Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Female - who'd be one?

Nineteenth century contraception   was recently discussed over on the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum. It's a fascinating topic, one I've researched in depth in order to convincingly (I hope!) write the main character of my book,  a nineteenth century physician who practices in the slums of Paris and sees the grim reality of the lives of working class mothers and their children. 

In nineteenth century Paris, nothing really worked as far as contraception was concerned, especially not for poor women. Condoms were very expensive (about 50 centimes, more than twice the price of a loaf of bread) and were negatively viewed as the accoutrement of prostitutes.  The rhythm method was not widely known, and many who practiced it incorrectly believed a woman's fertile time was during menstruation. Cervical sponges soaked in lemon juice were a little more effective, but overall the most commonly used method to control fertility was coitus interruptus; which, human beings being only human, was highly unreliable.

For many poor, working class women an unwanted pregnancy was a catastrophe. If a mother was unable to work due to pregnancy or while recovering from childbirth, she inevitably lost her job. This in turn threatened her survival and that of any existing children. And without a sufficient family income, how was an extra mouth to be fed?

Miscarriage  frequently solved this dilemma. Common amongst working class women, miscarriage was caused by malnutrition or by diseases such as syphilis, small pox, typhoid, cholera, measles. Industrial toxins also played a role, with many female factory workers miscarrying from exposure to mercury, phosphorous, antimony or lead.

But for those women who did not miscarry, and for whom yet another pregnancy would push them and their families into grinding poverty, abortion was the terrible yet logical answer. The fact it was a crime did not deter; nor did the bizarre and dangerous methods employed by abortionists. White wine brewed with absinthe and rue was a commonly prescribed but mostly ineffective abortificant. Yew, savin, and ergot were also used, but were of such toxicity that even the slightest overdose would result in the death of the mother. The most common, and most effective, method of abortion was the injection of liquid (usually hot or cold water) into the uterus, sometimes with irritants such as soap. Unsurprisingly, many women who sought the services of an "angel maker" died as a result. 

The sad tale does not end there. The babies of those women for whom abortion was not an option, or for whom the procedure simply did not work, were sent to wet nurses within days of their birth. In fact, there was a thriving business in exporting babies to wet nurses in rural areas outside of Paris, with menuers and midwives acting as intermediaries to place babies with wet nurses -  for a fee, of course. Cartloads of newborns were sent off to the countryside where many subsequently died of malnutrition, disease, or plain old neglect (wet nurses could have as many as half a dozen babies to care for and feed at once.) A report of 1866, cited in "Metro Stop Paris", gives a chilling description of the journey these babies set out on:
  "I have never travelled on the roads of the Perche without being overcome with emotion, seeing these huge meneurs' wagons in which nurses and nurslings returning from Paris are piled in pell-mell like animals returning from market. This revolting vehicle in known aptly as a Purgatory."

Another option for mothers unable to care for their babies was "le tour", a small, revolving door in the wall of the convent of the Daughters of Charity, the order established by Saint Vincent de Paul in the 1600s. Mothers would place their babies in le tour (occasionally with a note that named the child or explained the circumstances of their abandonment, but not often), ring the bell, then leave. This practice went on from the mid-1600s to 1863. 

In an effort to alleviate all this suffering, charitable creches were established in Paris to care for babies and thus enable their mothers to continue to work without giving up their children. Public Assistance was also available but, for a great deal of the nineteenth century, welfare was tied to marital status - only single mothers threatening to abandon their newborns, or threatening suicide, were eligible - and the bureaucratic wheels turned slowly, so it was often weeks before any aid was actually received.

All rather depressing, isn't it?

It makes me marvel at the strength of the women who had so many babies and somehow continued to work for the pittance that was barely enough to keep their families alive. It also makes me grieve for those women and their babies for whom abortion or abandonment was the only option for survival. 

But above all,  it makes me feel profoundly grateful to live in an era in which women - not all women, but many more than ever before- have the ability to decide whether or not to bear children.

If you're at all interested in this topic, I highly recommend POOR & PREGNANT IN PARIS by Rachel Fuchs, and METRO STOP PARIS by Gregor Dallas.


Claire Gregory said...

Awesome post Rach- fascinating stuff. Wet nursing SIX babies at the same time?? Holy smokes, it's hard enough to feed one!

Anonymous said...

I followed your link on compuserve, and I'm so glad I did. I was completely absorbed by this--very thought-inducing. I can't wait to read your next Paris Empire post!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Rachel!

In case you haven't already stumbled across him, you might be interested in the books of Angus McLaren, a now-retired history prof from the University of Victoria (BC, Canada) who writes about the history of sexuality. I believe one of his books examines contraception, possibly in the UK, in your time period. But since I took a French history course from him, there might be some overlap that's useful to you.

Kathy Chung from Compuserve

Rachel said...

Claire - thanks!
The number of babies many wet nurses took on is astounding, isn't it? I agree, one is hard enough, so it's little wonder that many babies didn't survive.

Eve - thank you. :-) Glad you stopped by!

Kathy - oooh, thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitely search out his books.

Rachel said...

Um, that'd be Ev, not 'Eve' - sorry Ev!

Anonymous said...

You're welcome. He class was interesting, so hopefully his books will be too.