Childbirth and Birth Control in the 19th Century
Kate Chopin's Childbirth Experiences
At the age of 19, Kate met Louisiana native Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker, and married him on June 9, 1870. In her diary, she doesn't discuss her sex life openly, but she recorded the consummation of her marriage on June 12. She and Oscar had six children, and she had a physician attending each of the births. The six children were born within the six years of September 1873 through December 1879. Birth control was not particularly effective, other than abortion, during the mid 19th century. In 1881 Kate and Oscar lived apart for a while, when he was ill, and then she lived with her mother for several months after he returned. This was considered a form of birth control and was apparently effective for Kate and Oscar.
Kate had unconventional physicians attend the births of her children, giving birth in the most modern way, by the use of chloroform. Most American and English physicians resisted using the drug and women were forced to "bring forth children in sorrow", as written in the Bible. During the 19th century, the pain was thought to make women love their children more and childbirth was a noble feat. Midwives attended the majority of births through most of the 19th century, especially in the American South. Chopin's choice of painless birth afforded her a more pleasant birthing experience than some of the characters in her short stories and in her novel, The Awakening.
Kate Chopin's first child was born on May 22, 1871. On May 22, 1894, twenty-three years after the birth of her first son, Kate Chopin wrote the following account of her childbirth experience:
"I can remember yet that hot southern day on Magazine Street in New Orleans. The noises of the street coming through the open windows, that heaviness with which I dragged myself about; my husband's and mother's solicitude; old Alexandrine the quadroon nurse with her high bandana tignon, her hoop-earrings and placid smile; old Dr. Faget; the smell of chloroform, and then waking at 6 in the evening from out of a stupor to see in my mothers arms a little piece of humanity all dressed in white; which they told me was my little son! The sensation with which I touched my lips and my fingertips to his soft flesh only comes once to a mother. It must be the pure animal sensation: nothing spiritual could be so real - so poignant."
This account is in stark contrast to Edna Pontilier's recollection of her experience with childbirth in The Awakening: "an ecstasy of pain, the heavy odor of chloroform, a stupor which had deadened sensation, and an awakening to find a little new life to which she had given being added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go." (Toth, 1999)
Kate Chopin had at least two tragic experiences with loved one's deaths during childbirth, and it is believed that these experiences influenced her writing, rather than her own personal experiences. Kate was attending her second cousin, Aurorel (Lovy) Charleville, when she died during childbirth. It is believed that Kate wrote the newspaper article account of the tragedy. Kate also lost a daughter-in-law and grandchild in childbirth. On July 7, 1903, the wife of her oldest son, Jean, died in childbirth, along with the infant. Afterward, Kate had to care for her grieving son and he never recovered from the grief. These experiences reflect the experiences of many women of the 19th century. Maternal deaths and neonatal deaths were statistically higher for births attended by midwives, and it was not until the end of the 19th century that this was considered problematic on a national level.
Birth Control in the 19th Century
Prior to any developed methods of birth control, women had to rely on male withdrawal, and on crude infanticide and abortion for backup. Mechanical means were the most common birth control methods in the 19th century. These included: withdrawal by the male; melting suppositories designed to form an impenetrable coating over the cervix; diaphragms, caps, or other devices that were inserted into the vagina over the cervix and withdrawn after intercourse; douching after intercourse designed to kill or drive out the sperm; condoms, and a variety of rhythm methods. There were also potions and pills that were extremely dangerous for the mother as well as the fetus.
The rhythm methods used in the 19th century (calculating the woman's fertile period and abstaining during that period) were largely ineffective because the calculations were based on observations of animals, and the recommendation was that women abstain during their menstruation period or just before it. Modern science has proved that, unlike animals, women are least fertile during their menstruation, and most fertile in the days in the middle of the menstruation cycle. Women in the 19th century who relied on the rhythm method were actually abstaining from sexual activity when they were least fertile and having sex when they were most likely to conceive.
Abortion, while controversial and considered largely immoral, was relatively common. It is estimated that in the 1840's, one in every thirty pregnancies was terminated by abortion. Methods ranged from surgery, poisons, home remedies from plants and herbs, and mechanical means such as striking the woman's abdomen repeatedly. Abortion was considered illegal in the United States by 1880 in most cases, with the exception being those considered "necessary to save the life of the woman". Caucasian urban women from affluent society had greater access to abortion by a physician. Rural and non-white women were much more likely to depend on herbal or mechanical means.
Caption: Figure 1, a sponge; Figure 2, a syringe (used after intercourse to wash semen out of the vagina); Figure 3, a cap
None of the birth control methods of the 19th century (aside from infanticide and abortion) were particularly effective and none of them were new. Women would sometimes nurse their children for up to two years, which would prolong their infertile period. Withdrawal by the male, douching and vaginal suppositories were around in ancient times and common in the 19th century. In 1838 condoms and diaphragms were produced with vulcanized rubber. It was second in popularity to withdrawal, but was not really advocated as birth control. Rather, it was to be used to prevent venereal disease. The most effective form of birth control was abstaining from sexual intercourse, but this was not acceptable to most spouses.
Attitudes about birth control were changing readily by the mid 19th century. Early suffragists campaigned for voluntary motherhood during the 1870's, but they advocated celibacy and abstinence for birth control rather than mechanical means or abortion. Many states had made abortion a crime at any stage of fetal development by the mid 19th century and the Comstock Law of 1873 made abortion and birth control illegal in the United States. Also, by this time the medical care of women was passing from midwives to male doctors, most of whom did not respect a woman's right to terminate or prevent pregnancy. It was not until the mid 20th century that the advent of the birth control pill successfully controlled pregnancy and birth.
