called the rubber condom the "greatest invention of the 19th century."
If pregnancy was an inevitable, debilitating consequence of coitus for the 19th Century woman, then childbirth was a foretaste of hell on earth. Left in the hands of people who believed that delivery pain was a necessary and important part of life, women were expected to endure it without complaint. Surprisingly, it was Queen Victoria who championed pain-free childbirth. By the time she was getting ready to deliver her eighth child she was ready for chloroform. With the now-famous Dr. John Snow in attendance she delivered infant Leopold while drifting in a sea of dreamy bliss. Her Majesty liked it so much that her next and final child, Beatrice, was delivered the same way. She may have made life a bit easier for herself but Ill wager the good Queen did not then dissolve into parenthood.
Ah, to be queen.
This article was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the
August 2010 paperback release.
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