Childbirth in the 19th Century
Over the course of the 19th century, the average American woman gave birth to six children, not including children lost to miscarriages and stillbirths. There was no modern medical care so the women had frequent complications such as lacerations and permanent damage to their bodies. This made subsequent birth even more painful. In addition, most working-class women did not have the opportunity to rest and recover for very long after giving birth. They were expected to resume domestic chores and work, along with mothering the newborn infant.
A midwife usually assisted in births. The midwife could sometimes stay with the family for a few days following the birth. If the option of a midwife was unattainable financially, the pregnant woman would have to rely on relatives and neighbors to aid in the birth. They were likely to call in a physician only if a crisis arose during the birth. Midwives had a clear and important role in the 19th century. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explored this in her Pulitzer Prize winning book: A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on Ballard's diary that was written from 1785 through 1812. For 27 years, Ballard chronicled her daily tasks and her midwifery duties (she delivered close to one thousand babies) and countless incidents throughout her career. Although Ballard's career ended in the early 19th century, the practice of midwifery was largely unchanged until the late 19th century when people, especially the medical society, began to question the safety of the practice.
In 1847, the pain-relieving and anesthetic properties of ether and chloroform were discovered and used in America for childbirth for the first time. This began a new era in childbirth methods. Mothers could be relieved of pain in childbirth. This discovery led to increasing medical dominance in obstetrics, which had been almost exclusively in the hands midwives. It also led to medical and moral controversy that lasted for several decades. On one hand, women were destined to suffer due to the "curse of Eve" and were expected to experience pain during childbirth. On the other hand, humanitarians and the medical society believed that there were very good moral and technological reasons for controlling or eliminating pain in childbirth. Researchers have noted that upper-class mothers, with their education and liberal outlook, had a certain ambivalence towards motherhood. This influenced their attitudes toward the use of chloroform and the process of childbirth.
Caption: Woman receiving a gynecological examination
Pregnancy and Childbirth:
Themes in Kate Chopin's Writing
Kate Chopin was encouraged and influenced to write by her obstetrician and good friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer. He gave her comfort and support after the death of her husband and her mother, and suggested that she start writing as a way of expressing herself and as a way of supporting herself and her family.
During the 1900's, it was "taboo" to write negatively about pregnancy and childbirth because it was largely lauded as the most noble and valuable contribution of women to their husbands and to society. Addressing the clinical details and suffering of childbirth was unacceptable at that time, so it remained largely unwritten. Chopin was criticized when her characters actually had negative thoughts about the experience of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, most notably in The Awakening.
Chopin first openly writes about pregnancy in her short story Athenaise, in which the young wife who runs away from her husband returns when she delightfully discovers she is pregnant. When Athenaise first discovered that she was pregnant, "her whole being was steeped in a wave of ecstasy... in the mirror, a face met hers which she seemed to see for the first time, so transfigured was it with wonder and rapture."
The first childbirth scene Chopin ever published was in La Belle Zoraide. Zoraide, a slave, gives birth. Chopin notes the suffering but elaborates on the joy. "But there is no agony that a mother will not forget when she holds her first-born to her heart, and presses her lips upon the baby flesh that is her own, yet far more precious than her own."
Reference to pregnancy and childbirth in The Awakening has been extensively studied and debated. In This Giving Birth: Pregnancy and Childbirth in American Women's Writing, editors Tharp and MacCallum-Whitmore gather and examine the opinions of several experts regarding Chopin's theme of pregnancy throughout the novel. The title of their chapter on The Awakening is "Thirty-Nine Weeks" and they note that there are thirty-nine weeks in a pregnancy and thirty-nine chapters in The Awakening. They go on to compare and contrast Edna's thoughts and experiences through the thirty-nine chapters as though it was a thirty-nine week pregnancy. They note that many modern literary critics perceive that Edna undergoes a metaphoric rebirth at the end of the novel and only a few recognized the language of pregnancy that precedes such a rebirth. They also discern that the novel takes place over nine months and it coincides with the nine months of Adele's pregnancy. Middle pregnancy is described as a time when women feel fertile, potent and creative. While Adele keeps busy in the middle of her pregnancy by sewing baby clothes, Edna begins to paint again. In Chapter XXVII, Edna would enter the final trimester of her metaphoric pregnancy but turning inward and concentrating on the new woman she is becoming. Later, as women move toward the end of a pregnancy, they begin to "nest". It is at that time of her metaphoric pregnancy that Edna moved into her own "pigeon house", which, the authors note, evoked bird imagery as she created her own nest and was gripped by a feverish anxiety to hasten her preparations for the move. She cleaned and packed to occupy her new home in only two days.
Near the end of the novel, when Edna is with Robert, they shared a moment that was "pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire" as her sexual awakening begins. As the novel is closing, Adele summons Edna saying that she has "been taken sick" and Edna arrives for Adele's "hour of trial". Adele was no longer a beautiful pregnant woman. Her face was "drawn and pinched, her sweet blue eyes haggard and unnatural". Edna had no memory of her own "scene of torture" because she had been drugged for the birth of her children (as was Kate Chopin). After Edna witnessed the birth of Adele's child, her romantic illusions about motherhood disappear in a "flaming, out-spoken revolt against the ways of nature".
Literary critics correspond the final chapter of The Awakening as a rebirth. The sea embraced her as her memories rolled over her like a contraction. She is physically exhausted but unlike the torture of Adele's labor, Edna began to smell flowers and hear the hum of bees and feel liberated. The critics call this a tribute to Chopin's skillful authorship, saying that Chopin was one of the first writers to boldly break the conventions that silenced such a universal aspect of women's lives. (Tharp and MacCallum-Whitcomb, 2000)
Tharp, Julie and MacCallum-Whitcomb, Susan. This Giving Birth: Pregnancy and Childbirth in American Women's Writing, Bowling Green Popular Press, 2000.
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